Things had snowballed on Red Sox starters enough times this season for manager John Farrell to know the signs.
In his first two innings of work Monday night against the Rays, Clay Buchholz had shown enough of them.
It wasn’t that Buchholz wasn’t throwing strikes, he flooded the zone with 25 strikes in his first 38 pitches.
But when he tried to get his cutter over for first-pitch strikes, plate umpire Tripp Gibson wouldn’t throw him a bone.
“I made a lot of pitches I didn’t think I got the benefit of the doubt on the strike zone,” Buchholz said.
Buchholz turned to his fastball to try to get ahead, but the Rays jumped on it.
And between Evan Longoria’s RBI double to left, David DeJesus’s run-scoring single to right, and Joey Butler’s two-run home run into the Monster seats, Tampa Bay hung four runs on Buchholz in a hurry.
“You go out there and you try to throw a lot of strikes and not walk guys, and it seems that whenever you do make a mistake, they capitalize on it,” Buchholz said.
So when the Sox came back to the dugout in the middle of the second inning, Farrell immediately sat Buchholz and catcher Sandy Leon down and went into problem-solving mode.
“[It was] more along the lines of not being so fine with pitches,” Buchholz said. “It’s hard not to be fine with pitches when you throw one that’s just a good strike and then they hit it, so you’ve got to try to put it in places where if they do hit it, it’s really weak contact or they roll over.”
Playing from behind for the 17th time in 26 games this season, the Sox couldn’t afford to give up any more runs, especially after slugger Hanley Ramirez walked off the field two outs into the night with a left shoulder sprain after crashing into the wall chasing a James Loney fly ball down the left-field line.
Buchholz couldn’t afford it either. The last time he took the mound, the Blue Jays roughed him up for five runs on six hits, knocking him out of the game in the third inning.
Eventually, Buchholz settled down, striking out seven over his 6⅓ innings, but in a 5-1 loss, the Sox couldn’t climb out of the hole he dug for them. The Rays sent the Sox to their fourth straight loss, and their ninth in the past 12 games, Boston falling into last place in the AL East.
Farrell seemed at the end of his rope with perpetually playing from behind.
“Ideally, you’d like to keep the game under control from the outset — and that’s not just with Clay, that’s with everyone,” he said. “That’s a major league starting pitcher that you’re hopeful that consistency prevails where you give your offense a chance to get on track.
“We can’t think that going into every game we’re going to put up seven or eight runs. That doesn’t happen in this league.”
It didn’t happen Monday night.
Rays starter Jake Odorizzi cut Sox scoring chances off at the knees over his seven innings. The Sox left runners in scoring position in five of the first six frames, going 1 for 12 as a team with RISP.
After Dustin Pedroia’s one-out double in the first, neither David Ortiz nor Allen Craig (plugged in for the injured Ramirez, whom Farrell said was day-to-day and hoping to avoid a DL stint) could push him across.
Back-to-back two-out triples by Brock Holt and Xander Bogaerts got the Sox on the board in the second, but a ground ball to second by No. 9 hitter Sandy Leon left Bogaerts stranded 90 feet away.
Mookie Betts led off the third with a loud double off the Sapient sign on the Monster, but Pedroia (fly out), Ortiz (fly out), and Craig (strikeout swinging) all came up empty.
Holt stroked a two-out double to left for his second hit of the night in the fourth inning, but Bogaerts struck out swinging on three pitches.
“That pretty much says it all,” Farrell said.
Buchholz came in with a 5.76 ERA, and was touched for five earned runs by a Rays team that came in with the third-fewest runs scored in the American League.
Butler’s second-inning homer — a screamer on an 0-and-1 changeup that left the park on a line — was the first of his career. Buchholz had not allowed a homer at Fenway in 157 batters.
He saved himself some added damage in the third, when he created a two-out bases-loaded jam by giving up a double to Logan Forsythe and then a single to Asdrubal Cabrera before walking Butler.
But he wiggled out of it by winning an eight-pitch battle with Rene Rivera, getting him to chase a cutter at the knees for strike three.
The loss dropped the Sox to 6-8 at home, with the starters, who came into the game with the second-worst collective ERA in baseball (5.66), struggling to set the tone.
“It is on our starting pitchers to create some stability to hopefully sustain any kind of run to put any kind of streak together,” Farrell said. “But we’re not looking at streaks, we’re looking at every game individually, whether it’s to stop a losing streak or whether it’s to sustain success. We have to rely on a starting group that pitches with more consistency.”
Buchholz understood that the weight of the Sox struggles will fall on him.
“If anybody’s got to take one for the team, it seems like the way it’s been going, it’s going to be thrown at me,” Buchholz said. “So I know I can get better from it though.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.