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Alex Speier | Analysis

Here’s what we learned about the Red Sox in an ugly loss

Alex Cora (far left) and the Red Sox dugout during eighth inning.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Before their season-opener against the Red Sox, one member of the Rays wondered how long Sox starter Chris Sale might pitch given that the lefthander had gotten knocked out in the first inning of his final spring training start.

“Hope [his exit] is early!” he grinned.

For the Rays, Sale’s exit came just early enough. After Sale threw six shutout innings and entrusted a 4-0 lead to his teammates, Boston’s bullpen endured a six-run, eighth-inning implosion that resulted in a 6-4 Rays victory.

The defeat came with shades of a 2003 Red Sox-Devil Rays opener in which the Sox’ initial use of the closer-by-committee strategy resulted in a five-run ninth-inning meltdown and a 6-4 walkoff loss.


Of course, the idea that a team might experience a dropoff going from Sale to its middle relievers isn’t necessarily a slight. Still, the Red Sox relievers who followed Sale in the game certainly made the gap seem significant. Matt Barnes worked a 1-2-3 seventh, though his inning was punctuated by a long fly ball to the track in right-center.

Asked to navigate the eighth, Joe Kelly was dreadful, retiring just one of five batters he faced while allowing a two-strike double (to righthanded hitter Matt Duffy, no less – a surprise given that Kelly allowed just three extra-base hits to righties on two-strike pitches in all of 2017) and three walks.

Summoned mid-inning to put out the fire, righthander Carson Smith instead fanned the flames, forcing in one run with a walk and then, after a strikeout, permitting four more on a two-out triple and a run- scoring infield single. The result? A Sox team that didn’t blow a lead of more than three runs in 2017 suffered an ugly loss to kick off the 2018 campaign.

The blown save leading to a loss was the first by the Red Sox in their season-opener since the infamous 2003 contest in the Tropicana Dome, and underscored the notion that the team will have to work through some kinks in order to find its way through the middle innings.


Some other initial takeaways from the Sox’ first Opening Day loss since 2014:

Strong opening for Sale

A night before Alex Cora’s first official game as Red Sox manager, Red Sox president/CEO Sam Kennedy and members of the team’s front office took the manager and his staff out to dinner. Kennedy asked Cora whether he was nervous on the cusp of a professional milestone.

“(Cora) said, ‘Why would I be nervous? We have Chris Sale going tomorrow,’” Kennedy recounted before the game.

The merits of that proclamation were on display in Thursday’s season opener in a way that served as a warning for the rest of the league: Just wait until Sale has his A game.

On Opening Day, the lefthander lacked his typically elite control. He threw strikes on just 59 percent of his pitches – his lowest strike rate since Aug. 6, 2013 – and he filled the strike zone with just 31 of his 55 fastballs (57 percent). He walked three Rays batters, matching his highest total of free passes in a Red Sox uniform.

Sale came within one routine ground ball that went through the right side of the infield from throwing six no-hit innings. Reintroduced to the breaking ball that features so much late, diving bite as to render it virtually unhittable (a pitch that was absent from many of his final starts in 2017), Sale dissected the Rays. He allowed no runs and just the one ground ball hit through the right side of the infield while striking out nine on a day when he topped out at 97 mph and garnered 14 swings and misses.


A healthy Xander Bogaerts can be very good

Xander Bogaerts was rarely healthy last year. While his most significant injury came as a result of getting drilled on the right wrist by a pitch in July – an injury that required multiple cortisone shots and probably should have landed him on the disabled list – he had other hand injuries that limited his ability to swing with two hands and drive the ball in the air.

His 1.3 degree average launch angle on balls with an exit velocity of 100 m.p.h. or greater – the well-struck balls with the potential to do the most damage – was the lowest in the majors. Most of his hardest-hit balls were ground balls.

As such, Bogaerts’ rocket of a second-inning double against Chris Archer offered a reminder that the wounded player of a year ago wasn’t necessarily the one the Sox will have going forward. Bogaerts ripped an elevated 2-1 fastball to the fence for a double. The hit had an exit velocity of 104.8 mph – with a launch angle of 20 degrees that often produces a ton of doubles on hard-hit balls.

In all of 2017, Bogaerts had just five extra-base hits with an exit velocity that high. Bogaerts later lined a two-strike slider for a single to left and then drilled another double to center that had an exit velocity of 101. If he’s capable of employing the swings that he showed in those plate appearances – and throughout much of the spring – then he could re-establish himself as one of the top offensive shortstops in the game.


They came. They saw. They swung.

Mookie Betts swung at the first pitch just 12.1 percent of the time last year, the sixth-lowest rate among players with at least 400 plate appearances. He did so just once as the Red Sox’ first batter of the game.

But the league can be on notice: Betts isn’t going to wait around anymore. Betts jumped on Archer’s first pitch of the game and hammered a ball to the gap in left-center. Though Kevin Kiermaier made an amazing catch to rob Betts of extra bases, it’s clear that Betts came to the plate having taken to heart the message from new manager Alex Cora and hitting coach Tim Hyers to attack hitters’ pitches early in counts.

The knee of Nunez went 1-for- 2

On one hand, Eduardo Nunez showed quickness in sprinting around the bases in roughly 15 seconds for the Red Sox’ first inside-the-park homer on Opening Day since 1968. However, he also showed limited lateral range at second base, something that turned what should have been a routine grounder into a base hit in the second inning.

The infield of Rafael Devers at third, Xander Bogaerts at short, Nunez at second, and Hanley Ramirez at first features four players who all graded as having below-average range at their positions in 2017.


Alex Speier can be reached at Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.