MINNEAPOLIS — Late Tuesday afternoon, with a bit less than two hours before the start of his team’s game against the Twins, Alex Cora smiled at the thought of the big picture. The 2019 Red Sox season, the manager suggested, finally had assumed a different direction.
Six straight wins claimed in a variety of forms suggested that his team had captured “the vibe” of its championship predecessor. For 2½ months, the Red Sox had been searching aimlessly through a desert; finally, they had found a well.
Eight hours later, a reassessment was in order. A fatigued Cora looked up at a clock that read 1:15 in the morning (Central time). His team had just endured a 4-3 loss to the Twins, yet the scale exceeded that of a typical defeat.
The Red Sox’ walkoff loss, sealed when Twins outfielder Max Kepler rifled a bases-loaded single down the right-field line against Brian Johnson with one out in the bottom of the 17th inning, featured:
■ 17 innings, making it the longest game in the history of Target Field
■ 18 pitchers (9 on each side)
■ 487 pitches (259 by the Red Sox, 228 by the Twins)
■ 74 swings-and-misses (36 by Red Sox hitters, 38 by Twins lineup members)
■ 137 plate appearances (68 by the Red Sox, 69 by the Twins)
■ 100 outs (51 recorded by the Twins, 49 by the Sox)
■ 32 hits (17 by the Sox, 15 by the Twins)
■ 33 strikeouts (17 by Red Sox hitters, 16 by the Twins)
It was not so much a game as a prism capable of bending meaning in any number of directions.
It should come as little surprise that Cora, ever the optimist, emerged encouraged by where his team stood. It was a relentless performance by the bullpen, which allowed just three runs over 11⅓ innings while striking out 14. That, along with the sustained pressure the Sox lineup put on the Twins pitching staff — albeit with repeated failures to capitalize (1 for 13 with runners in scoring position) — suggested to the manager that the recent sense of promise had not been lost.
“The other way around, actually. We’ve been in this situation before – extra-inning games, take something positive out of this,” said Cora, alluding opaquely to his team’s 18-inning loss in Game 3 of last year’s World Series, which was followed by two straight wins and a title. “We’ll build from this. I know that for a fact.”
Of course, there were signs that such sentiments might be misplaced. Even though there were clear positives for the Sox — most dramatically, a pitching staff that limited the explosive Twins to four runs in the first 26 innings of the series — there were concerns as well.
The game’s course was set by an eyebrow-raising decision by Cora: the removal of starter David Price after five effective innings in which he allowed one run on just 73 pitches. The decision was sufficiently puzzling that the Red Sox had to clarify in-game that it wasn’t prompted by an injury. So why the quick hook in a 1-1 game?
“Today was one of those we felt like I was going to take care of him,” said Cora. “He threw the ball well, but as you guys know, he’s a guy we really need to take care of. With him going on the [injured list in May with elbow tendinitis] and the short starts and all that stuff, we have to make sure he’s OK.”
Price, who had lasted just four outs in his previous outing, seemed downtrodden by once again setting in motion an exhausting night for his relievers.
“I’m feeling all right,” a subdued Price said after what he called a “collective” decision for his early exit. “I wanted to be able to give us more. That’s what every other starter’s been able to do. That was tough today.”
Price said he expects to make his next start, but as effective as he’s been this year, the careful management of his workload raises questions about his durability. Still, the lefty allowed just one run, and that came on a pair of hits against good changeups with two outs in the fourth. Ordinarily, such a performance would have created a strong likelihood of success.
Yet the Sox lineup proved strikingly feeble against the Twins. Price’s counterpart, Michael Pineda, allowed just one run (a fourth-inning RBI single by Rafael Devers) in six innings, a 1-1 tie carrying into the middle innings.
The game remained tied, but barely, in the bottom of the sixth with Red Sox rookie Mike Shawaryn on the hill. Shawaryn allowed a leadoff double to Mitch Garver, who advanced to third on a Nelson Cruz single.
But on a 1-and-1 pitch to Eddie Rosario, Vazquez fired a snap throw to third, where he caught Garver so unaware that the Twins catcher didn’t even think to slide. The first out of the inning proved huge, giving Shawaryn wiggle room in an inning where he loaded the bases before punching out Miguel Sano on a slider that kept the 1-1 knot intact.
With Pineda out of the game, Devers wasted little time untying the contest against reliever Ryne Harper. The third baseman launched a curveball into the bleachers down the right-field line for a solo homer, the 12th of the year for the 22-year-old.
Glimmering defense again kept the Twins at bay in the seventh, when Jorge Polanco blasted a ball to the fence in center with two outs off Ryan Brasier. Jackie Bradley Jr. tracked the ball to the track and timed his leap against the padding of the wall to corral the drive at the fence and avoid a jarring collision that would risk injury or the loss of the ball.
“Figured if I’m going to go that far, I might as well go after it,” Bradley said. “Tried to get my little inner Bo Jackson in and kind of hang on the wall a little bit.”
Still, the sixth and seventh innings suggested a relief corps that was teetering, and in the eighth, it slipped off the beam. Brandon Workman, who has managed to dance around free passes for much of the year, was victimized by a pair of walks, with Kepler ripping a first-pitch fastball to right to deliver the tying run — the Sox’ 13th blown save of the year.
The Red Sox put the leadoff batter on base in nine innings, but capitalized just three times — once when Devers delivered his two-out hit in the fourth, and twice more when that leadoff hit was a solo homer, first when Devers gave the Sox a 2-1 lead in the seventh, and again when Mookie Betts lined his 12th homer of the year off the foul pole in left to put the Sox ahead, 3-2, in the 13th.
Yet as Workman blew his save opportunity in the eighth, Hector Velazquez did the same in grooving a pitch to Max Kepler for an astronomical solo homer to right in the bottom of the 13th. Symmetrical relief performances kept the game tied from the ninth through 16th innings.
For the Red Sox, the extra innings featured painful offensive futility. J.D. Martinez, in particular, seemed to explore about eight levels of an inferno, going 0 for 8 while matching a career high with five strikeouts, the last a particularly costly whiff with a runner on third and no outs in the 17th.
Twice Vazquez had a chance to give the Sox a lead with a runner on third and fewer than two outs; both times, he popped up to the right side.
Though Velazquez gave up the homer to Kepler, he was otherwise sharp over four innings, despite feeling discomfort in his lower back – the same area where soreness had resulted in an injured list stint for the first half of the month. But the condition forced him from the game as he started warming for the 17th, thus bringing in Johnson, just two days removed from a three-inning start in Baltimore.
The end came swiftly, particularly in comparison to all that preceded it. A one-out single by Luis Arraez preceded a Rosario double down the right-field line to put runners on second and third. After an intentional walk, Kepler ripped a 1-and-0 curveball down the line, securing the Twins’ first walkoff of the year.
And so, the Sox will face a test of whether a hard-fought loss represented a derailment of their best run of the season or the sort of character builder that will continue to propel them forward.
“We’ll find out tomorrow,” said Cora. “We’ll bounce back and finish this road trip in a positive way.”