BOSTON -- When the madness had ended, and the Red Sox had suffered a crushing 11-10 loss to the Rays in 10 innings in a Labor Day matinee at Fenway Park, the expression on Alex Verdugo’s face said it all.
As his teammates went to the clubhouse, Verdugo sat on the bench by himself with a look of disgust.
It was a tough day on defense for Verdugo, who just missed a leaping attempt on a drive to the wall in center by Austin Meadows that turned into a game-tying inside-the-park homer in the top of the ninth inning of a game the Red Sox led, 7-1, after three innings with Chris Sale on the mound.
And part of the reason that lead was whittled away so much was because Verdugo was blinded by the sun on a fly ball by Nelson Cruz that could have been the final out of the top of the fourth inning.
But the ball ticked off Verdugo’s glove for a three-base error that was made worse when second baseman Taylor Motter’s throw to third went out of play, allowing the Rays to score four unearned runs against Sale on one play.
“Sun ball obviously hurt us a lot,” said Red Sox right fielder Hunter Renfroe. “I’ve told y'all before, the big ball of fire in the sky is undefeated. You can’t fight it and win. It happened to Dougie there. If he would’ve hit the ball to right field between the sixth and 10th inning, both right fielders couldn’t see anything, me included. That’s a tough one to lose there. Four runs. Obviously, it sucks that it happened, but you get over it, keep going.”
While Verdugo was clearly in the spotlight in this loss, it would be unfair to scapegoat him.
The Red Sox didn’t play close to a clean game defensively, making four errors. There were also plays in which they were slow to back up and others where they threw to the wrong base, help that the Red Sox couldn’t afford to give to a Rays squad that had 19 hits.
“It was a great, bad game -- all the way to the last hitter,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “It wasn't great as far as throwing to the bases, backing up guys, putting guys away. It was great that we had a chance to tie the game or win it at the end, but at the same time, we can't give a big league team more than 27 outs, and we did.”
In particular, you can’t give the Rays more than 27 outs. Not only are they 87-51 and in possession of the best record in the American League, but they lead MLB with 43 comeback wins.
“This is sports. Stuff like this is gonna happen,” said Sale. “Days like this hurt. There's no getting around it. You know, it's a gut punch. We lost a game we should have won – easily, honestly. I mean, we had a 7-1 lead. We’ve got to have that one.”
On the inside-the-parker, it was telling of Boston’s subpar defense that shortstop José Iglesias -- in his first day back with the Red Sox -- was the one who had to run all the way to center field to retrieve it.
“The corner outfielders, they have got to go there,” said Cora. “Iggy went out there because of his instincts. But balls to center field, everybody has to crash there, and they didn't.”
Instead, by losing a second straight game, the Sox remained a half-game behind the Yankees while leading the Mariners (75-62) by 2 1/2 games, the Blue Jays (74-62) by three games and the A’s (74-63) by 3 1/2 for the second spot.
While the Red Sox deserve credit for the way they’ve hung in there despite a COVID-19 outbreak that put 11 players on the injured list in a span of 10 days, there is also this truth: They will need to play cleaner baseball to get to the postseason.
That includes better execution on defense and an improvement with situational hitting.
“I think we have been inconsistent the whole season,” Cora said of the team’s defense. “We know that. When we're catching the ball, we win games. When we're inconsistent, it's tough. It's for the reason I just told you. It doesn't matter who you are. The Rays, or whoever is in last place. At the big league level, 27 outs are 27 outs. We have to value those. But if you give the opposition more than that, they are going to make you pay. The whole day today, they made us pay.”
Even after the inside-the-park homer, the Sox had a golden opportunity to win the game in the bottom of the ninth, putting runners on first and second with nobody out. But Christian Vázquez didn’t get a sacrifice bunt down, instead popping out. And then Jonathan Araúz hit into a double play to send the game to extras.
This was the first time the Red Sox have lost in the five starts Sale has made in his return from the injured list.
It was a strange day for Sale, who allowed 10 hits and five runs (just one earned) over 4 2/3 innings and 86 pitches. If not for the four-run sun play, Sale would have been back out for the fifth inning at 75 pitches and still ahead by at least a score of 7-1.
“Tough pill to swallow at the end of the day, honestly,” Sale said. “Bounces didn’t go our way, we got a little unlucky, we obviously didn’t help ourselves a lot. But in the end, against a team like that, we still gave ourselves a chance to win that game. We should have pulled through. Obviously, an ugly, ugly loss and in the grand scheme of things, and we want to get back on track tomorrow.”