BOSTON -- Even as they close in on a playoff berth and 100 wins with more than three weeks left in the season, the Red Sox still have one significant issue, and it reared its head again on Friday night.
The bullpen can't seem to solidify itself, and that's why the Sox squandered a tremendous effort from David Price and fell to the defending World Series champion Astros, 6-3, in the opener of a three-game series between teams that met in the playoffs last year and might again next month.
Is manager Alex Cora confident that he has the combination of relievers who can get the job done when it counts most?
"Yeah, I do. Stuff-wise, we still are throwing very hard and are able to spin the ball," said Cora. "Tonight we didn't execute certain pitches."
Over 6 1/3 innings, Price allowed two hits, two runs (both scored after he departed) and struck out 10. When he walked back to the dugout to a standing ovation, the Red Sox still led, 2-0. Within minutes the Astros had taken the lead.
Price deserved better, having allowed one hit and no runs over the first six innings. Heading into the seventh, he had retired 14 straight. The momentum started to change when Alex Bregman scorched a double down the line that whistled by third baseman Eduardo Nunez. With one out, Price walked Tyler White, and Cora made the switch to Ryan Brasier.
Things went bad from the start, as Yuli Gurriel smashed his first pitch off the Green Monster for a double, and Bregman scored to make it a 2-1 game. With two outs, pinch-hitter Tony Kemp roped one into the corner in left for a two-run double that gave the Astros the lead.
Price would have liked a chance to escape from his own jam but had no problem with Cora's decision.
"I'm never going to take myself out of a game," Price said. "But I've been in that situation quite a few times earlier this year, and I didn't get the job done. So I'm sure AC and the rest of our coaches are thinking about that, and the way Brasier's throwing the baseball for us this entire year since he's been here has been exceptional. So if I don't want to come out in that situation, [then] don't have everybody on base and just go out there and pitch better in that situation."
It was a rare mishap for Brasier, who had been Boston's most reliable setup man the last several weeks.
"Velo is something that bothers Yuli a little bit," said Cora, who was Houston's bench coach last season. "That pitch was supposed to be up and in, and he was able to get his hands in, and it was over the plate and he put a good swing on it."
As for the heater that Kemp smashed, Cora thinks the selection could have been better, especially with first base open.
"In that spot, it's kind of like, you go for the [putaway] pitch. Either it's a strikeout or a walk," Cora said.
Even after the Red Sox continued their recent trend of rebounding on J.D. Martinez's game-tying single in the bottom of the seventh, Joe Kelly gave all the momentum right back with a trouble-filled eighth in which the Astros scored three more runs on four hits and a wild pitch.
"I didn't have ground balls [hit] at people," Kelly said. "I got three singles in a row. An inch or two away from going one-two to the first guys who got two ground-ball singles. That's what happened there."
It was the type of tension-filled game the Red Sox and Astros are likely to duplicate should they meet in October. Boston just hopes for a different result.
"These are the reigning World Series champions and they're winning their division right now, and they're a very good team and they added a lot of key pieces in the offseason after they won the World Series," said Price. "So I think in September, whenever you're playing a team like that, it's always a good measuring stick."
At 97-45, the Red Sox have an 8 1/2-game lead in the American League East. Boston's magic number to clinch a playoff berth is four.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Bogaerts belts No. 20: Overshadowed by Mookie Betts and Martinez, shortstop Xander Bogaerts is having a strong season in his own right. Bogaerts mashed his 20th homer of the season, a majestic shot off the back wall of the bleachers in center in the fourth. The homer left his bat with an exit velocity of 109 mph and traveled a projected distance of 432 feet. With 20 games left in the season, Bogaerts has a strong chance to break his previous high of home runs, which was 21 in 2016.
Though the bullpen has hardly been perfect, the Red Sox are 77-5 when they lead after six innings.
FROM THE TRAINER'S ROOM
Wondering why Cora didn't go to setup man Matt Barnes? It turns out the righty has been dealing with inflammation in his left hip the last 10 days or so. Barnes underwent an MRI on Thursday's off-day, and the Red Sox have decided he won't pitch for a few days.
HE SAID IT
"It's always a playoff atmosphere here with the fans. Obviously, they won last year, and there's a football game on Sunday [Texans at Patriots], so there's probably more fans today than usual. But it was good." -- Cora, on the always-passionate Red Sox fans being joined by a considerable contingent of spectators who traveled from Houston to attend Friday's game
Home-plate umpire Brian O'Nora had to exit the game just prior to the bottom of the second inning after getting drilled on the mask by a foul ball from Josh Reddick in the top of the inning. O'Nora was escorted off the field by Red Sox trainer Brad Pearson. There was a 13-minute delay while James Hoye, who started the game as the first-base umpire, changed his equipment and replaced O'Nora.
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
In the top of the seventh inning, Boston challenged a safe call at second base on a Gurriel double that saw him come off the bag momentarily on his slide. Following a review of one minute and 30 seconds, the call on the field was confirmed.
Left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, who was magnificent in his first start back from the disabled list, will try to keep the momentum going on Saturday. Facing the White Sox last time out, Rodriguez had 12 strikeouts while allowing just three hits in 5 2/3 innings. The Astros counter with righty Charlie Morton, who is making his return from the DL. First pitch is scheduled for 4:05 p.m. ET.