Shortly after noon on Monday, the Red Sox met as a team in an effort to identify a roadmap back to a postseason path. But hours later, the Rays offered a reminder of the enormity of that task.
On a grimly gray day, the Rays and star southpaw Shane McClanahan dispatched the Red Sox, 4-1, before an announced crowd of 30,860 at Fenway Park. It marked the third straight victory for Tampa Bay in the four-game series and the seventh in eight games between the two teams this year.
At 30-30, the Sox have traveled a 60-game road to nowhere.
“I believe we have a good club in here,” said Justin Turner, who homered in the loss. “The sooner we get everyone believing that we’re a good team and that we can go out and win and compete every single night, that’s going to give us our best chance.”
The Sox appeared energized by just such a vision at the start of the contest, perhaps a carryover of the pregame meeting.
Brayan Bello was electric, striking out the side in the first. He wasn’t as sharp in the next two innings, but a Red Sox defense that had struggled offered him an impressive measure of support.
With a man on and one out in the second, the Rays’ Luke Raley blasted a slider to deep center field. Kiké Hernández — making his first start in center since April 22 — raced into the triangle and leapt while reaching over the angled bullpen fence to pull back a two-run homer. Hernández later added a gorgeous sliding catch on a flare by Raley.
“If I played 25 days in a row at shortstop and they told me to play center and I [make those plays], I’ll retire,” marveled manager Alex Cora. “It’s impossible.”
One inning later, Alex Verdugo preserved the scoreless tie when he reached over the right field grandstand wall, just beyond the Pesky Pole, on a homer bid by Francisco Mejía.
Still, the relentless, multifaceted Tampa Bay lineup broke through with a paper-cuts-and-lemon-juice attack in the fifth inning after Raley led off the frame by slamming a double. Manuel Margot chopped a ball over the infield to score Raley and, much to the chagrin of Cora, advanced to second when left fielder Rob Refsnyder threw to the plate rather than second to preserve the double play.
“Bad decision,” said Cora.
Margot reached third on a groundout, then trotted home for a 2-0 Rays lead when Mejía grounded a single through the drawn-in infield. Yandy Díaz followed with an infield single, and a Wander Franco cue shot to shallow left for another single loaded the bases. A fielder’s choice by Josh Lowe put Tampa Bay ahead, 3-0.
“Of course [it’s] a little bit frustrating that you execute your pitches and then they have soft contact,” Bello said through a translator. “But that’s baseball.”
That amalgamation of dinks and dunks was all the Rays amassed against Bello (3-4, 3.97 ERA). The 24-year-old logged six solid innings, allowing three runs on six hits while walking one and striking out five.
But the single slip was all McClanahan and the Rays needed. Though McClanahan was off his elite form at the outset, walking two of the first three batters in the first inning, he quickly rebounded with a double-play grounder against Rafael Devers.
Once out of the first, McClanahan (9-1, 2.02) featured a typically tremendous four-pitch mix. He used his mid- to upper-90s fastballs to leave the Sox on the defensive, resulting in defenseless swings against his slider, changeup, and curveball.
“The guy we faced tonight is one of the best,” said Cora. “He did what he usually does.”
Turner put the Sox on the board with his solo homer in the sixth inning — his seventh of the year and the only one by either team in the four-game series — to make it a 3-1 contest. But that was all the offense the Sox could amass against McClanahan, who allowed one run on five hits and struck out five in six innings.
Three walks in the seventh by reliever Nick Pivetta contributed to another Rays run that made it a 4-1 game. Meanwhile, the Sox threatened but couldn’t capitalize against Tampa Bay’s relievers.
With a pair of runners on in the seventh, Refsnyder struck out looking to strand both. In the eighth, after a leadoff walk by Alex Verdugo, Rafael Devers — with Verdugo running on a full count pitch with one out — took a called third strike that appeared to bisect the plate at the bottom of the zone to set in motion a strike-him-out, throw-him-out double play.
Cora reached a boiling point, charging out of the dugout to confront home plate umpire Chris Guccione. Though Guccione got that call right, Cora fumed about what he felt was a pitch-clock violation one inning earlier in the Refsnyder at-bat. The manager’s reaction was likely amplified by existential protest of his team’s sputtering state.
“[If] my kids are going to see me get thrown out, make sure they see it the right way,” Cora mused.
The Sox are 4-10 in their last 14 contests, a span in which the offense has managed two runs or fewer eight times. For the first time since April 29, the team is at or below .500.
After the game, Sox players packed for a six-game road trip to Cleveland and New York. But in a broader sense, where are they going? They have 102 games to form an answer.
“Are we great? No. Are we bad? No. This is where we’re at,” said Cora. “Sixty games under our belt and we’ve still got plenty of them. Keep getting better.
“We’re going to get healthy obviously. But I think at the end of the day, the defensive part of it we have to improve … If we clean that up, then we’re going to start winning a lot of games. A lot of games.”