BALTIMORE — On paper, the Red Sox feature a rotation as recognizable as any in the majors. With two Cy Young winners in David Price and Rick Porcello, a pitcher who ranks among the best of his generation in Chris Sale, a postseason force-of-nature in Nathan Eovaldi, and a lefthander who appears to be coming into his own in Eduardo Rodriguez, they have a group that is capable of dominance.
Yet a 162-game season rarely follows all the details of a blueprint. The Red Sox are amidst a stretch in which they are not reliant solely on their stars, but instead on less-familiar depth options. The team turned its opening two games in Baltimore not to Eovaldi (on the injured list while recovering from surgery to remove bone chips) and Price (elbow tendinitis), but instead Josh Smith and Hector Velazquez.
“Obviously stuff-wise, they’re not David Price or Nate Eovaldi,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said before Monday’s game. “But they can get people out … and put us in a position where we can score runs and we’ll find a way to manage the game.”
On Monday, Smith, Heath Hembree, and Ryan Weber largely held up their end of the bargain. That trio allowed just four runs to the Orioles — on most recent nights, plenty for a Red Sox team that averaged 7.9 runs in its prior seven contests. But on Monday night, the lineup endured perhaps its most meager showing of the 2019 season.
“It’s going to happen,” shrugged Cora after a 4-1 loss. “Obviously we don’t like it. You’ve got to give credit sometimes to the opposition.”
Baltimore starter John Means (4-3, 2.48 ERA), an early-season revelation for the rebuilding Orioles, carved the Red Sox over seven innings. He employed a precisely located mix of 90-94 m.p.h. fastballs, changeups, and sliders to shut down a scorching lineup.
Means allowed just three hits and no walks, allowing just one runner to advance past first base. He struck out four and retired the final nine batters he faced, with his dominant effort followed by two hitless frames from the Baltimore bullpen.
The Red Sox — who’d put 27 and 18 runners on base in Chicago over the weekend — put on a season-low four, with one of those coming by way of an error. Christian Vazquez collected two of the Red Sox’ hits (a single and a double) while also scoring the lone run.
With the offense struggling, Red Sox pitchers had no margin for error. In the second inning, Smith — 1-1 with a 3.78 ERA for Triple-A Pawtucket before a callup to the big leagues on April 26 — erred.
Smith had thrown just one mop-up frame in the 15 days that preceded his start. And so, when he loaded the bases with no outs on two singles and a walk, the Orioles seemed poised to set in motion a carousel of baserunners.
For a tantalizing moment, Smith seemed ready to conjure Houdini with a 91 m.p.h. fastball that somehow disappeared on the Orioles. The pitch nearly allowed him to sneak away unscathed from peril, as elevated fastballs induced swinging strikeouts from Pedro Severino and Richie Martin, the bottom two hitters in Baltimore’s lineup. But when Smith tried to steal a strike with a first-pitch curveball to leadoff man Jonathan Villar, the illusion of escape dissolved.
“My first at-bat, I got him out with a fastball that was kind of up in the zone,” said Smith. “I thought, ‘Maybe pitch him a little bit different, curveball first pitch and go from there.’ Obviously, he was looking for it.”
Villar slammed the pitch at the bottom of the strike zone into the first row of the center-field bleachers for a grand slam — the first of the year for the Orioles, and the second of the middle infielder’s career.
Smith exited the game in the fourth, having allowed the four runs on five hits and two walks while striking out three. Still, most members of the Red Sox bullpen received nights off thanks to solid work from Hembree — who stranded a pair of runners in relief of Smith in the fourth — and, especially, Weber.
The 28-year-old, who found out on Sunday evening that he was getting Price’s roster spot and who arrived in Baltimore via an early-morning flight on Monday, delivered four scoreless innings, allowing three hits, walking none, and striking out four.
“I wanted to keep the pitch count low and just stay out there so I could save the bullpen,” said Weber. “I felt really good. Everything was working. Threw strikes, got ahead of everyone, and when I needed the strikeout, I was striking guys out.”
Just as Cora had hoped, Weber gave the Red Sox (17-19) a chance, but the offense could not capitalize. It was just the second Sox loss in their last 15 contests in Camden Yards, dating to 2017.