In the span of four pitches, Red Sox pitching coach Dana LeVangie went from elation to deflation.
On Wednesday night against the Rays, starter Rick Porcello endured an awful entry into the game, allowing five runs in the first two innings. But over the next 3⅔ innings, after a conversation in the dugout about his mechanics — his direction to the plate, and his aggressiveness — Porcello seemed to find something that had been missing for much of the year.
That seemed particularly evident in the sixth inning, when Porcello struck out two Rays looking at darting two-seam fastballs — with the finish in his delivery of a 90.6-mile-per-hour heater to Eric Sogard proving particularly promising, Porcello’s leg kicking out aggressively, his right arm pulling back almost as if yanking the cord of a lawnmower.
“That’s what we’re getting to, getting through, getting his hips through his release point, creating a better line, better direction, cleaner action to the corners of the plate or up in the zone,” said LeVangie.
The next fastball Porcello threw, however, did not look like that. He was tentative in his finish, shoulders almost sagging upon release of an 89.5-m.p.h. fastball that drifted into the bat path of Willy Adames and got launched for a homer, the final pitch of Porcello’s latest disappointing outing in an 8-5 loss to the Rays.
“I’m not going to lie. That one hurt me more than anything else that happened that game because of where I felt like we were going from the third inning on,” said LeVangie. “From the third inning on [Wednesday], I felt like he was closer to  than he was all year long . . . The flow of the delivery, the conviction on the mound, it’s him. That [fastball to Adames] hurt.”
Such is the life of a pitching coach on a team whose celebrated and well-compensated staff has failed to live up to its track record or expectations. The search for answers has been a season-long slippery bar of soap.
The Red Sox are on the outside of the current playoff field — 2½ games behind Tampa Bay for the second wild-card spot, 2 games behind Oakland — largely because an elite rotation helmed by one of the most dominant pitchers of the decade (Chris Sale) and two former Cy Young winners (David Price and Porcello) has been painfully inconsistent.
While the Sox added Andrew Cashner as a fifth starter just after the All-Star break, the team’s inactivity at the deadline came with a message: The team’s fate over the final months of the season depends not on external upgrades but instead on improvement of a group — particularly a pitching staff — that entered Thursday with a 4.70 ERA, the worst by the team through 109 games since 2005 (4.77).
In particular, the team needs Porcello (9-8, 5.74 ERA) to gain traction in what has been an endlessly frustrating year, while also steering Sale (5-10, 4.26) and Price (7-4, 3.86, 5 innings per start) toward greater consistency. The Sox insist that all three are healthy, and that there have been flashes of vintage editions of the trio. Yet there have been mechanical inconsistencies with all of them — particularly Sale and Porcello — that have turned promise on one pitch into despair on the next.
It is up to the team to turn the potential signified by their track records into steady performance that permits the sort of run that has been thus far elusive this year. As the pitching coach, LeVangie assumes considerable responsibility for that undertaking.
Last year — LeVangie’s first as pitching coach after five seasons as bullpen coach — nearly every tweak suggested by the team worked perfectly: Price overhauling his arsenal and position on the rubber in the middle of the season; Nathan Eovaldi changing his position on the rubber and locations of attack in September. This year, the efforts to find answers have been as far-reaching, but the answers have not come.
“Have we been quick enough to make those adjustments? Maybe not as quick as we did last year, but we’re constantly trying to make adjustments and trying to make those guys the best pitchers they can be,” said LeVangie. “It’s been hard, but it was hard for me last year, too. I feel like last year or this year, there’s not enough hours in the day to accomplish everything you want to accomplish.”
Yet the Red Sox must find those hours, and those fixes. LeVangie sees a number of broad factors having contributed to the team’s struggles — perhaps the toll of last year’s October run, perhaps some loss of arm strength for rotation mainstays who are now in their 30s, perhaps simply the frustrating art of pitching, which requires incredible mechanical precision that if derailed slightly can reduce mound dominance to dismay.
The Sox have experienced an uncomfortable amount of the latter, to the point where a postseason berth is an open question. The team looked like it lost ground at the trade deadline, given the upgrades made by Cleveland, Tampa Bay, and Oakland while the Red Sox stood still.
Yet LeVangie insists that the Red Sox can achieve enormous improvement in August and September simply by unlocking the full capabilities of the rotation — something that happened during last week’s 5-1 stretch against the Rays and Yankees.
It is up to LeVangie, the team’s staff, and the pitchers to identify the keys to do so. The fate of the season likely hangs in the balance of the success or failure of those efforts.
“[Sale, Price, and Porcello] are the leaders on our team, [the foundation of] the success of our team, and they know it. It hurts them [to struggle]. But we’re going to win because of them, too,” said LeVangie. “No stone goes unturned. The communication still is constant with those guys and with us. We’re not quitting on this. We’re in it. We’re in the fight.”