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As the Red Sox arrive at June, the team remains amidst a developing mystery: The Case of the Missing Ace.

Eduardo Rodriguez offered enormous promise in reclaiming his standing atop the rotation in April, when he went 4-0 with a 3.52 ERA, 26 strikeouts, and just two walks in four starts. Then came the month-long dismay of May.

In his sixth and final start of the season’s second month, Rodriguez experienced a now-familiar form of bewilderment. Though he allowed little hard contact, he proved unable to put the Astros hitters away, a combination that left him hanging his head after yielding six runs over 4 2/3 innings in an 11-2 Red Sox loss in Houston.

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With Monday’s loss, Rodriguez (5-4, 5.64 ERA) continued one of the worst stretches of his career. He absorbed a defeat for the career-high fourth straight outing. He finished May with a 7.28 ERA, the worst of any month of his career.

“It’s been tough for me this whole month,” said Rodriguez.

Though his mere return to the mound in 2021 after the lost 2020 campaign – the product of a COVID-19 infection and subsequent myocarditis infection – represented a monumental triumph, the cumulative weight of Rodriguez’s disappointing stretch was on display on Monday. When Rodriguez just missed the strike zone on a full-count cutter to Alex Bregman with two outs in the fifth, he dropped his head and shook it in frustration, knowing that the walk had almost surely ended his outing.

It had. But before manager Alex Cora removed Rodriguez from the game, he tried to encourage his dejected pitcher.

On the mound, Cora repeatedly jabbed a finger into Rodriguez’s chest and then patted him on the shoulder before summoning reliever Colten Brewer. The conversation continued in the dugout.

The gist?

“I told him that if he throws the ball the way he threw it today, with one more adjustment, we’re in a good place,” said Cora, who identified progress in the pitcher’s fastball and cutter as reasons for optimism if the lefthander can re-establish his elite changeup. “I do believe that if he throws the ball the way he threw it today, good things are going to start happening.”

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There are times when players preach process over results, but this was not one of them. Rodriguez took little solace in Cora’s suggestion.

“At least my fastball is getting there,” said Rodriguez. “[But] the results say I gave up six runs and that’s what it is.”

On Monday, the Astros manufactured three separate two-run rallies against Rodriguez mostly by spraying sinkers and changeups across the field. Houston had a number of weakly hit balls in play either find turf or, improbably, the stands.

Most notably, with Rodriguez and the Sox already down 2-0 in the third, an off-balance Jose Altuve threw the bat at a changeup away. Though Altuve didn’t even finish his swing, his 92 mph flyball snuck onto the shelf above the left field scoreboard at Minute Maid Park for a two-run homer that put Houston ahead, 4-0.

Jose Altuve's two-run homer Monday set the tone for much of the rest of the afternoon.
Jose Altuve's two-run homer Monday set the tone for much of the rest of the afternoon.Karen Warren/Associated Press

The other two rallies against Rodriguez likewise featured modest contact. In the second, he allowed two runs on a hard-hit groundball single, two more singles on soft liners, and a sac fly. In the fifth, Altuve drilled a two-out single to right-center and advanced to second on Bregman’s walk; both scored on the watch of Brewer, who walked the bases full then permitted a two-run single.

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But while Rodriguez frequently saw weak contact turn into hits in May, his inability to avoid contact altogether was partly responsible for the development. Rodriguez had just six swings and misses among his 97 pitches on Monday. That concluded a month in which he elicited whiffs on just 9.2 percent of his pitches – down from a 13.1 percent rate in April, and an 11.8 percent career rate prior to 2021.

Bad things can happen when an opposing team puts the ball in play – a theme that repeatedly came to light for the Red Sox on Monday in Houston.

“It’s not about hitting it hard all the time,” said Cora. “You make contact, good things happen, and today they did that. They’ve been doing that the whole season.”

Right fielder Hunter Renfroe chases Kyle Tucker's single during the second inning of Monday's loss.
Right fielder Hunter Renfroe chases Kyle Tucker's single during the second inning of Monday's loss.Karen Warren/Associated Press

In a decidedly old-school performance for the team with the lowest strikeout rate in MLB (17.9 percent), the Astros sprinkled Minute Maid with 13 hits off of Rodriguez and relievers Brewer (1 inning, 4 hits, 4 runs) and Phillips Valdez (1 1/3 innings, 2 hits, 1 run) en route to 11 runs – tied for the most allowed by the Sox this year.

The Red Sox, by contrast, offered a clinic in the connection between strikeouts and lackluster offensive performances, on an afternoon when Houston starter José Urquidy dominated.

Urquidy threw a half of a no-hitter before Christian Vázquez delivered the first Red Sox hit – a double – with two outs in the fifth. Though he was touched for a run on two doubles in the sixth, Urquidy sailed, allowing just the one run on three hits in six innings while striking out nine. Overall, the Sox struck out a dozen times and walked once while dropping two games behind the Rays in the A.L. East.

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The chief Red Sox highlight was Renfroe, who doubled and scored in the sixth and later added a solo homer in the eighth inning, his seventh of the year and sixth of the month. For the outfielder, May represented a turning point. For Rodriguez, it presented a still-unsolved mystery that has but one possible next step.

“Turn the page,” said Rodriguez.


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.