For two innings, Garrett Richards looked like the loneliest person in the world. Ten batters and four outs into the game, the 33-year-old stood alone and exposed in the middle of the diamond.
Fenway Park’s unforgiving scoreboard featured a “5” in the visitors’ run column, and it seemed possible that the Royals would continue to cross the plate by the handful so long as Richards remained in the game. Already, he’d extended his streak of starts allowing at least five runs to three — the longest such rut of his career.
Little suggested his lot would improve. The adjustment to the league’s enforcement of rules preventing pitchers from using grip-aiding substances aside from the rosin bag seemed overwhelming for the 32-year-old.
But in what had the makings of a blowout, the righthander and the Red Sox corrected course. For a night — or at least a sufficient portion of one — Richards reinvented himself to stifle Kansas City over his final 4⅓ innings, buying time for his team to match its largest comeback of the year.
The Sox erased a four-run deficit in a 6-5 victory over the last-place Royals. The win pushed their AL East lead to one full game over the idle Rays.
“[Richards] didn’t quit,” said manager Alex Cora. “Sometimes you’re going to be just a regular pitcher with no stuff and you have to find a way to do it. He did.”
Typically, Richards possesses a pitch mix so lively that the strike zone magnetically repels it. On Monday, he featured unusual control, throwing 18 of 19 pitches in the first inning for strikes, but his over-the-plate location signaled danger. Richards lacked the late life to dodge bats.
Kansas City jumped him for three straight hits to open the game, with back-to-back singles followed by a hit-me slider that Carlos Santana deposited into the bleachers above the Royals bullpen for a three-run homer and 3-0 lead.
Kiké Hernández narrowed that spread in the bottom of the first, hitting his second leadoff homer in as many days to bring the Sox within 3-1. But the Royals again teed off on the bewildered Sox starter in the second, with Michael Taylor and Whit Merrifield hammering solo homers to put Kansas City ahead, 5-1.
Richards looked like a man in search of an exit that did not exist. The righthander rubbed his hand on his pant leg, on the mound dirt, on the infield grass.
He grabbed the rosin bag and squeezed it so hard it seemed he wanted to turn it back from dust into solid rock. In the dugout between innings, he jammed his arm into a bucket of ice.
“Your arm stops sweating for a short period of time,” Richards said of the ice. “I need to stop sweating. If I can stop sweating, everything will be fine.”
On the mound, Richards likewise sought something — anything — different, better. He expanded and reinvented his typical arsenal – mid-90s four-seam fastball, high-80s slider, high-70s curveball — by integrating high-80s changeups, a pitch that relies on diminishing rather than amplifying spin.
“A pitch I learned literally four days ago,” he joylessly revealed.
In 880⅔ innings entering Monday, Richards had never thrown a pitch under 73 mph. On Monday, he began flipping curveballs that registered as low as 63 mph.
“Just trying to figure out how to pitch again,” he said. “I’ve never had to make this kind of change in my whole career. I’m just trying to make the best of it.”
By the end of the second — an inning that ended with a long Santana fly ball that was about two feet short of another homer — Richards had hit bottom. But then, he started his climb. The remaining 3⅔ innings, Richards didn’t allow another run, limited the Royals to five singles, and didn’t allow anyone to advance past first.
In a vacuum, his final line — 5⅔ innings, 11 hits, five runs (all earned), no walks, three strikeouts, three homers – suggest struggle. But for the Red Sox, the pitcher’s mid-game recovery represented the first reason for optimism about him in weeks, even if Richards’ glum postgame demeanor suggested otherwise.
“I think he doesn’t believe in himself,” said outfielder Hunter Renfroe. “He’s a great pitcher. I think if he believes in himself, I think that’s half the battle.”
The Red Sox lineup, by contrast, is playing with considerable self-confidence forged through now-routine come-from-behind wins. With the Sox down 5-1 in the second, Bobby Dalbec drilled a homer to left off Royals starter Danny Duffy to make it a 5-2 contest.
In the fourth, the Sox tied the game when Renfroe blasted a two-run, 439-foot shot to center (his 10th homer of the year) off Duffy and Michael Chavis delivered a two-out, RBI single against reliever Kyle Zimmer to make it a 5-5 contest.
Two innings later, Renfroe launched another epic blast — this one a 434-foot shot off the signage in left — against Kansas City reliever Josh Staumont to put the Sox ahead, 6-5. The two roundtrippers marked the 13th multi-homer game of Renfroe’s career, and positioned the Red Sox to claim their major league-leading 26th comeback win of the season.
Renfroe is hitting .307 with a .910 OPS and 10 homers in 49 games since May 1.
“The last two months, he’s been playing All-Star caliber baseball,” said Cora.
Richards — who was replaced in favor of Hirokazu Sawamura with a man on and two outs in the sixth inning — was not the direct beneficiary of Renfroe’s go-ahead homer. Sawamura (4-0 after 1⅓ shutout innings) was credited with the win, and after a scoreless eighth from Josh Taylor, Matt Barnes claimed his 17th save with a perfect ninth.
Richards, meanwhile, took a no-decision. Yet for a pitcher who in the early innings on Monday seemed close to a no-contest, there was at least something to take from the night.
“Be competitive and give us a chance to win,” said Richards. “That’s the only thing I care about.”