PHOENIX – It no longer seems so early.
On Friday night, the struggles of the defending world champions became more than an early season curiosity, instead descending into a portrait of frustration. After a mess of a fourth inning in which the Red Sox gave up four runs — one due to a poorly located pitch, three more in no small part the product of bad luck and a string of misplays — starter Rick Porcello couldn’t contain the welling disgust of an outing and early season that has veered in a wildly unexpected direction.
After Porcello came off the field, he picked up a cooler and chucked it against the dugout wall. Though the starter was the one to throw the water cooler, he probably wasn’t the only one tempted to do so during or after the Red Sox’ 15-8 loss to the Diamondbacks.
“You think about your start for four days. Obviously, we haven’t been playing the best baseball. You want to go out there and stop it,” Porcello said. “I didn’t do that in the fourth inning. I let that inning get out of control. It never should have gotten out of control. It’s just frustration stemming from that.”
Porcello pitched poorly, but what occurred behind him turned the game into an embarrassing blowout whose completeness became apparent when infielder Eduardo Nunez took the mound to pitch the eighth. One day after the Red Sox left Oakland with manager Alex Cora outlining the team’s need for improved attention to detail, the Red Sox instead featured another night of failed execution.
“It’s us,” said Mookie Betts. “We have to play better, for sure.”
As has often been the case through the team’s 2-7 stagger, a poor start left the Red Sox in an uphill scramble almost from the game’s outset. Porcello missed his location on numerous pitches, leaving him vulnerable to hard contact (two homers, 10 hits, 7 runs) and in stretches unable to find the strike zone.
A pitcher who at times goes weeks without issuing a walk instead permitted three, the second straight outing this year in which he’s given out at least three free passes — a control lapse unlike any he’d experienced since 2012.
A 1-1 tie in the bottom of the fourth quickly unraveled for Porcello and the Sox. With one out, the righthander fell behind Ketel Marte, 2 and 0, then left a hanging slider over the middle of the plate that the Diamondbacks second baseman launched into the bleachers, 434 feet away, for a solo homer and a 2-1 lead. The long ball marked the ninth straight game in which a Sox starter has been taken deep.
Nick Ahmed then bounced a double down the left-field line, past the glove of Rafael Devers. After a wild pitch and a walk to the eight-hole hitter put runners on the corners, Diamondbacks pitcher Zack Godley — who earlier singled on an 0-and-2 fastball and came around to score Arizona’s first run — skied a flyball into a Bermuda Triangle of Sox fielders in shallow right. The ball dropped between right fielder J.D. Martinez (playing surprisingly deep against a pitcher), center fielder Betts, and second baseman Brock Holt, allowing a run to score.
Jarrod Dyson then lined a ball that Holt appeared to read well, but it bounced off his glove for another run-scoring single. A run-scoring groundout concluded the scoring in the inning, but it didn’t stifle Porcello’s mounting dismay, as a water cooler and the dugout wall soon discovered.
Porcello allowed two more runs in the fifth, resulting in a hook after just 4⅔ innings — the first time in his Red Sox career that the bastion of reliability had failed to complete five innings in back-to-back games. His outing continued a woeful start to the season for the Red Sox rotation, which now has a 9.60 ERA, easily the worst in the majors.
“I’m not doing my job right now,” said Porcello (0-2). “This one’s on me. I take full responsibility for these first two starts, not throwing the ball the way I need to. I better turn it around quick.”
Brian Johnson struck out Godley to end the fifth, but got tattooed in the sixth, allowing seven runs — four of them when the switch-hitting Marte, batting righthanded against the lefthanded Johnson, clubbed a grand slam over the fence in left.
With Friday’s gaudy 15-run yield, the Red Sox have a staff ERA of 7.08 — the worst in team history through nine games since ERA became an official American League statistic in 1913. With five Diamondbacks homers on Friday — two by Marte, one by Adam Jones, and one by Ildemaro Vargas, one by Alex Avila off of debuting “pitcher” Nunez – the Sox have given up 23 homers thus far, the most the team has ever permitted through nine games. A year ago, the team gave up just five long balls through the first nine contests.
“We kept the ball in the ballpark last year. This year, we’re not doing that,” said Cora. “As soon as we start pitching, we’re going to be fine.”
Though the Red Sox showed glimmers of life while scoring seven runs in the final two innings — two on a Betts homer in the eighth, three on a Mitch Moreland blast in the ninth — there’s little hiding from the team’s awful play to open the 2019 campaign.
“We’re struggling. We have to do a better job at everything,” said Nunez. “We know that it’s a bad start, a rough week, but it’s time to pick it up. There’s a lot of good talent in here. There’s no excuse, nothing, for us to play like this.”
The Red Sox’ struggles are magnified by their occurrence at the start of the season. Nonetheless, the early hole also creates a sense of urgency.
Of the more than 200 teams to reach the postseason since the introduction of the wild-card round in 1995, just four have overcome a performance as poor as the Red Sox’ through the first nine games. If the 2019 Red Sox hope to become the fifth, they can ill afford for their struggles to last much longer.