With the Olympics underway, the Red Sox have made their own commitment to turning baseball into athletic performance art. Perhaps inspired by Simone Biles, the team has embraced the sense of possibility created by an elevated degree of difficulty — and shown an ability to stick the landing when doing so.
One day after the team wiped out a four-run, eighth-inning deficit against the Yankees, the Red Sox again spotted their opponent an advantage heading into the final innings Monday night. This time, the Sox trailed the Blue Jays, 4-3, entering the bottom of the eighth. While the gap wasn’t as sizable, the circumstances were hardly promising.
Yet as they have done so often this year, the Red Sox once again treated their deficit as a welcome challenge rather than insurmountable obstacle. Alex Verdugo’s eighth-inning, two-run homer against Toronto reliever Trevor Richards flipped the deficit into a lead and ultimately a 5-4 Red Sox win. The contest was the major league-leading 33rd comeback win of the season for a Sox.
“It’s hard to get 27 outs against us,” said manager Alex Cora. “We know that.”
So, evidently, does Fenway Park. Through seven innings, the venue had been flat, notable chiefly for the oddity of an invading smoky haze (the product of West Coast wildfires). Even starter Nick Pivetta, typically a furnace of intensity, seemed so listless that Cora sought midgame assurance that nothing was wrong.
But with the Sox down a run in the eighth, the crowd of 27,142 both sensed and incited possibility when Hunter Renfroe (2 for 3, double, walk) coaxed a one-out walk against Richards.
“It felt like in that eighth inning, they were a little bit louder, kind of expecting something big,” said Cora. “This is what Fenway Park is, right? We have to make sure it’s a tough place to come here.”
As the volume amplified, Verdugo stepped to the plate. The outfielder had gone 133 plate appearances without going deep since hitting his ninth homer on June 15.
“I had been pressing about that 10th homer,” said Verdugo. “Some of the guys never thought I was going to hit it. I started believing them.”
But finally, on a 3-1 pitch from Richards — a pitcher who’d given lefties fits this year (.150 average) — Verdugo unloaded on a changeup. He stood in the batter’s box to admire the flight of the never-to-return satellite that crashed into the bleachers just above the Sox bullpen and gave his team a 5-4 lead.
“I said to the guys, if that wasn’t going out, that would have been one of the most embarrassing moments ever,” said Verdugo. “If that didn’t go, I would have been devastated. I would have crawled into a little corner and stayed there.”
That proved unnecessary. Verdugo rounded the bases to put his team ahead, and soon was in a victory line after a tidy ninth inning from Matt Barnes (22nd save) — concluded when the Sox closer retired close friend and former UConn teammate George Springer on a pop-up — closed the win.
That dramatic end represented a departure from a preceding slog. The Sox struck first against Toronto starter Thomas Hatch — summoned from Triple A for his first big league appearance of 2021 — though missed a chance to blow open the game early.
Four straight Sox reached against Hatch to open the second inning. That translated to two runs — one on a Verdugo single, another on a Michael Chavis groundout — but the 2-0 advantage still felt like a missed opportunity.
The Blue Jays engaged in an interesting act of symmetry in the top of the third, as their first four batters reached against Pivetta, with three singles and a walk producing a pair of runs on RBI singles by Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Marcus Semien. But like Hatch, Pivetta — despite substandard command and stuff — navigated his way out of further harm.
“Today I had my ‘C’ stuff,” admitted Pivetta. “I just really had to lock it in.”
His third-inning escape was rewarded in the bottom of the inning, when Rafael Devers pulverized a Hatch fastball, ripping a solo homer to right for his 27th homer. The roundtripper allowed the Red Sox to retake the lead, 3-2, and Devers to reclaim the MLB lead in runs batted in, which he and Guerrero had shared for the preceding few minutes.
But on a night where Pivetta never seemed in rhythm on the mound, the lead did not hold. With a runner on second and one out in the top of the fifth, Cora approached the mound with his starter at 84 pitches and Phillips Valdez ready.
Such a visit almost always portends a move to the bullpen. But this time, Cora, after checking on his starter’s well-being, left Pivetta in the game. Pivetta retired Marcus Semien on a flyout, but left an 89-mile-per-hour changeup on the plate to Bo Bichette with two outs. The shortstop’s ferocious swing met the ball squarely, sending a two-run rocket into the Monster Seats — Bichette’s 18th homer of the season — for a 4-3 Toronto lead.
“I definitely want that pitch back,” said Pivetta.
The sentiment has become familiar for the righty against Toronto. He allowed four runs in 4 2/3 innings and has yielded 19 runs (18 earned) in 21 1/3 innings over his four starts against the Jays this season, good for a 7.59 ERA. He has a 3.75 ERA in 16 starts against the rest of the league.
The Sox, meanwhile, were stifled by Hatch and the Toronto bullpen from the fourth inning through the seventh. But Valdez (2 1/3 shutout frames) and Adam Ottavino (scoreless eighth) quieted the Jays after the fifth, positioning the Sox for their second eighth-inning come-from-behind win in as many days. The victory pushed the Sox to a season-high 23 games over .500, and left them 1 ½ games clear of the idle Rays for the division lead.
“We’re never out of the game,” said Pivetta. “We’re all picking each other up at every given time during the season, and I think that’s what’s helped us really be a strong core, and is putting us in a really good position to do some special things this year.”