To have a realistic shot of a series-sweeping victory on Sunday afternoon at Progressive Field, the Red Sox were going to need six innings or more from Tanner Houck or an explosion from the offense.
They got neither in a 7-5 loss that put them eight games back in the American League East heading into a four-game series at Tropicana Field that starts on Monday.
Houck started fast with 5 1/3 no-hit innings, but hit a wall in the sixth. Manager Alex Cora had been open about the fact that his bullpen was depleted coming into this game, and that several members of the high-leverage crew were going to be rested.
This was why it hurt when Houck (0-3, 3.98 ERA in nine starts) couldn’t turn in his first six-inning performance of the season.
“Today was going to be a tough one as far as the bullpen, trying to survive in a sense. That’s why we were so aggressive yesterday with a few guys, and we ended up pulling that off,” said Cora. “But today, it had to be perfect, and it wasn’t.”
The offense produced in spurts (two solo homers from Rafael Devers, one from Bobby Dalbec), but never scored more than once in an inning.
Staked to a 4-0 lead, Houck hoped to get the Sox through the sixth. But the righty’s early fortunes quickly turned into misfortunes. He gave up a homer to José Ramírez and then hit two straight batters.
Ramírez is a star, so Houck was able to shake off that misfire. What bothered him most was hitting Franmil Reyes and Bradley Zimmer back-to-back on 0-2 pitches.
“It’s just a matter of learning from it and going back and looking at some video, and just continuing to move on,” Houck said.
Lefty Josh Taylor tried to rescue Houck and got off to a good start by inducing a groundout from Bobby Bradley for the second out of the inning. But Wilson Ramos then came up with a two-run single, and it was suddenly a one-run game.
“We had Wilson in an 0-2 count and didn’t execute a pitch, and they got back in the game,” Cora said.
Even when Devers blasted his second homer of the game -- No. 32 of the season -- in the seventh to make it a 5-3 game, it proved not to be enough.
The loss of the lead wasn’t entirely on the bullpen. There was a fly ball to deep left by Ramírez in the seventh that Kyle Schwarber probably should have caught. Instead, it landed on the warning track for an RBI double.
“Not a bad jump,” Cora said. “I think he hesitated at the end with the wall. I’ve got to see it again, but that’s the way it looked on the replay up there.”
In the eighth, with the game tied, Yu Chang hit a double down the line in left, and the Red Sox thought they had cut down Oscar Mercado at the plate. But Sox second baseman Yairo Muñoz was called for interference with Mercado on the basepaths in what proved to be the game-deciding play.
“It's always a difficult thing,” said Devers. “Obviously we want to go out and do our best to win the game. They did a great job. They battled, so did we, we never gave up. They ended up on top at the end of the game. Yeah, it's tough to lose those kind of games.”
It was a tough way to lose, but with 30 games left in their season, the Red Sox couldn’t do much but shake it off and hope for a strong series against the Rays.
Though their odds are long at winning the division, the Red Sox are right in the thick of the AL Wild Card race, currently in possession of the second AL Wild Card spot.
While a sweep would have been sweet, the Red Sox can at least take heart in the fact that they’ve won three straight series after losing five of the previous six.
“I think this team can recover better than anyone,” said Houck. “We went on a little bit of a rough patch there for a little bit, but like I continue to say, it’s about learning from those losses, and you learn from losses typically more than you learn from wins. So I think that this team is built for adversity and to grow, and I’m excited to see how we continue to grow.”