BALTIMORE — An autumnal chill swirled through Camden Yards on Thursday night, though for the Red Sox its significance was unclear. Did it foreshadow October baseball beyond the 162nd game of the regular season? Or did it represent a mockery, hinting merely at a time of year during which the team will be homebound?
That remains unclear, awaiting three more games that will provide some form of resolution. But the Sox did achieve a measure of painful clarity on Thursday night in a lackluster 6-2 loss to the Orioles.
With a three-game series in store against the Nationals, the team is not guaranteed a postseason berth even if it wins all of its remaining games. With Thursday’s loss, the Sox fell into a tie with the Mariners at 89-70, one game ahead of the Blue Jays for the second wild-card spot. The Sox must not only stop their ill-timed plummet but also hope for help from other teams to avoid a 163rd game or elimination.
A wild-card berth nonetheless remains a real possibility. But the Sox have played in a fashion — a 1-5 record in the last week against the Yankees and Orioles — that hardly seems worthy of such an accomplishment. They recognize the need for a drastic reversal.
“We have to win. We’ve been talking about winning series and we haven’t won the last two. This one wasn’t good at all,” said manager Alex Cora. “We have to win out. We have to win this series [against the Nationals] and see where it takes us.”
To reassert themselves, the Sox will need to solve the Mystery of the Disappearing Offense.
All season, the Sox have ranked among the best teams in baseball when scoring at least four runs, going 79-18 (.814). But they have rarely won low-scoring games, going just 10-52 (.161) if held to three runs or fewer, the seventh-worst mark in the league.
Thursday marked the fifth time in six games that the Sox have been thusly stifled, though the struggle hardly seemed preordained or even likely at the outset.
Kiké Hernández jumped on the first pitch of the game from Orioles lefthander Alexander Wells and drilled it to left-center field for his 19th homer of the season and sixth when leading off the first. The lineup seemed poised to add quickly with a one-out walk and single.
But on a 3-and-0 count, J.D. Martinez swung at a cutting 87-mile-per-hour fastball. He popped up weakly to center, an out that permitted Wells to reset and after which the Sox saw their early confidence disintegrate.
Wells, who entered with a 1-3 record and 7.61 ERA, faced the minimum number of batters over the five innings that commenced with the Martinez fly out. The lone Sox hitter to reach in that span was Kyle Schwarber on a third-inning single, but he was immediately erased on a Xander Bogaerts double-play grounder, one of two Bogaerts at-bats that ended in twin killings.
“Just not getting it done. The quality of my at-bats has been bad,” Bogaerts lamented of his 2-for-23 rut over the 1-5 stretch. “It’s just been very unproductive at-bats. It sucks ... Sometimes it happens, man. It happens to the best of ‘em, but you can’t keep a good guy down for too long.”
The inability to add to the homer by Hernández left Red Sox starter Nick Pivetta vulnerable to any misstep. And on a night in which the righthander’s fastball/curveball combination proved at times overpowering, he had one stumble.
Pivetta dominated through two innings, striking out the side in the first and tacking on another punchout in the second. But he opened the third by issuing a walk to the No. 7 hitter (Tyler Nevin), then permitted a single to Pat Valaika.
Pivetta nearly worked out of the jam, striking out the next two Orioles. But with two outs, Ryan Mountcastle crunched a first-pitch fastball into the Baltimore bullpen in left-center for a three-run homer, the rookie’s 33rd of the season, giving the Orioles a 3-1 lead.
That inning overshadowed the strong work that Pivetta (9-8, 4.56 ERA) delivered on either side of it. He made it through 4⅔ innings without further harm, and he struck out eight, his most since an Aug. 13 start against the Orioles. But Wells was better.
For the first time in his big league career, the lefthander completed six innings, allowing one run on three hits. He pitched to contact, striking out just two, but flummoxed the Red Sox with a zigzagging pitch mix.
After Wells’s final inning, the Orioles tacked on three more runs in the sixth against Sox reliever Garrett Richards. As was the case against Pivetta, the rally was keyed by unlikely sources of offense, with a two-run single from Nevin and a sacrifice fly from Valaika putting the Orioles ahead, 6-1, and leaving the game out of reach for the languid Red Sox offense.
Will the lineup awaken in Washington against the Nationals? The fate of the season rests on the answer. The Red Sox, after 159 games, must try to catch a final gust of wind over the remaining three, one that, unlike Thursday’s, they hope to find at their backs.
“Let’s get out of here, man,” Bogaerts exhaled. “We’re ready to go to Washington, to be honest. They outplayed us here. It’s a bad time for us to be doing that, playing worse than the Orioles. [Friday] I’m going to get to the field and go to the cage again early and continue to work. I ain’t prepared to go home yet. Better start turning it around.”