TORONTO — As the Red Sox prepared to face the Blue Jays, one member of the team took stock of the formidable righthanded hitters amassed by Toronto’s lineup. As much as the team might benefit from having John Schreiber as a late-innings weapon, he noted, “You’d rather have two of those guys.”
But the Sox were and are without their second wipeout righty. Tanner Houck cannot pitch in Toronto because Canadian law prohibits the righthander from traveling to Canada owing to his choice to remain unvaccinated against COVID-19. On Tuesday night, Houck’s absence proved both glaring and painful in a game where the Red Sox nearly pulled a rabbit from a hat.
Though the Sox rallied from a 4-2, seventh-inning deficit to take a 5-4 lead, manager Alex Cora could not squeeze the final outs from his shorthanded bullpen. Righthanders Tyler Danish and Hansel Robles allowed four consecutive Blue Jays hitters to reach in the ninth, with Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s walkoff single the final blow in a wrenching 6-5 loss.
“We go with the 26 [players] that are here. We tried to get 27 outs and we didn’t do it,” said Cora. “Every time we lose, it’s disappointing.”
That the Sox had a chance at all represented a testament to the depth that has helped the team transform its season. Down 4-2 in the seventh, the Sox went to work against the Blue Jays bullpen.
With a man on and two outs, Rob Refsnyder — thrust into the leadoff role by the absences of Kiké Hernández (hip injury) and Jarren Duran (unvaccinated) — jumped on a 96-mile-per-hour mph fastball from reliever Trent Thornton and drilled it over the fence in dead center to tie the game, 4-4.
“It was a good moment,” allowed Refsnyder, who went 2 for 5 and is hitting .368 with a 1.068 OPS and is the first Red Sox to reach base in his first 13 games with the team since 2003.
Christian Vázquez followed an inning later with an RBI single against lefty Tim Mayza to give the Sox a 5-4 lead. The clutch hit added to a 2022 highlight reel that has seen the Sox catcher hit .345/.412/.517 in late-and-close situations.
Those late-innings contributions nearly pushed the Sox to their 14th comeback win of the year — a route necessitated by an unusually flat opening from Sox starter Michael Wacha.
Wacha was out of sorts from the start, scattering pitches in a fashion at odds with so much of his season. After a one-out first-inning walk to Bo Bichette, Wacha bounced three pitches to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. — a fastball, changeup, and cutter. Still, he worked back to a full count, and with Bichette running, Wacha threw a dart through the bottom of the zone that Guerrero took.
Yet what looked like a third strike — and the catalyst for a strike-him-out, throw-him-out double play — was ruled a fourth ball by home plate ump Nick Mahrley. A potential inning-ending play turned into two on with one out.
Toronto cleanup hitter Teoscar Hernández capitalized two pitches later, banging a long flyball off the fence in left for an RBI double. Two batters later, Matt Chapman lined a two-run double into the gap to put Toronto ahead, 3-0.
“[If the Guerrero pitch is called a strike], we get out of there, Vazqy throws him out at second, it’s a strike-him-out, throw-him-out. We didn’t get the call,” said Wacha. “You’ve got to try to limit the damage as much as you can after that. I just wasn’t able to come through.”
Still, on a night without his best stuff, Wacha navigated the Sox through five passable innings in which he yielded four runs despite matching a season-high with three walks. And Trevor Story helped the team to start chipping at the Blue Jays lead, sending a Ross Stripling offering on a 113-mile-per-hour zipline just over the left-field fence for a solo homer in the second inning, Story’s 12th homer of the year.
Amazingly, the homer was the first of 2022 for the Sox against the Blue Jays, who had managed to keep the ball in the yard for the first eight contests between the teams.
The teams traded runs in the middle innings before Refsnyder’s two-run blast in the top of the seventh. Yet with nine outs to go, Cora was left to assemble a puzzle that was missing Houck, his key ninth-inning piece.
“He’s a stud,” Wacha said of Houck, “but we knew what we were going into coming here.”
Cora opted for Schreiber to face the heart of the Blue Jays order in the seventh. He got through Guerrero, Hernández, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. in 10 pitches. But mindful that Schreiber might be needed on Wednesday, Cora — after Vázquez put the Sox ahead in the top of the eighth — turned to Tyler Danish.
Danish cruised through the bottom of the Jays order, and Cora viewed a pitcher whose low arm slot and slider have made him an effective right-on-right option as his best ninth-inning option. But pinch hitter Alejandro Kirk lined a single to open the inning, and pinch runner Bradley Zimmer advanced to second on a walk. That led Cora to summon Robles, who — pitching for a third straight day — promptly gave up a tying single to Bichette and the winning single by Guerrero.
“We’re down a guy, but that means everyone else has to step up,” said Danish. “You want the ball in those situations in the ninth. I just didn’t get the job done. This one’s on me.”
Despite the claim, it was unavoidable to consider how the game might have played out with Houck on hand. The fact that Houck’s absence proved so disruptive also suggests urgency to the team’s need to find more righthanded bullpen reinforcements — perhaps with Garrett Whitlock, perhaps on the trade market, perhaps with both.
The Sox dropped to 7-16 in the AL East and fell a half-game behind the Blue Jays in the standings. They have lost all seven series they’ve played against division rivals.