A bad stretch of baseball crossed over into the realm of perceived impossibility for the Red Sox on Thursday afternoon.
The sense of bewilderment surrounding the swooning Sox at Fenway Park ran into a new dimension in the sixth inning of an 8-1 loss to Tampa Bay. A memorable confrontation of a pair of standout rookies crystallized the opposing directions of the seasons of the two teams atop the AL East.
Righthander Tanner Houck had breezed through five innings of one-run ball for the Red Sox, striking out eight and walking none, before arriving at a crossroads in the top of the sixth: The third time through an opposing lineup.
The Sox had been judicious in their deployment of Houck, yanking him after no more than 18 hitters in any of his three starts since the All-Star break. Yet manager Alex Cora, convinced by his pitcher’s electrifying arsenal (17 swings-and-misses through five innings), left Houck in to face the top of the Rays lineup once more.
The worst-case scenario coalesced quickly. Brandon Lowe grounded a full-count single off the glove of Raffy Devers (shifted up the middle), bringing up Rays freshman Wander Franco.
Franco fell behind Houck, 1-2, before going to work. He fouled off five pitches — three four-seam fastballs and a pair of sliders — to negotiate a full count.
On the 11th pitch, catcher Kevin Plawecki thought that after pounding Franco on the inner half of the plate, the Sox should vary the pattern and work away with a sinker. But Houck finally made a mistake in the middle of the plate, and Franco crushed it off the Wall in left-center, just to the left of the yellow line indicating a ball in play.
Yet the ricochet propelled the ball not back onto the field of play but instead off the base of the flagpole in center before rebounding onto the field. Initially, the ball was ruled a ground-rule double. But the umpires briefly conferred and correctly deemed the play a two-run home run, as Fenway’s ground rules stipulate that a ball off the Wall — even to the left of the yellow line — that lands out of play is a round-tripper.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Houck. “But that’s what you get whenever you’re in a historical ballpark with all the nooks and crannies and the layout of the field. Something new with baseball every single day, I swear.”
It’s difficult to fathom the spin that would produce such a deflection on a lefthanded batter’s inside-out swing to drive the ball to the left of center. For Cora, the regular pre-game conversations about the Fenway Park ground rules surrounding the status of such a hit always seemed purely hypothetical.
“[The umpires] always talk about it,” Cora said. “I’m like, ‘I’m never going to see that.’”
Now, he’s seen it. Cora has also seen a 20-year-old hit a homer at the conclusion of an 11-pitch at-bat – a remarkable feat by a remarkable talent who has helped the Rays to a 17-8 mark since the All-Star break.
Like most things that have occurred during stretches in which the Sox have lost 11 of 14 and 19 of 31 – such as back-to-back losses on Sunday and Tuesday in which the team had a greater than 90 percent probability of winning – Franco’s homer boggled the mind.
So, too, did what ensued – albeit because of familiarity rather than novelty. Houck left trailing, 3-1 – a gap that left the Sox with a small measure of hope. Despair soon set in for a beleaguered bullpen.
Five additional runs crossed the plate on the watch of Hansel Robles (who balked in a runner inherited from Houck while walking three of six batters he faced), Austin Davis (three batters faced, two runs allowed), and Yacksel Ríos (two runs in two innings – including a 432-foot Mike Zunino homer). Over their last eight games, Sox relievers have been charged with a staggering 33 runs (32 earned) in 27 innings, turning leads into losses and competitive games into blowouts.
For three months, the Red Sox seemed as if they could walk confidently through a deluge without getting touched by any raindrops. Now, they are getting not only doused by a downpour emanating from a single cloud but also struck by lightning – time and again.
That said, there’s at least some reason to believe a change in the forecast is possible for a team that, despite its precipitous slide, currently remains in possession of the second wild-card spot.
The addition of Houck to the rotation – and removal of Martín Pérez and Garrett Richards – has contributed to a six-game stretch in which Sox starters have a 2.81 ERA with 39 strikeouts and six walks in 32 innings. On Saturday, Chris Sale will rejoin the rotation, making his first big league appearance in 732 days. Kyle Schwarber, Christian Arroyo, and Ryan Brasier likewise could soon join the big league club.
And, after a stretch in which 22 of 25 games featured the Rays, Blue Jays, and Yankees, the Sox will finally face the downtrodden Orioles.
Perhaps those changes will help the Red Sox to escape the rut that now has them five games behind the Rays in the A.L. East and barely ahead of the hard-charging Jays and Yankees. Still, the fact that the Sox are in this position after months atop the division seems, like so much else that has taken place in the last five weeks, hard to fathom.