The Red Sox have an American League East problem following Wednesday evening’s 7-1 loss to the Rays.
The Sox are now 0-8 in series against AL East opponents despite their 45-37 record which puts them in a tie for the first wild-card spot with Tampa Bay.
“We know where we are at in the standings and the things that we have to do,” manager Alex Cora said. “Obviously disappointed that we’re playing this way in the division, but we know we can hang with them and play better baseball.”
Observations from the game:
▪ Top pitching prospect Brayan Bello made his major league debut Wednesday.
The first pitch of his big league career was a 96 mile-per-hour sinker to Rays’ leadoff man Josh Lowe that caught the outer half of the plate.
His first out came on the next pitch when Bello flashed his changeup — a plus pitch of his — getting Lowe to fly out to center field. The evening, though, quickly spiraled for the Sox top pitching prospect.
On an 0-1 pitch to Yandy Díaz, Bello went to his slider but it missed on the outer edge of the plate. Bello then tried to double up on the slider, but hung toward the heart of the plate, allowing Díaz to get his hands out in front, clobbering a line-drive double off the Green Monster in left field.
The next batter was Wander Franco, who jumped all over a 97-m.p.h. sinker at the top of the zone for an RBI single, putting the Sox in a 1-0 hole. Bello escaped with an inning-ending double play. Nevertheless, the Rays figured him out quickly, leading to his four runs (all earned) on six hits. Bello also walked three batters.
“It is what it is,” Cora said, “It’s his first big league start. You saw the stuff. Obviously, he needs to keep getting better and work on a few things.”
Bello had just six swings and misses of his 79 pitches. The Rays turned him into a two-pitch pitcher, neutralizing his slider — a pitch he mixed into his repertoire in the minors last year — forcing Bello to rely heavily on his sinker and changeup.
The adjustments will come with time, and there were flashes of what made him brilliant in the minors.
For example, Franco was aggressive early in the count during his first at-bat, swinging at that first-pitch sinker for his RBI single up the middle. So, catcher Christian Vázquez and Bello took that into account, starting off Franco with a changeup, getting him to whiff on the pitch. Bello went back to his changeup on a 2-1 pitch for a called strike, showing the ability to throw that pitch in somewhat of a hitter’s count before getting Franco to swing through the power sinker for the third strike.
Still, the adjustments were too large to overcome.
After getting a strike on a slider against Randy Arozarena, Bello went up with the 97-m.p.h. sinker and Arozarena was all over it, drilling the pitch into the left-center field gap.
“I learned that they’re not the same hitters that you face down there in Triple A,” Bello said. “They’re going to pick out the pitch they want to hit.”
• Results aside, Bello beamed with pride following his outing Wednesday. Cora hugged him and told him congratulations, that he was a big leaguer. Bello cherished the moment.
“I’m taking everything with me right here,” Bello said. “This is something that you don’t get to do over again.”
▪ The middle of the Sox’ bullpen continues to have its struggles. With two outs in the seventh, Hirokazu Sawamura yielded a two-out walk. He would go on to allow a Lowe double and walk in a run. He had four walks, all of which came with two outs. Sawamura threw 37 pitches, just 15 landed for strikes. Sox pitchers walked nine batters, which was just one less than their season-high set last week against the Cubs.
▪ J.D. Martinez drove in the Red Sox’ only run of the game with his RBI single to left-center in the eighth inning. But he still doesn’t look like himself at the plate. Corey Kluber did a solid job keeping the Sox hitters off-balance with his cutter, sinker, and curveball mix, in his six innings of work, particularly Martinez.
In the sixth, Martinez looked out of sorts and was late with his swing, chasing two Corey Kluber cutters off the plate. He chased a curveball beneath the zone. Martinez came into the game hitting just .219 in his last 18 games. He has not homered since June 14. Xander Bogaerts also has been struggling, entering the evening hitting .188 in his last nine games. Both Martinez and Bogaerts were 0 for 3 against Kluber, each striking out once.
• Despite hitting some balls on the screws, the Sox couldn’t find any holes with men in scoring position, going 0 for 5 in that situation Wednesday. Before their final game against the Rays Wednesday, the Sox were just 11 for 55 (.200) in their last five games.
“We found a few things that teams are doing against us [with men in scoring position],” Cora said. “Now, obviously, I’m not going to share it but we have to get back to the strike zone and hit the ball hard, regardless of the situation. Get back to the zone and hit the ball hard.”