The series win was there for the taking in the ninth inning Sunday night, two walks around a sacrifice bunt getting things off to a potential walkoff start. But the Red Sox didn’t take it.
It was there for the taking again in the 11th, a leadoff double by Jackie Bradley Jr., the seemingly perfect continuation of Andrew Benintendi’s run-stopping throw to the plate to end the top of the inning. But the Red Sox didn’t take it.
The Red Sox never did take it Sunday night, when a win would have felt so wonderful, erasing the toll of a long night of baseball that started with an hourlong first inning and crossed the four-hour running time by the ninth.
Instead, they wasted dramatic back-to-back home runs to tie it in the eighth, wasted the parade of bullpen saviors taking turns throwing scoreless innings until the 12th.
So rather than using this World Series rematch with the Dodgers as a reminder of the team they were last year and perhaps a predictor of the one they can still be this season, the Red Sox head out of the weekend series with a 7-4, 12-inning loss, and head into a 21-game stretch against AL East foes still wondering when, if ever, they’ll find the groove that has eluded them all year.
What does remain clear after losing the series to the Dodgers is that their best hope for successfully navigating this roller coaster to even get a chance at defending their World Series title is on the backs of their starting pitching. It’s their most obvious area for improvement, targeting what was a perceived position of strength going all the way back to spring training but that has not met the expectation.
Sunday night was David Price’s turn to fall just short, his five innings not nearly enough to play stopper to his cohort Chris Sale’s meltdown Saturday night. In fact, Price managed to fulfill almost exactly what manager Alex Cora had tabbed in his pregame conversation as a problem with the staff all year.
While Cora’s comments came in response to a line of questioning about the struggling ace Sale, it fit Price’s night to a tee.
Price labored all night, eclipsing 20 pitches in each of his first two innings, putting him at 113 after the fifth and ending his night far too early for a manager’s liking.
Though Price managed to hang tough after a three-run first inning (all three were unearned due to an error, but counted nonetheless when A.J. Pollock sneaked a three-run homer inside the Pesky Pole), the Dodgers made him work for every out, just as it seems every opposing team has been able to do to every Sox starter at some point this year.
“That’s the goal for us, to find it and find that pitch and put people away,” Cora said. “I’ve been saying all along, there’s certain at-bats, they’re long at-bats, foul balls. Somebody on the opposition that put the 10-, 12-pitch at-bat and the pitch count goes up. That’s something we haven’t done this season, is [Cora snapped his fingers] just put guys away. The three-pitch ‘boom’ and let’s move to the next one. It’s been going on all season.”
That’s how it went for Sale Saturday, when the wrong end of an 11-2 game dropped his record to 3-9.
“You try to put everything in perspective and keep the emotions out of the whole equation and you’re like, ‘Are we that far off? Or are we just one pitch here and one pitch there for him to go six innings and one run,” Cora said.
The Red Sox better hope it’s the latter if they want back in the playoff picture.
No better place to start than with Sale, whose arsenal has been missing plenty this season, but who has held on to one consistent move: Falling on his own sword.
The lanky lefthander did it again Saturday night, when another poor pitching line thwarted whatever momentum the Red Sox might have gained in winning their first game out of the All-Star break against Los Angeles Friday night. Sale used his postgame interview as a study in self-flagellation. That Sale was willing to own up to his own awfulness is no surprise — he’s always been at the front of the line of accountability, a big reason his early departures are rarely booed.
But candor doesn’t win games. Good pitching does.
“It’s not fun,” he said. “I’m still working, still grinding. I’m not going to give up, but you know it’s tough going out there and being a liability for your team. I’m just not getting it done. I usually can go out there and find a way, navigate your way through a game. You’re going to hit some rough patches and things like that, and I’m usually able to get out of it. But for whatever reason, the cards aren’t falling my way, luck’s not going my way, and I’m not helping myself out either. So, I’ve got no other excuses.”
There are plenty of directions to look for reasons why the Red Sox have been so up and down – defending a title is extremely difficult to do in baseball, where the grind of one long season can easily bleed into the next, where the hangover of one championship run can easily dilute the focus as the next year’s road begins.
There are plenty of culprits, too, from hitters who haven’t kept pace with last year’s production to a bullpen that has been both overworked and underwhelming. But everyone knows where the repair work starts.
“Everything starts with the rotation, we know that,” Cora said, hopeful the weekend trade for Orioles starter Andrew Cashner will give it a boost. “Pitching-wise, we get rolling and then we stop. We’ve been talking about it from day one, that our rotation is the key for what we’re trying to accomplish. And they know it. It’s just something we need to do a better job. We’ve been inconsistent.”
Sale, to his credit, wasn’t looking to lay blame on anyone but himself. Those self-inflicted bruises have been his shield to many critics.
But the Sox don’t need confessions. They need better pitching. From everyone.