LONDON — Major League Baseball successfully planted its flag in unfamiliar ground and gained new fans, but this was a lost weekend in London for the Red Sox. They came, they saw, they lost ground.
It was baseball for breakfast (or brunch) back in Boston on Sunday with a 3:10 p.m. BST (British Summer Time) start here in London. When it was over, this one left a bad taste in your mouth, like British cuisine.
The Sox did a better job being baseball emissaries than winning baseball games. They helped MLB expand its footprint while they expanded their divisional deficit. They were outhit and outclassed by the New York Yankees, losing both games of MLB’s inaugural London Series to plunge 11 games behind the Pinstripes in the American League East standings. Ugh.
Different side of the pond, same story. The Boston bullpen immolated in the seventh Sunday, blowing a 4-2 lead, as the Yankees unspooled a nine-run inning to sink the Sox, 12-8, a UK TKO.
The Red Sox really couldn’t afford to leave London empty-handed. They needed to be the victors in at least one game of this ballyhooed derby, to borrow a British football term.
Animated Sox manager Alex Cora called the weekend “eye-opening” and conceded that the Yankees are in a different class at the moment.
“Right now, they’re a lot better than us, so we need to get better,” said Cora, who seemed annoyed with his club’s lack of traction.
The weekend was summed up perfectly by Cora.
“Besides what happened on the field, it was outstanding,” said the Sox skipper. “I think it was great for baseball. The atmosphere was amazing. I played in different venues, international venues, and some great ones . . . What we witnessed here was great. The atmosphere, the passion. It was fun. I hope it happens more than twice.”
Yes, the Red Sox made history these two days in London. Baseball thanks them for spreading the gospel of baseball. Coming here was an important initiative supported by Red Sox ownership. As commissioner Rob Manfred admitted, in many ways the Red Sox and Yankees were ahead of MLB in pushing for this European expansion double play. It’s good business. But it’s worth pointing out that the Patriots have come to London to play twice. They’ve won twice and never sacrificed a home game against a division rival.
The Red Sox have now defeated the Yankees just once this year in seven tries, none at Fenway Park. One of the many peculiarities of playing this series in London with the Sox as the “home” team is that the Yankees won’t play at Fenway this season until after the All-Star break, a four-game series from July 25-28. The division might be out of reach for the Sox by then.
The third-place Sox needed to return back to North America with more than baseball pioneer participation ribbons. These were important games beyond the British backdrop. They’ll still probably backdoor their way into the wild-card game, given the state of the AL. But that’s an unwelcome proposition for a team with baseball’s highest payroll.
Cora indicated Saturday that he hoped the team would take off in London. Instead, the Sox crashed and burned in Great Britain. We’re 84 games into the season, and the Red Sox are four games above .500, confronting the same issues game to game. The 2018 magical carpet ride is clearly in the rearview mirror.
After the outpouring of offense on Saturday in the first MLB game in Europe, which saw the teams combine for 30 runs — the second-most in the storied history of the rivalry — the Red Sox picked up where that game left off. Xander Bogaerts (two-run shot) and J.D. Martinez went clubbing, sending back-to-back homers into the London Stadium seats. Then after a one-batter break, Christian Vazquez continued the home run barrage against Yankees starter Stephen Tarpley with a shot to right field.
After being forced to use eight pitchers in Saturday’s glorified slow-pitch softball slugfest in which the teams combined to use 16 hurlers, the most in any MLB game this season, Sox needed some length from starter Eduardo Rodriguez. He navigated a dicey, 37-pitch second inning to survive into the sixth with a 4-2 lead Sunday. The lefthander threw 115 pitches in 5⅓ innings. It was his 11th consecutive start of five innings or more.
Unfortunately, the Red Sox’ bullpen couldn’t bring it home. Boston’s lead was erased in the seventh with a disastrous nine-run inning that saw the Yankees send 14 guys to the plate and three Red Sox relievers falter, from Marcus Walden to Matt Barnes to Josh Taylor. It was the bullpen equivalent of Tinker to Evers to no chance.
A two-run single by Gary Sanchez made it 5-4 New York before a single out was recorded, securing Boston’s AL-worst 17th blown save this year. By the time Taylor served up a bases-loaded ground-rule double to DJ LeMahieu it was 9-4. The Yanks tacked on two runs on a sacrifice fly and a booted ground ball by Sox first baseman Michael Chavis, who got his cardio in all weekend chasing fouls balls in the capacious foul territory of the converted soccer stadium.
The damage was done, and so were the Sox in London. The Red Sox rallied with four runs in the eighth and, trailing 12-8, brought the tying run to the plate. It was window dressing.
“Last year, we were putting teams away. This year, we’re not doing that,” said Cora. “We didn’t make pitches in the seventh and eighth inning, and we paid the price. When you have teams like that down, 4-0, in the first you got to keep going. You can’t stop. It’s not lack of effort, but I think it’s lack of execution. It’s disappointing. I know where we’re at right now. We got a long ways to go. We have a long ways to go . . . We got Toronto and Detroit before the All-Star break, so we need to play better.”
You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the Sox need more help in the ’pen. This is a case that Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski needs to solve, and he can’t wait until the July 31 trade deadline. This London calling should’ve been a wake-up call to action. Poor Cora is playing reliever roulette and hoping for the best.
Nothing demoralizes and destabilizes a team faster than instability at the back end of a bullpen. After scoring 21 runs in two days and recording zero victories Sox, hitters had a right to feel some frustration.
“I think we put up two of the best games that we had offensive-wise this year, especially back-to-back, and to not win I think that’s really, really rough,” said Bogaerts. “I think if you ask anyone if you put up double-digits or close to double-digit numbers in back-to-back games you should probably win at least one.
Red Sox pitchers left the London series with an earned run average of 14.00 for the series. Now, they head to Toronto, the next stop on this 12-day, 7,676-mile odyssey, with a bullpen in tatters.
This was a worthwhile trip for the Sox to make, but they didn’t make it worth their while.