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Sox hand Morton first loss to split in Houston

MLB.com @IanMBrowne

HOUSTON -- The Red Sox will next see the Astros in September, and maybe again in October. Until then, they've established some confidence against the defending World Series champions, particularly with Sunday night's impressive 9-3 victory.

A day after they outlasted Justin Verlander en route to a comeback win, the Sox belted Charlie Morton around for his first loss of the season and Rick Porcello stifled Houston's bats with a strong effort.

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HOUSTON -- The Red Sox will next see the Astros in September, and maybe again in October. Until then, they've established some confidence against the defending World Series champions, particularly with Sunday night's impressive 9-3 victory.

A day after they outlasted Justin Verlander en route to a comeback win, the Sox belted Charlie Morton around for his first loss of the season and Rick Porcello stifled Houston's bats with a strong effort.

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A four-game split felt pretty sweet to the visitors after losing the first two games and playing the entire series without their best player -- right fielder Mookie Betts, who landed on the disabled list Friday with an abdominal strain.

"Yeah, I think these last two games were big for us," said Porcello. "It's early June, but we dropped the first two games and felt like we needed to kind of punch back a little bit. We had a tough time with them last year, obviously, the last series [of the regular season] and going into the postseason. We definitely took a couple punches the last two games, so it was good."

Video: BOS@HOU: Benintendi skies a solo home run to right

The loudest punches, as Porcello called them, came off the bat of Mitch Moreland and Andrew Benintendi. The two left-handed hitters smashed towering homers against Morton (7-1, 2.84 ERA) to take a 3-1 lead through five. Moreland's two-run rocket to center in the first was his second mammoth homer of the series. Benintendi's solo shot in the fifth to the second deck in right landed close to the same spot as his go-ahead homer in Saturday's win.

Brock Holt (two-run triple) and Blake Swihart (RBI single) ended Morton's night in the sixth. Holt had two hits and three RBIs. Eduardo Nunez scored twice and had three hits. Sam Travis stepped up on short notice with a two-run single in his first at-bat of the season when he pinch-hit for J.D. Martinez (back spasms) in the ninth.

J.D. OK after early exit with back spasms

With Dustin Pedroia out, along with Betts, for the entire weekend and back on the DL, the Red Sox enjoyed having so many other players step up.

"That's kind of the mark of a team," said Porcello. "Play 162 games, no team is going to stay healthy the entire year. We all have to step up when we lose guys like Mookie and Pedey, and everyone did."

Video: BOS@HOU: Holt belts a 2-run triple to right-center

Porcello (8-2, 3.59 ERA) went 6 1/3 innings and held the Astros to five hits and three runs (two earned), walking two and striking out five. The righty moved into a tie with Corey Kluber and Luis Severino for the American League lead in wins.

"He did a good job with the fastball, I think it was two-seamers away, bringing it back to those hitters. Establishing in," said manager Alex Cora. "Back and forth. Looked like they didn't see the ball well off of him, and he did a good job. At the end, I think he lost his arm angle a little bit and lost his command, but he was outstanding for us."

The 41-19 Red Sox improved their lead over the Yankees to one game in the East, though New York (37-17) has a slightly higher winning percentage.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox departed Houston with a much better feeling than last October, when they were blown out in the first two games of the AL Division Series and were eliminated in four games.

"We know we're a little bit banged up, but guys stepped up, and the energy was great," said Cora. "We faced four of the best righties in the big leagues, and we did a good job with them. We know that team is going to be around, and they're going to be around in October, where we want to be, so we'll probably we have to go through them. So, it was a great series."

Video: BOS@HOU: Cora, Martinez scout Morton from dugout TV

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Porcello strikes out heart of order: With the Red Sox clinging to a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the third, the Astros put two on with nobody out and three dangerous hitters coming up in Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. Porcello impressively struck out all of them, getting Bregman and Altuve on two-seamers and Correa on a slider.

"Yeah, it was a big inning, obviously," said Porcello. "Had some pressure coming in with those guys in the lineup and got some big outs. That could have been a momentum shifter, so it was nice to shut them down with that."

Video: BOS@HOU: Porcello strikes out 5 over 6 1/3 innings

SOUND SMART
Boston's 41-19 start is the second-best in club history through 60 games, tying the 1912 and '78 team. Only the '46 pennant winners (43-17) were better.

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
In Friday's loss, Moreland smoked a solo homer off the batter's eye in center against Gerrit Cole, hitting it with an exit velocity of 106.1 mph and a projected distance of 434 feet, according to Statcast™. His homer on Sunday was even more impressive, leaving his bat at 107.3 mph and traveling a projected distance of 441 feet. That is an aggregate 875 feet on two homers, giving Moreland 10 for the season. Which tape-measure shot did he feel better about?

"That one tonight felt better. There was a guy on third so we scored two runs instead of one," Moreland said. "They both felt pretty good."

HE SAID IT
"Benny, what he's been able to do at the top of the lineup leading off for us, that's really picked up the slack for us. There's no replacing Mookie and what he brings to the table, but Benny's done a great job of getting on base and kind of getting stuff started for us. He's really, I think, found his groove and got back to doing what he does." -- Moreland, on Benintendi's recent tear

MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
The Astros rallied in the seventh to slim Boston's lead to 6-3. Matt Barnes came out of the bullpen to help Porcello escape the jam. After striking out Altuve looking for the second out of the inning, Barnes went to work on Correa. He hit a grounder to short that Xander Bogaerts fielded before diving to the bag to force Bregman, who was called out on a bang-bang play. Astros manager AJ Hinch issued a challenge, but the call was allowed to stand because there wasn't enough evidence to definitively determine whether Bregman touched the base before Bogaerts hit it with his glove.

Video: BOS@HOU: Bogaerts' diving out survives challenge

UP NEXT
Following their first off-day in two weeks, the Red Sox will host the Tigers on Tuesday night in the opener of a three-game series. Knuckleballer Steven Wright will make a spot start -- his first of the season. The Tigers counter with righty Artie Lewicki. First pitch is scheduled for 7:10 p.m. ET.

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.

Boston Red Sox, Andrew Benintendi, Brock Holt, Mitch Moreland, Rick Porcello