There have been more than a few frustrating moments for the 2019 Red Sox in what was supposed to be a compelling sequel to last year’s World Series-winning blockbuster but has instead become a sad wheeze toward a September of irrelevance.
There have been aggravations in abundance, lousy plot twists that seemed shocking at first but eventually became the expected, exasperations from the underperforming starting rotation to the undermanned bullpen to a star-studded lineup that struggles to get the big hit in the moment.
But the most bewildering scene, and perhaps the most inexplicable decision that led to the most predictable outcome?
It’s going to be tough to top one from the eighth inning Wednesday night in the Phillies’ 5-2 victory over the Red Sox at Fenway Park.
With the Red Sox trailing, 4-2, in what was essentially a must-win, they had an opportunity brewing against lefthanded Phillies reliever Jose Alvarez with two outs. Sam Travis, who had reached on a fielder’s choice, was on third. Christian Vazquez, who had doubled, stood on second.
And Marco Hernandez, a lefthanded hitter but one with a .325 batting average coming into the night, was due to hit.
He didn’t get the chance. Neither did Brock Holt, who was available on the bench.
Instead, manager Alex Cora turned to righthanded-hitting Chris Owings. The same Chris Owings who has hit .129 in 148 at-bats between Kansas City and Boston this season. The same Chris Owings who had struck out in 30 of 55 plate appearances against lefties this season. The same Chris Owings who owns the highest strikeout rate against lefthanded pitching in MLB history, minimum of 50 at-bats.
What happened? He made it 31 of 56, of course. The Sox fell back below .500 at Fenway (33-34). And they fell seven games back of the Rays for the second wild-card slot with 34 games to go.
It wasn’t Don Zimmer hitting Bob Bailey against Rich Gossage in ’78. It wasn’t Grady Little doing all sorts of Grady Little things in ’03. But it was a puzzling decision the moment it was made, and Cora’s explanation didn’t make it any better.
“We felt that was a good matchup for us,’’ he said. “[Alvarez] is a fastball-changeup guy, down in the zone. He has struggled with fastballs up in the zone. We felt the matchup was good.
“[Owings] got some changeups, he swung and missed. We were very patient today waiting for the perfect matchup for us to hit for Marco. We felt like there, second and third with two outs, it was a good one. It just didn’t happen.”
Cora was asked if he second-guessed the decision after the outcome.
“With me?’’ he said. “Like, as far as second-guessing myself? No. You prepare yourself before the series. You feel like there are certain matchups that we’re going to take advantage of, there are certain matchups we’re going to stay away from, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
The Red Sox came into this series riding a five-game winning streak and at least some hope that with the Padres and Angels ahead on the schedule, this could be the elusive prolonged winning streak Cora’s enigmatic team has been waiting in vain for all season.
But the Phillies, who showed up in Boston having lost two in row, thwarted that momentum with the two-game sweep. The Red Sox are now 23-37 against teams with winning records.
It started well enough. Starter Rick Porcello, whose frustrating season has often embodied the challenges of the team as a whole, entered with a 5.49 ERA. But that was actually lower than that of Phillies starter Drew Smyly (7.09) and he provided reason for cautious optimism early, pitching four scoreless innings.
But Bryce Harper hammered a flat slider for a two-run homer, his 27th of the season, in a three-run fifth inning, helping the Phillies overcome a 2-0 Red Sox advantage.
“It was supposed to be a back-door [slider], like we got him out on on the first at-bat,’’ said Porcello, who dropped to 11-10 with a 5.49 ERA. “It was a little bit lower than we’d have liked to throw it. But we had him in a favorable [1 and 2] count. We could have wasted a couple of pitches, done some different things, see if he chased. But we did that, and he got it.”
Porcello was gone after the fifth, having thrown 100 pitches. The Phillies would add single runs in the seventh and ninth, with all potential Sox rallies — including the inexplicable wielding of Owings – falling short.
The Red Sox scored two batters into the game, on back-to-back doubles by Mookie Betts and Rafael Devers, his MLB-best 47th. Jackie Bradley Jr. made it 2-0 in the second for his 16th homer and fourth in seven games.
The Phillies got their first run in the fifth when Cesar Hernandez scored after moving to third on a Vazquez passed ball and scoring when his throw eluded Devers at third. Two batters later, Harper gave the Phillies the lead for good, and the Red Sox were again left lamenting another one that got away.
“It’s a tough one to swallow,’’ said Cora, “knowing where we’re at.”
Except this time, a manager’s decision was as much of a culprit as just about anything that happened on the field.