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Pirates 8, Red Sox 2

The Red Sox had a chance for a much-needed sweep in Pittsburgh, but the offense didn’t show up

Pirates batter Bryan Reynolds (left) is greeted by Kevin Newman (center) at home plate after Reynolds' second two-run homer of the game off Red Sox starter Josh Winckowski on Thursday night in Pittsburgh.Philip G. Pavely/Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — It is possible to win without homers, but it is very, very difficult, a notion that finally caught up to the power-deficient Red Sox in the finale of a three-game series in Pittsburgh.

On Thursday, with a chance to sweep the cellar-dwelling Pirates, the Red Sox offense sputtered, failing to claim an extra-base hit in a listless 8-2 loss. The series marked the sixth Sox set of at least three games in which they failed to go deep.

“This is who we are,” said manager Alex Cora. “To score runs, we hit the ball in the gap, we have to run the bases well, and we have to control the strike zone. We’ve played 119 games. The numbers are the numbers. There’s 43 more games in the season. We’ve got to find ways to score runs, and I don’t think it’s going to be through the home run.”

The Red Sox are 19th in the big leagues with 112 homers — one spot behind the 46-72 Pirates (115). They are 21-32 this year when they fail to go deep, compared to a mark of 38-28 when they do hit the ball out of the park.


The lack of fence-clearing production places considerable pressure on the offense to sustain threats — something that requires a disciplined approach in order to deliver baserunners via walk or hit. The Sox won the first game of the Pirates series by doing just that in the first two innings — before narrowly holding onto a 5-3 victory when their approach unraveled over the final seven no-hit innings. They won the second in an 8-3 cakewalk thanks in large measure to a season-high seven walks and a refusal to chase pitches.

But on Thursday, with a chance to sweep, the team instead chased the nasty sinkers and sliders of Pirates starter J.T. Brubaker not only around the strike zone but outside of it. The first inning was a tone-setter, with the Sox hacking at seven of the 11 pitches they saw that were not in the zone.


Brubaker held the Red Sox in check Thursday night.Philip G. Pavely/Associated Press

“We didn’t make adjustments. We didn’t put pressure on [Brubaker],” said Cora. “We’re better than this. We didn’t swing at strikes. That’s the bottom line.”

Brubaker flew threw seven shutout innings while allowing just two hits. No Sox runner reached scoring position until the seventh, when Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz threw away the relay on a potential inning-ending double play. Brubaker (3-10, 4.19) shrugged off the miscue, eliciting a J.D. Martinez groundout to end his night.

While the Sox mustered nothing, the Pirates struck quickly and often. Bryan Reynolds drilled a pair of two-run homers — one in the first, and one in the fifth — off Red Sox rookie Josh Winckowski. The second crashed into the right-field bleachers for the 3,000th homer in PNC Park history — a milestone that would have arrived sooner had the Red Sox cleared the fences on their visit to Pittsburgh.

Between those two longballs (the 19th and 20th of the year for the Pirates outfielder), Ben Gamel drilled a two-run opposite-field double that plated Kevin Newman and Reynolds, both of whom went 3-for-4.

Winckowksi — pressed into starting duty when Nate Eovaldi was scratched due to shoulder/neck soreness — was charged with six runs on seven hits over five innings. He struck out just two, continuing a pattern in which he has rarely missed bats. The 24-year-old entered the night with a 6.6 percent swing-and-miss rate, second-lowest in MLB among pitchers who had thrown at least 50 innings.


That approach could work if Winckowski’s stuff proved anathema to barrels, but that has not been the case recently. The rookie has allowed nine homers in his last seven starts (34 2/3 innings).

“I definitely walk a [narrower] tightrope than most guys,” said Winckowski (5-6, 5.19). “Guys put the ball in play on me. That amplifies hits, so when home runs do happen, they tend to not be solo home runs. It’s definitely something I’m working on.”

The Sox mustered a pair of runs in the eighth inning against the Pirates bullpen, finally stringing together several plate appearances in which they refused to expand the strike zone. But with two outs and the bases loaded, Verdugo chased a slider off the plate from lefthander Manny Banuelos, ending what proved the only meaningful Red Sox threat of the night.

“The offense is just stuck right now. We’re really not going forward,” said J.D. Martinez. “This is a potent lineup with three guys in the middle of the order [Martinez, Rafael Devers, and Xander Bogaerts] that really drive the ball and really kind of aren’t doing that right now. It’s kind of just making it one of those offenses that is station to station right now. As an offense, I believe we’re underperforming.”

One of the few bright spots for the Red Sox Thursday came in the eighth when Bobby Dalbec scored on a sacrifice fly.Justin K. Aller/Getty

Though the Sox (59-60) claimed a series win in Pittsburgh, their loss on Thursday felt like a missed opportunity as they prepared to leave Pittsburgh for a nine-game stretch against A.L. East foes.


“How many games back are we?” asked Martinez.

Five, same as they were as the start of the series in Pittsburgh.

“How many teams do we have in front of us?” he followed up.

The Sox would have to leapfrog four clubs to play in October.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” he concluded.

Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.