MINNEAPOLIS — As impressive as the Red Sox had looked during their recent five-game winning streak, an asterisk remained. Three of those wins came against a dreadful Orioles team and two came against a Texas club that, like the Sox, has endured its own inconsistencies.
No qualifications were necessary to assess the way the Twins had played entering Monday’s contest against the Red Sox. Minnesota owned the best winning percentage in the majors, with an elite offense that had averaged nearly six runs a night and that had blasted 137 homers overall — most in the majors — while going deep in all 14 of its games in June. It’s possible to win with faulty execution against hapless Baltimore; the same could not be said of Minnesota.
Still, the Sox felt emboldened, and welcomed the chance to prove that their recent improvement is no mirage.
“I just feel like if we play the baseball we know we’re capable of playing, it shouldn’t matter the opponent,” said Rick Porcello. “We should be fine against anyone.”
Thanks largely to Porcello, the Red Sox offered an impressive proof of the notion on Monday night, claiming a 2-0 victory at Target Field that was one of the most impressive of the year for Boston. Porcello and unheralded bullpen contributors Colten Brewer and Ryan Brasier combined to blank the Twins – just the second shutout against Minnesota this year – while adding to the growing evidence that the Sox may be ready to move beyond the inconsistency that plagued the first 2½ months of their title defense.
Porcello was little short of brilliant, on a night when he had to be. Though the Sox assembled a run in the first with three straight hits against curveballs to open the game against Twins starter Jose Berrios (with J.D. Martinez delivering a run-scoring knock), the Minnesota ace allowed no further harm over eight innings in which he struck out 10 and walked none. Berrios (8-3, 2.86 ERA) featured overpowering stuff, seemingly getting swings and misses at will against the Sox with his fastball, curveball, and changeup.
Porcello could not match the arsenal of Berrios, yet he surpassed him in artistry. Armed for most of the night with pinpoint accuracy of his four-seam fastball, which he complemented with a slider, a slow curve that had the Twins chasing pitches in the dirt, and a two-seamer to keep the Twins from locking into a specific elevation of the strike zone, Porcello (5-6, 4.31) was masterful over seven shutout frames in which he allowed four hits, walked one, and struck out eight.
“It’s what I have to do,” Porcello said of his ability to dance at the edges of the strike zone and to implement game plans to exploit opponents’ weaknesses. “I don’t throw 98. I don’t throw that wipeout slider that’s almost automatic sometimes for guys . . . We’ve got to be able to execute pitches and hit corners and change speeds and be precise because I’m not featuring overpowering stuff.”
After Porcello missed a spot in the first on a booming double by Nelson Cruz, he recovered to retire 10 straight batters, at one point striking out five straight Twins in the second and third innings. He allowed just two runners to advance as far as second base all night.
Still, Porcello’s precision was not enough to guarantee victory. With Berrios keeping the game at a 1-0 count, Red Sox manager Alex Cora turned to an overworked, shorthanded bullpen to safely steer the advantage across the finish line. Matt Barnes, Brandon Workman, and Marcus Walden were all unavailable — yet Cora remained convinced he had viable options.
“There were a lot of guys [unavailable], a lot of red on my card,” Cora said. “People think it’s short. I think it’s just limited.”
With the three primary high-leverage options unavailable, Cora called for Brewer for the eighth. The proposition immediately became dicey when the righthander allowed the first two batters to reach on a walk and single.
But Brewer wriggled free of the menace, recording the first out on a sacrifice bunt that put runners on second and third with one out, and then getting Cruz to tap a comebacker to the mound. Brewer fielded the ball and threw home when the lead runner, Jonathan Schoop, broke for home, resulting in a brief rundown that resulted in Schoop’s deletion from the bases for the second out. Cleanup man Eddie Rosario then grounded to first to end the Twins’ best threat of the night.
Their lead intact, the Red Sox regained some oxygen in the ninth by delivering another run on doubles by Martinez and, with two outs, Xander Bogaerts. Brasier, who returned to the Sox from bereavement leave on Monday, then came on for a scoreless ninth to record his first save since April 21.
Thus, the Sox extended their season-long winning streak to six games, a stretch during which the list of notable contributors continued to grow longer. Yet while the Sox continue their upward trajectory – and have now won eight straight on the road – they refuse to be complacent as they push their way back up in the standings.
“We still need to get better,” said Cora. “It’s been good for six days now, we’re making some strides, but we’re not where we want to be yet.”