ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Several Red Sox players were in the dugout Tuesday afternoon waiting for the start of batting practice when the topic of playing at Tropicana Field came up.
Mike Napoli said he enjoyed hitting at the domed stadium but didn’t like playing in the field.
“Stuff always happens here,” he said.
A few hours later, his words proved prophetic. Napoli lost a popup in the roof and it fell in for a two-run single in the fourth inning. That was the difference for the Tampa Bay Rays in a 5-3 victory against Sox.
“I didn’t make the play,” Napoli said. “Saw it up, saw it, and overran it.”
It was the latest blow for the sliding Red Sox, who have lost three straight, six of seven, and nine of their last 11 games. The momentum built from a 20-8 start has nearly been cast away.
At 22-17, the Red Sox are now three games behind the Yankees. The Rays have won six straight.
The Sox had two hits and took a 3-0 lead in the first inning when David Ortiz homered deep to right field off Matt Moore. But they had only one other hit and struck out 12 times.
Moore (7-0) and four relievers retired 26 of the final 31 Sox batters. None advanced beyond second base.
That made the poor defense in the fourth inning so fatal. With one out and runners on first and second, John Lackey got Desmond Jennings to hit a fly ball to center field. Both runners tagged up on the weak arm of Jacoby Ellsbury.
Matt Joyce was next and he hit a fastball up in the air. Napoli came in and the ball landed behind him untouched. Both runners scored.
The ball was only a few inches from the foul line and second baseman Dustin Pedroia stood over it hoping it would roll. It never budged.
“We needed the wind to blow or something,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. Lack makes a good pitch and it’s our job to catch the ball.”
Napoli was playing first base at the Trop for only the fourth time in his career, the first time since June 1, 2011. The stadium, with its concentric rings of catwalks, spotlights, and off-white fabric roof can be difficult for an experienced fielder.
“I’ve played here before,” Napoli said. “It’s a white roof. But I saw the ball. I just overran it.”
Pedroia, who was a few feet from Napoli, tried to claim responsibility.
“I’ve played lot of games at this field. Maybe I ran to it, took my eye off it, and tried to find it again. I couldn’t find it. It’s probably an easier play for me than Nap because a lefthanded hitter hit and I had a better angle. I just took my eye off it and I know better than to do that.”
Napoli wasn’t buying it.
“It’s a long way for him to run,” he said. “It’s a play I should have made and I didn’t. I feel bad because John’s out there, he gets a guy to pop up in a tie ballgame.”
Said Lackey: “It’s frustrating, for sure. I made a pitch and we didn’t get an out.”
The Rays have learned how to make their quirky park work to their advantage. Jose Molina and Yunel Escobar were running hard on the popup and scored without the Red Sox having a play.
“We benefited from the roof again,” manager Joe Maddon said. “How about that?”
Lackey retired the first seven batters he faced on 23 pitches. Ten of the next 16 batters reached base as Lackey threw 61 pitches and got steadily worn down.
After leaving the bases loaded in the third inning, Lackey started the fourth by allowing three consecutive hits. The third was a check-swing opposite field RBI double by Luke Scott that flew softly over the head of third baseman Will Middlebrooks and rolled away on the artificial turf.
That opened the door to the Rays scoring five runs in the inning. It was a 35-pitch inning for Lackey.
“That was an odd inning to say the least,” Sox manager John Farrell said.
Lackey left the game in the fifth inning having allowed five runs on nine hits. Five starts is not a big percentage of a full season. But opponents are 16 of 69 (.231) against Lackey from the windup, 15 of 42 (.357) when he pitches from the stretch.
“You can’t just look at numbers,” he said. “You’ve got to actually look at the hits and look at the results a little bit, you know?”
Farrell offered no reason for the difference. He believes Lackey has been more a victim of big innings.
“Once again the ball doesn’t fall our way,” Farrell said.
Lackey has a 4.05 earned run average in five starts since coming back from Tommy John surgery and has struck out 27 in 26⅔ innings. But he is 1-4.
“I felt pretty good for the most part,” he said. “I really thought I pitched better than what’s going to show.”
Once the Sox fell behind, their best opportunity came in the seventh inning after Stephen Drew and Ellsbury walked. Maddon called in righthander Josh Lueke to turn Shane Victorino around. Victorino fouled off two two-strike pitches and worked the count to 2-and-2 before lining to James Loney at first base.
Fernando Rodney struck out the side in the ninth for his seventh save. The last seven Sox went in order.
“We’ve got to do a better job of swinging the bat,” Pedroia said.Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.