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Amid their worst stretch of a mostly charmed season, the Red Sox rolled into Fenway Park on Tuesday speaking in unusually measured tones about their play. A team that had steamrolled opponents for much of the year was instead in a 2-6 skid at a time when the rival Yankees appeared to be hitting their stride.
Against that backdrop, it would have been natural for the team to view any victory as a comforting salve to the scrapes of recent games. Yet while the Red Sox emerged against the Marlins with an 8-7 walkoff win, the tone in the aftermath of their 91st victory of the year was one more of relief than triumph.
As much as the Red Sox demonstrated resilience and the ability to excel against hard-throwing relievers to erase a two-run deficit in the eighth inning, and again in plating the winning run after closer Craig Kimbrel blew the save by allowing a run in the ninth, the team seemed a bit stunned by the fact that it had to claw through the late innings.
“For whatever we are in the standings,” said manager Alex Cora, “we have a lot of margin to improve, which is very important. We don’t get caught up on the whole 91 wins. We know we have to be better. We know that and we keep working at it.”
Through seven innings, the Red Sox seemed positioned to enjoy a by-the-book victory over one of the worst teams in the majors. They took a 3-1 lead in the third inning against the mid-90s fastballs of Miami starter Jose Urena, and extended it to 4-1 on an Eduardo Nunez homer in the sixth, the team’s first long ball since last Wednesday.
But the eighth inning ushered chaos into the game. Matt Barnes allowed a pair of homers — a two-run blast by J.T. Realmuto and an opposite-field solo shot by Starlin Castro that tied the score, 4-4. Barnes has now allowed four homers this month, three more than he yielded from March through July combined. He’s searching for answers.
“I talked to [assistant pitching coach Brian Bannister] a little bit afterward. Tonight was unfortunately the worst movement that I’ve had on the fastball all season,” lamented Barnes, who said that he feels strong. “It’s been a tough couple weeks. I’ve got to sit down and kind of reevaluate. “I’ll sit down and we’ll crunch numbers tomorrow. We’re going to find a reason why and I’m going to find a reason why and I’m going to change it.”
Cora pulled Barnes after a one-out single in the eighth, but Heath Hembree couldn’t quell the uprising. A single and walk preceded a two-out, bases-loaded, two-run single by leadoff man Rafael Ortega, which gave Miami a 6-4 lead, stunning the sellout crowd of 36,708.
Down by two runs, the Red Sox rallied to take the lead in the bottom of the inning, feasting on the fastball-heavy diet of hard-throwing reliever Tayron Guerrero. Boston ranks as elite against the highest-octane gas in the majors, entering the night with a .276 average (second in the majors) and .440 slugging mark (fourth) against pitches of at least 95 miles per hour. The ability to stay on such comets featured prominently in the late innings.
The Sox loaded the bases against Guerrero on singles by J.D. Martinez (99 m.p.h.), Nunez 100 m.p.h.), and Ian Kinsler (99 m.p.h.). With two outs, Jackie Bradley Jr. stayed on a 99-m.p.h. full-count offering for a tying two-run single up the middle.
“I was able to just compete and put a good swing on a very good pitch,” said Bradley, who went 2 for 3 and drove in a pair of runs, and is now hitting .289 with an .871 OPS over his last 50 games. “The one I got a hit on was at the very bottom of the strike zone.”
With runners on the corners, Guerrero lost the strike zone against Mookie Betts, with his fourth ball sailing up and in toward Betts’s head. The ball missed both the head of Betts as well as the mitt of catcher Realmuto, the wild pitch permitting Kinsler to cross the plate and put the Red Sox ahead, 7-6.
But Kimbrel couldn’t secure the advantage in the ninth. The Red Sox closer issued a pair of walks before a Magneuris Sierra single to right tied the game, 7-7. Hembree, Barnes, and Kimbrel combined to allow six runs — tied for the most allowed by the Sox bullpen in a game this year.
Ryan Brasier, the team’s most reliable late-inning contributor for much of the month, was unavailable because of left foot discomfort. The Sox are hopeful he’s able to pitch on Wednesday. The bullpen could use all the help it can get amid a stretch in which it has allowed 13 earned runs in its last 17 innings.
“We don’t want to come out here and give up runs like we did tonight. All we can do is learn from it, take it, and go forward from there,” said Kimbrel. “This is the team that we have and this is the team that we’re going to make a run with, so we’ve got to figure it out or we’re not going to win, and I’ve got a pretty good feeling we’re going to figure it out.”
Kimbrel’s fifth blown save, however, merely delayed the Red Sox’ victory by a half-inning. Martinez delivered a one-out single to center off yet another hard-throwing Marlins righthander, Drew Steckenrider. Xander Bogaerts followed by shooting a single to right to put runners on first and second.
Nunez then chopped a ball up the middle, but after Miami shortstop J.T. Riddle stepped on second, he fired his throw to first into the dirt. The ball skipped past Miguel Rojas at first, allowing Martinez to dance home with the winning run, giving the Red Sox their fifth walkoff win of the year.
The victory allowed the Sox to maintain their 6½-game lead in the AL East over the Yankees, who enjoyed a walkoff of their own, beating the White Sox, 5-4.
Though the Red Sox didn’t seem inclined to celebrate the accomplishment in an unusually subdued post-victory clubhouse, in the end, the team didn’t feel it had to apologize for a victory.
“It was pretty amazing that we were able to pull off a win,” said Bradley. “I don’t believe in ugly wins. I believe in wins. As long as we continue to win, I don’t care how ugly it is.”
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.