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Alex Speier | on baseball

While the roster has been in constant flux, somehow the Red Sox have held onto a postseason spot

The Red Sox' Rafael Devers cannot catch the relay throw from second baseman Taylor Motter allowing the Rays' Nelson Cruz to score after Cruz hit a bases-loaded fly ball that centerfielder Alex Verdugo lost in the sun.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff/Matthew J Lee

The baseball season has moved beyond the realm of the rational into games that inspire ecstasy, madness, and agony — sometimes all at once.

Welcome to September contention in the middle of a pandemic, a phenomenon both mesmerizing and bewildering. With a roster that is reshaped into semi-recognizable form every day by players being added to and returning from the COVID-19-related injured list, the Red Sox are defying logic by maintaining their hold on a postseason spot yet confounding with their inability to secure it decisively.

Monday against the Rays, the Red Sox absorbed an unthinkable loss. Armed with a 7-1 lead through three innings and with Chris Sale on the mound, the Sox endured an excruciating implosion in slow motion, falling to the Rays by an 11-10 count in a 10-inning Fenway affair that lasted 4 hours and 54 minutes.


“Days like this hurt,” said Sale. “It’s a gut punch. We lost a game we should have won — easily, honestly. I mean, we had a 7-1 lead. We’ve got to have that one.”

For all of their recent bullpen troubles — and with a reliever corps left short by the COVID-19-related absences of Matt Barnes and Hirokazu Sawamura — the Sox still had not blown a lead of more than five runs this year. While the Rays have shown an unmatched ability to come back this year, winning a major league-high 43 games in which they trailed at some point, they had not overcome a deficit of more than five runs in their first 137 contests.

And then, Monday happened. The Red Sox fumbled their largest lead of the season with the familiar culprit of faulty defense playing a key role in the meltdown.

With the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the fourth, Alex Verdugo lost a bases-loaded flyball by Nelson Cruz in the sun and had it clank off his glove for a three-base error.


His misplay was compounded when the relay throw by second baseman Taylor Motter (a new addition to the Red Sox on Friday) sailed into the Rays dugout. Cruz, who should have been cut down easily at third, scored. The four-run play — which accounted for two of the four Red Sox errors on Monday — brought the Rays back to within 7-5.

Later, with the Sox still clinging to a 9-8 lead in the top of the ninth, Austin Meadows smashed a ball to straightaway center. Verdugo tried to make a play on it, but it eluded his leap and caromed off the fence and back toward the infield.

Rightfielder Hunter Renfroe — who said he lost the flight of the ball in the sun (“The big ball of fire in the sky is undefeated,” he lamented) — was late to back up, and so shortstop José Iglesias ran to center and threw wildly back to the infield in an attempt to stop Meadows from circling the bases. It was unsuccessful, and the game-tying inside-the-park homer extended the game for the Rays to claim the win in extras.

Step back: Verdugo in center? Motter at second? Iglesias at short? Jonathan Araúz at short or second? Franchy Cordero back in the big leagues and looking lost at first base while sprawling in an attempt to field a hard grounder in the 10th?


The COVID-ravaged Red Sox are being reshaped by the day, by the hour. When manager Alex Cora opened his media session on Monday morning, he offered a warning about a coming roster reset.

“We’ve got a lot of moving parts right now,” he said. “It’s kind of, I don’t want to say an uncomfortable morning, but it’s one of those that we are on our toes.”

Shortly thereafter, the Red Sox finalized the signing of Iglesias, reinstated lefthanded reliever Josh Taylor from the COVID-19-related injured list, and added righthander Michael Feliz to the roster while sending pitchers Kutter Crawford and John Schreiber as well as infielder Jack López to Triple-A Worcester.

The flurry of moves has become a staple of life while managing an outbreak that thus far has resulted in 11 Red Sox players landing on the COVID IL. That number dropped to 10 with the return of Taylor on Monday, and the Sox expect Kiké Hernández and Danny Santana to rejoin them on Tuesday.

Alex Cora has had to do a lot of lineup juggling over the last couple of weeks.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff/Matthew J Lee

The result of the absences — including Hernández, the team’s best centerfielder, as well as four middle infielders (Xander Bogaerts, Hernández, Christian Arroyo, Yairo Muñoz) — has been players who are unfamiliar with each other and out of their ideal positions.

It’s impossible to say what might have happened with Hernández in center on Monday or with someone other than Motter at second. But the Sox, who briefly enjoyed a return to up-the-middle defensive stability during last week’s four-game winning streak, looked on Sunday like a jumble of incongruous parts.


“It’s hard but this is who we are,” said Cora. “It’s going to get to the point where we get everybody back and that’s important. … But in the end we have no excuses. We had the lead, 7-1, and we weren’t able to win the game. We can talk about people playing out of position or needing people here, it doesn’t matter. You have to win those games.”

They didn’t, and so the Red Sox squandered an opportunity to surpass the Yankees for the top wild card spot and to maintain or add to the separation they’ve forged with Toronto, Seattle, and Oakland. The postseason landscape feels more crowded and unsettled by the day.

Yet for all of the weightiness of Monday’s defeat, there is still the bigger picture. The Red Sox, with 22 games left, still sit in a position that the Jays, Mariners, and A’s envy. For all of their self-sabotage, they still had repeated opportunities to win on Monday. The game ended with a bases-loaded groundout with the tying run on third.

“We were still gritty,” said Sale. “We showed some fight.”

Rose-colored glasses? Perhaps. Or maybe it was just the view through the pre-autumnal hue of September, on a day when a cloudless sky offered a reminder of the chaos borne of a marathon season distilled to the uncertainties of a dwindling number of games.

Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him @alexspeier.