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ON BASEBALL

Back-to-back painful losses to Rays show Red Sox in serious need of a kick-start

Bobby Dalbec, who hit well last summer and this spring, is just 8 for 52 (.154) with a single home run to begin this season.Scott Audette/Associated Press

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Red Sox lost a uniquely brutal game on Saturday night. They were no-hit through nine innings, scored twice in the 10th, then were beaten on a two-out walkoff homer by Tampa Bay’s Kevin Kiermaier in the bottom of the inning.

A friend texted afterward that he feared this was a loss that would reverberate for a while.

My response was that baseball players learn to turn the page quickly and the Sox could still win the series and head for Toronto on an updraft.

Score one for my buddy.

The Sox found another painful way to lose on Sunday, scoring twice in the first inning, then getting clowned by the Rays the rest of the way. The final was 5-2 and it wasn’t that close.

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That’s four losses in the last five games for the 7-9 Sox, who start a four-game series against the Blue Jays on Monday in Toronto. It’s early — keep repeating that — but they’re far closer to last place in the American League East than first.

With Alex Cora missing his fourth consecutive game after testing positive for COVID-19, four of the first five hitters had base hits off Rays starter Shane McClanahan.

The lineup was 2 for 28 with eight strikeouts after that as McClanahan worked seven innings. The Sox have scored 16 runs in their last seven games, hitting .217 with two home runs. That they’re only two games under .500 is a surprise.

Hitting coach Pete Fatse was summoned to offer an explanation. McClanahan, he said, used his breaking ball and changeup effectively. That’s a change from the fastball/slider combination he featured in 2021. The absence of J.D. Martinez the last four games because of adductor tightness is a big factor, too.

“We’ve got to keep grinding. That’s where we’re at,” Fatse said.

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Tampa's Kevin Kiermaier, right, celebrates with catcher Mike Zunino after the Rays knocked off the Red Sox Sunday in Tampa.Scott Audette/Associated Press

It goes beyond that. The bottom third of the order has hit .143 with a .401 OPS. The Sox don’t need Bobby Dalbec, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Christian Vázquez to carry them. But they need something.

Dalbec spent much of the weekend watching swings on his iPad, trying to get back to the hitter he was at the end of last season. The alternative at first base is Travis Shaw, who is hitless in 17 at-bats.

Christian Arroyo, who is on the roster because of his bat, has yet to hit. The Sox resorted to trying Rob Refsynder as their designated hitter on Saturday. At least he drew a walk.

It’s clear the Sox needed more competition in spring training for their bench spots.

But the offense will improve. Trevor Story’s swings are clearly better in recent days as he gets more repetitions after signing late, then taking a few days to go home for the birth of his son. He’s catching up.

Martinez did some running before the game and could return to the lineup in a day or two. Kiké Hernández (.180/.275/.328) will get there, too.

Rich Hill tossed four scoreless innings Sunday against the Rays.Mike Carlson/Getty

Rich Hill did his part. He rejoined the team on Saturday following his father’s funeral on Thursday and pitched four scoreless innings. The lefthander exited the game with a 2-0 lead his teammates couldn’t hold.

Because he’s not vaccinated and can’t play in Toronto, Tanner Houck was available out of the bullpen. Interim manager Will Venable said the plan was to use him as a closer.

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So when Hill came out, Phillips Valdez faced the top of the Tampa Bay order. He faced four hitters, hitting two and walking another. All three scored.

That would have been a good spot for Houck.

The Rays added another run in the sixth when Kiermaier scored on a wild pitch. Randy Arozarena tried to score from second on the play, but Jake Diekman turned around just in time to tag him out.

That’s not showing much respect for the Sox.

The Sox were down by three runs by the time Houck came in. The Rays had no immunity from his pitches as he retired five in a row. It was meaningless.

“Obviously we have work to do,” Hill said. “Going up to Toronto, it’s not going to be an easy series at all, either. But again, with that said, we are fully capable of going on a nice run here.”

They need one soon.


Peter Abraham can be reached at peter.abraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.