TORONTO — For four weeks, the Red Sox looked little short of unstoppable. The team had won a staggering 19 of 23 in June after concluding its three-game sweep of the Cleveland Guardians.
Yet even as the surge vaulted them into second place in the American League East, it came with no guarantees about what lay beyond it. After all, the team’s march came against opponents from outside the division, not the Group of Death that the Red Sox will play for 55 of their final 89 games.
If there were any question about the elevated degree of difficulty that comes from playing in the AL East, it was answered quickly and unequivocally on Monday night in Toronto. The Blue Jays enjoyed an ace-caliber performance from righthander Kevin Gausman and a dazzling display of power in crushing the Red Sox, 7-2, in the opener of a three-game series, snapping the Red Sox’ seven-game winning streak.
With the loss, the Red Sox — for whom Monday marked the beginning of 20 games in 23 days against East opponents — dropped to 7-15 within their division, compared to a remarkable 35-17 (.673) outside it. They have yet to win a series against an AL East team this year.
“It’s always a dogfight in this division,” noted first baseman Bobby Dalbec.
Connor Seabold took the mound for his second big league start, having dominated Triple-A hitters to the tune of a 2.09 ERA this season due to outstanding command of a 92 mile-per-hour fastball — below-average big league velocity — at the top of the zone that set up his slider as a chase pitch away. But the stacked top of the Blue Jays order put him on the defensive immediately.
Seabold issued a leadoff walk to George Springer, who scored when Bo Bichette yanked a double down the left-field line. While Seabold retired the next seven hitters, the Blue Jays demonstrated the trademark ferocity of their avian namesakes in the third.
With one out, Springer unloaded on an 80 m.p.h. first-pitch slider and drilled it over the fence in center to make it 2-0. Bichette followed with a first-pitch single on a fastball, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. — who’d struck out on a slider in the first — was ready when he saw another breaking pitch. He smashed a two-run homer to center, his 18th of the year, to put the Jays up, 4-0.
Toronto tacked on three more runs in the fifth, including two on a Matt Chapman homer on a 90 m.p.h. fastball at the top of the zone, to finish Seabold’s night after 4⅔ innings in which he yielded seven runs on nine hits, including the three homers. Seabold was the first Red Sox pitcher since May 26 to give up five runs in a game.
“Kind of ran into a buzzsaw,” said Seabold. “I made too many mistakes. . . . [In the] fifth inning I was out of gas, started making more mistakes, and they started capitalizing on it.”
Yet while the Blue Jays made resounding contact when they put the ball in play, Seabold’s outing was not without promise. The righthander racked up seven strikeouts and an astounding 21 swings-and-misses, the most by any Red Sox pitcher this year.
“The fastball has some life. … The changeup was really good,” said manager Alex Cora. “He’s a good one.”
Of course, Seabold’s struggles with the long ball were secondary in the outcome with the Red Sox once again shut down completely by Gausman. The Blue Jays ace has allowed two runs in 21 innings in three starts against Boston this season, with 27 strikeouts and two walks.
The Red Sox simply couldn’t solve the mystery of his fastball/splitter/slider mix, sufficiently conscious of his elite secondary pitches that they could do nothing against his four-seamer. Gausman threw 57 fastballs, with 25 resulting in either a swing-and-miss or called strike.
Gausman was rarely threatened over seven scoreless innings, striking out 10 and walking two while scattering four hits. No Red Sox baserunner advanced past second against him. He threw a season-high 110 pitches, with his final offering a 97 m.p.h. fastball that he blew past Dalbec.
“He’s got great stuff,” said Dalbec. “That strikeout on me, that ball was closer to hitting me than I was to hitting it. I feel like he gets stronger as the game goes on against us.”
The Sox rallied for a pair of runs in the ninth with four singles against Blue Jays reliever Shaun Anderson, a third-round pick of theirs in 2016 dealt to the Giants for Eduardo Núñez a year later. Trevor Story delivered a sacrifice fly and Dalbec a run-scoring infield single, but with two on and two out, Rob Refsnyder’s fly to deep right-center died just short of the warning track, concluding an unhappy re-entry for the Sox into the East.
“It’s going to be a grind. We’re going to be banging heads for the rest of the season,” Cora said. “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. We had expectations coming into the season to make it to the playoffs, and we will keep working for that.”