PHOENIX — Part odyssey, part oddity, the Red Sox’ long journey west will conclude on Sunday.
In ancient mythology, such an undertaking typically would offer an opportunity for a hero’s self-discovery and definition. In the case of the 2019 Red Sox, however, a two-week misadventure across America has served primarily to raise questions, foremost about when this year’s team will start to resemble its title-winning predecessor.
A 5-4, walkoff loss to the Diamondbacks on Saturday — decided when Arizona catcher Carson Kelly laced a two-out single to left off of Red Sox reliever Colten Brewer — added to the cloud of uncertainty. The defeat dropped the Red Sox to 2-8 in the still-young season, and clinched a third straight series loss to open the year — a mark that wasn’t crossed in 2018 until mid-May.
It is the franchise’s worst record through 10 games since 2011. The losses are greeted not with shock but instead grim realism.
“They understand that we’re not playing good baseball,” said manager Alex Cora. “If we were playing good and we were getting beat playing good baseball, probably we’d be shocked, but we haven’t played well.”
The loss to Arizona both followed and fought against form.
The Red Sox forged a 3-0 lead against D-backs starter Luke Weaver in the top of the second inning, an opportunistic rally in which starting pitcher David Price played a key role. After Xander Bogaerts walked and advanced to third on a Rafael Devers single, Eduardo Nunez delivered a run-scoring groundout to the right side on which Devers advanced to second.
Devers moved up 90 feet on Jackie Bradley Jr.’s long flyout to left-center, and with two outs, the Diamondbacks elected to walk Christian Vazquez intentionally to set up Weaver to face Price. Price did not suffer the slight lightly.
The pitcher whacked a first-pitch fastball for a single through the right side, the lefthander’s fourth career hit and first career RBI in 55 big league plate appearances, giving the Sox a 2-0 lead. Andrew Benintendi then continued his recent surge (2 for 3 with a double and walk on Saturday; 7 for 13 with two doubles, a triple, and a walk since his final at-bat on Wednesday), crushing a run-scoring, ground-rule double to left-center and staking Price to a 3-0 advantage.
As has often been the case this year, it didn’t last. Price gave back the lead with interest in the bottom of the second, the latest instance in which a Red Sox starter handled an advantage as if it was a wet bar of soap.
Price allowed four runs in the bottom of the second, as the vaunted Red Sox outfield once again struggled to make the plays that so routinely occurred last season. With a runner on first and one out, Eduardo Escobar ripped a liner to left-center. Benintendi attempted a diving catch — one that might have echoed the final play of ALCS Game 4 — but couldn’t corral the double that put runners on second and third.
Nick Ahmed then lofted a flyball to shallow right-center, a ball the Red Sox’ gifted outfield typically turns into a routine out. But Mookie Betts — who was playing deep to cover the gaps — couldn’t get to it, the ball hopping on the turf for a run.
“I take responsibility for that,” said Betts. “I have to come up with that somehow.”
But he didn’t — continuing an early string of seemingly routine flyballs that have found turf this year — and Kelly added to the second-inning carnage by clubbing a changuep to left for a game-tying, two-run double. After Weaver fanned for the second out of the inning, Adam Jones crushed a fastball — intended to be in on his hands, instead located up and over the outer third of the plate — off the fence in right for a long single and a 4-3 advantage. (Jones ran into the final out of the inning at second when Bogaerts tagged him as he came off the bag after his slide.)
Price bemoaned the one-inning lapse of command.
“I was trying to throw fastballs in, they were running back middle-away [and] away,” said Price.
The four-run second continued a pattern. Already, the Sox have given up at least four runs in an inning five times — often wiping out a lead that the offense had just taken.
“That’s probably the third or fourth time that we scored three and give it right back,” said Cora. “It’s not perfect right now, obviously.”
But in defiance of early-season trends, Price recovered from the bad inning with a precise four-pitch mix over the remainder of his six-inning, four-run effort in which he walked one, struck out four, and became the first Red Sox starter this year to emerge from an outing without allowing a homer. The lefthander kept Arizona in check long enough to permit the Red Sox to rally against the Diamondbacks bullpen.
Bradley led off the seventh inning with a walk against Yoshihisa Hirano, then scampered to third on a single by pinch-hitter J.D. Martinez. Benintendi worked a walk against lefty Andrew Chafin to load the bases, setting the stage for a game-tying sac fly by Betts against righthander Archie Bradley. But after Mitch Moreland walked as a pinch-hitter to reload the bases, Bogaerts grounded into a fielder’s choice, leaving the fate of the game to be decided in the ninth.
Cora chose Brewer based on how well the righthander has thrown to date, and how he thought the pitcher’s stuff matched up against the heart of Arizona’s order. The choice did not go as the manager hoped.
Escobar ripped a single down the right field line with one out. Though Mookie Betts hustled to the ball to hold him at first, the runner advanced into scoring position when Christian Vazquez could not cleanly handle a first-pitch fastball to Ahmed.
Ahmed nearly played the role of hero, singling to right, but Betts — the three-time Gold Glover — again foiled the Diamondbacks by cutting down Escobar at the plate. But that merely delayed the agony for the Sox of yet another loss, with Kelly ripping a 96 mph fastball to leave Boston trudging off the field.
“Everybody in here is frustrated. But we’ve been through a lot together, this group of guys, over the past two or three years,” said Price. “We’ll be OK and I think everybody in here understands that, just like we did last year when we won 108 games and 119 on the season and were World Series champions. We just need to get back home and our fans will remind us of how good we are.”
Or will they?
Though the answer seems obvious, given that the team will be celebrating last year’s championship on Tuesday, the occasion also will represent Fenway Park’s first opportunity to offer a referendum on the early-2019 Red Sox — a team whose talent is unquestioned but whose performance to date has been poor.
What is the proper greeting for such a group?
“Cheers, I hope,” said Price. “I don’t think anybody has ever gotten their World Series rings and gotten booed.”
The Red Sox can take a step to avoid such an inglorious first by salvaging a win on Sunday in the final contest of their Fort Myers-to-Mesa-to-Seattle-to-Oakland-to-Phoenix-to-Boston itinerary. As the team managed not to dwell on its successes while focusing on each day’s game in 2018, the 2019 club must now show that it can start to do the same after defeats.
“There’s no frustration. We’ll show up tomorrow,” vowed Cora. “Hopefully we’ll have a happy flight [after a win], go home, see the family on Monday, hang out with your kids, all of that, kind of put everything in perspective and move forward.”