One of the last certainties still standing for the Red Sox this season was that if they had a lead in the ninth inning a win was right behind it.
They were 44-0 when leading after the eighth inning, the only team in the majors with such a record.
The obvious reason was Koji Uehara. He had a 1.53 ERA, 26 saves, and 72 strikeouts in 58⅔ innings. Nailing coffins shut was his business.
But eventually, even Uehara would unravel.
With a three-run lead to protect going into the ninth inning against the Mariners on Friday night, Uehara gave up five runs on five hits and the Red Sox watched what seemed like a signed-and-sealed victory slip away.
Uehara’s worst night as a reliever ended in a 5-3 Sox loss.
Things started out smoothly enough for Uehara.
Uehara got Kyle Seager to pop up for the first out. But he had a hard time finding the strike zone, missing with three of his first four pitches before Seager bailed him out.
The next at-bat, Logan Morrison stroked a single off him to left field.
Uehara collected himself enough to fan Mike Zunino on four pitches for the second out of the inning, but closing the door proved impossible.
He walked Endy Chavez, gave up another single to pinch hitter Chris Denorfia to load the bases, then watched Austin Jackson lace a fly ball off the Monster for a two-run double.
With a chance to clean things up, Uehara saw a Dustin Ackley fly ball drop between Yoenis Cespedes and Brock Holt to bring two more runs around.
Holt did everything he could to try to chase down the blooper, but couldn’t snag it.
“I thought I was pretty close,” Holt said. “He hit it pretty far up there. I was hoping I could get to it, end the game, but unfortunately it fell.’’
Robinson Cano piled on with a line drive to right field for an RBI single.
At that point, Sox manager John Farrell had no choice but to lift Uehara for Edward Mujica.
Uehara left the mound with just his third blown save of the season.
“It was bad luck,” catcher Christian Vazquez said. “He was attacking the zone. Two bloopers and one walk. Bad day.”
Coming in, the Sox’s biggest concern was Mariners ace Felix Hernandez.
The way Hernandez had carved up the Red Sox over his career, Farrell was hoping his team could find away to crack him early.
The last thing he wanted was to let Hernandez find any kind of rhythm, especially a night after nearly being no-hit.
As they have all season, the Sox had scoring chances come and go without cashing in.
They had Hernandez in a first-and-second pinch in the first inning after a pair of one-out singles from David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia. Hernandez shook out of it, getting a double-play ball from Cespedes.
With two outs in the second inning, Xander Bogaerts shot a deep fly ball at the foul pole over the Monster.
When it was ruled foul, Farrell came out of the dugout to challenge. But nothing in the replays was enough to overturn the call on the field.
“We asked for a replay because just to the naked eye it looked like it crossed the foul pole,” Farrell said. “Even the replays that they showed on the scoreboard inside the ballpark said the same, but that wasn’t the case after it was reviewed.”
Bogaerts stepped back in the box and eventually struck out waving at a 1-and-2 changeup.
Hernandez piled up six of his seven strikeouts in the first four innings.
In the sixth, Hernandez made the choice to play the odds and it backfired.
The way Ortiz was swinging the bat, there was no reason to pitch to him.
Ortiz was at human-torch levels at the plate coming into the night. By the sixth inning, he had already tagged Hernandez for a single and a double in his first two at-bats.
So the third time around, with one out and a runner on second, Hernandez figured it best not to play with fire and intentionally walked the Sox slugger to get to Cespedes.
If there was a hitter Hernandez wanted to face in a jam, it was Cespedes.
He and Cespedes had seen plenty of each other going back to Cespedes days in Oakland.
At that point, Cespedes had already bounced into a double play in the first inning and struck out in the fourth.
When Cespedes fell behind 1-and-2 after chasing a changeup, it seemed like Hernandez would get exactly what he was looking for.
Then Cespedes started battling. He fouled off a fastball down and in, then fought off two more changeups.
When Hernandez left one more changeup thigh-high and over the middle, Cespedes’s eyes lit up. He sent it skying over the Monster for a three-run homer. Two batters later, Hernandez was done after 5⅔ innings.
“Huge,” Holt said. “Put us up, 3-0, against King Felix. Big blow offensively for us. That’s why we got him over here and that’s why we’re happy to have him.”
But the lead was fleeting.
Uehara added to a string of shaky appearances. He’s allowed at least one run in each of his last three games, the longest streak of his career.
“His last three appearances have had two days off following each one,” Farrell said. “So we recognize that over the course of two years, there’s been a high number of appearances. His workload has been managed of late and we’re continuing to try to do that.”
Uehara hadn’t given up that many runs since he was a starter in Baltimore and the Tampa Bay Rays tagged him for six runs in 6⅔ innings.
For more context, Uehara gave up nine runs all last season, and just five from last June to last September.
“Baseball’s a crazy game,” Sox starter Joe Kelly said. “Koji is one of the best in the whole entire league and to see that happen just shows how hard the game of major league baseball is. The guy’s been so dominant, from me looking at the other side of the clubhouse last year in the World Series to watching him be on my team this year.
“It’s definitely a really, really hard game and stuff like that happens. Usually he’s automatic. Just had a tough night tonight . . . But he’s so good. He’ll be fine. He’ll go out there and probably rattle off another 15 saves in a row and be back to normal.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.