The Red Sox didn’t allow a hit until there was one out in the eighth inning Thursday evening. The Red Sox didn’t allow a base runner until the fourth inning of what had the feeling of a Nick Pivetta no-hitter.
The Rays had only two hits: A Kevin Kiermaier double off reliever Darwinzon Hernandez in the eighth, and a Manuel Margot single off Matt Barnes in the ninth.
Yet the Red Sox dropped the game, 1-0, and thus their series at Tropicana Field. Margot scored the winning run after stealing second base, advancing to third when Christian Vázquez’s throw bounced into center field, then racing home when Barnes bounced an 0-1 curveball in the dirt to Francisco Mejia.
That came about an hour after manager Alex Cora’s decision to go to Josh Taylor with two outs in the seventh despite Pivetta not allowing a hit. A decision Cora doesn’t regret.
“It was a 0-0 game,” Cora said. “We have one of the best lefties in the game. Probably the best lefty throwing the ball in the game. And you know, it was a no-brainer.”
“It’s not about me,” Pivetta said. “It’s about the game. It’s about winning baseball games and that’s what’s most important. The matchups worked out really well.”
Suffice to say, he deserved much better than a no-decision.
Much like the Sox rotation as a whole, Pivetta struggled entering Thursday night, with a 5.97 ERA in his previous six starts. He struck out 44 batters in that span, but he also yielded seven homers. Opponents hit .279 off him, with a .900 OPS.
Yet when Pivetta unleashed a 99-m.p.h. fastball, then a 81-m.p.h curveball to strike out the Rays’ Randy Arozarena (and the side) in the first inning, this night was clearly different.
“I think it just starts with going out there commanding the strike zone early, getting my pitches over and setting the tone,” Pivetta said.
The only four baserunners he allowed came on two walks, a hit-by-pitch, and a Michael Chavis error at first base.
Pivetta averaged 95.9 m.p.h on his four-seamer, his highest average velocity in any outing of at least 50 pitches in his career. The greatest threat against him came in the fifth. Following a Yandy Díaz walk, Ji-Man Choi laced what looked like a double over the head of Hunter Renfroe, but the Sox right fielder made a leaping grab.
With Choi coming up again in the seventh, and Austin Meadows on first after Chavis’s error, Cora went to his bullpen. Taylor, after an intentional walk, kept the game scoreless and Tampa hitless. Kiermaier broke up the combined no-no in the eighth, but Adam Ottavino defused a two-on rally, getting Arozarena to foul out.
Boston’s offense, however, didn’t do much more. Rays starter Michael Wacha nearly kept pace with Pivetta, not allowing his first hit until a two-out Vázquez bloop single in the fifth, with relievers Drew Rasmussen, Ryan Thompson, Matt Wisler, and J.P. Feyereisen (4-3) tossing four scoreless innings after he departed.
Boston’s best chance came in the seventh. Renfroe roped a leadoff double off Thompson, and Vázquez followed with a one-out single dumped into center field. Renfroe, a plus runner, got a late jump and hesitated when he rounded third, allowing Kiermaier to cut him down at the plate.
Vázquez was then picked off at second on a snap-throw by catcher Mejia to end the threat.
“I was a little too aggressive,” Vázquez said. “During my secondary lead, I was anticipating contact with Marwin [Gonzalez] hitting.”
The Sox (44-31) fell a half-game back of the Rays for first place in the division, and turn their heads to the Yankees for a three-game set at Fenway beginning Friday evening. Even though the Sox dropped a heartbreaker, Cora saw some positives.
“A lot of people didn’t believe in this team before the season,” Cora said. “I think the way we played against these guys tonight shows how good we are. And we have a lot of work to do. We know that. But we belong in the conversation. We are really good.”