BUFFALO — The Red Sox found themselves in the midst of a ballgame when J.D. Martinez stepped to the plate in the top of the eighth inning Wednesday. They were protecting a one-run lead with a full crowd on hand at Sahlen Field that leaned heavily in the Red Sox’ favor.
The Sox had seen part of their four-run lead erased in the sixth when starter Garrett Richards relinquished two homers, cutting their lead to 5-4.
With two outs in the eighth, it was time for a Sox response against a Blue Jays squad that has one of the best offenses in baseball, and against whom no lead is safe.
So, when Martinez belted a 2-and-2 Jordan Romano fastball over the wall in right, it gave the Sox breathing room. Hunter Renfroe’s solo shot — back-to-back — gave them a bit more.
Renfroe pumped his fist, then looked toward his teammates in the dugout before reaching home plate. They could breathe. It was the Sox’ 11th homer in two games against the Jays (including five Wednesday), and stamped a 7-4 victory and a series win.
“We’re doing a good job — and I think it started last game in New York — of controlling the strike zone,” said Alex Cora, who picked up his 250th victory as manager of the Red Sox. “When we do that, we become elite. Hopefully we can keep going over the weekend.”
The Sox and Jays still have one more contest in this series following Tuesday’s postponement because of rain. They won’t play it in Buffalo. Instead, it will be a part of a split doubleheader at the Rogers Centre on Aug. 7.
After more than a year away from their home ballpark because of Canada’s strict border policies due to COVID-19, the country will finally welcome its team home on July 30.
In these two games at Sahlen Field, the Red Sox made it their home.
The Red Sox stacked the deck with righties Wednesday evening. Up against Blue Jays starter Robbie Ray, who has carved up lefties to the tune of a .165 batting average this season, Cora’s lineup featured just one lefty in Rafael Devers.
After two scoreless frames, Kiké Hernández popped Ray for a two-run shot.
It marked a team-high nine homers in 25 games for Hernández.
“I got to two strikes and I was a little bit under the ball,” Hernández said. “He just kept challenging me and I was able to time it up. Thank God for Buffalo, the ball went out.”
Wind-aided homer or not, Ray didn’t pose much of a challenge for the Sox hitters.
In the top of the fourth, Devers stroked his 24th homer of the season, to left-center.
Following a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. solo shot off Richards, Michael Chavis made it 4-1 with a solo homer in the fifth. Christian Vázquez had an RBI single up the middle in the sixth, which extended the Sox’ margin, 5-1.
But that was short-lived. Richards was cruising, giving the Blue Jays a heavy dose of sliders, coupled with his changeup, to keep hitters off-balance. Richards induced weak contact, against an aggressively potent offense that couldn’t sit on his fastball.
He created plenty of late Jays swings, an indicator that they were sitting on his soft stuff. In fact, Richards chucked his slider 29 times, two more than his four-seamer. He flipped his changeup 20 times. Richards, who has had to adjust to MLB’s crackdown on foreign substances, said Wednesday was the first time he felt comfortable using his changeup as a weapon, a pitch he’s learned recently.
“I think that’s going to be a really big pitch for me as far as something going in toward righties, away to lefties,” Richards said. “Everything else I have is kind of going in toward lefties and away to righties. So it’s definitely a different look.”
Cora sent Richards back out for the sixth. Three pitches, two outs for the righthander. Cruising.
But it didn’t last. Richards surrendered a two-out walk to Guerrero, then a two-run homer to George Springer. Richards then left a slider over the heart of the plate to Teoscar Hernandez, who pummeled it over the wall in center, ending Richards’s night.
Nevertheless, Cora still thought his starter had it going.
“He was great,” Cora said. “He pounded the strike zone, changing speeds, using both sides of the play. That’s a tough lineup.”
The Red Sox recently lost two of three to the Yankees, and that’s when the noise started. What was going on with the Sox’ bats? How could they turn it around? Some lineup adjustments got the Sox back on track.
Now, they have their rivals for a four-game set, beginning Thursday.
“They’re doing a lot of things that they weren’t doing a few weeks ago or a month ago, as far as running and putting the ball in play,” Cora said of the Yankees. “It should be a fun weekend.”