The Red Sox made Jeff Niemann look like a top of the rotation ace yet again today, losing to the Tampa Rays 4-3. With the loss, the twelfth in the Sox last sixteen games and sixth of the last seven against Tampa, the Sox lead in the Wild Card race falls to three games with eleven remaining.
Jon Lester was serviceable but not spectacular, walking four and striking out five while giving up all four Tampa runs in seven innings. Like Beckett yesterday, Lester was victimized by Fenway Park in the first inning. Just like yesterday when Evan Longoria did it, Ben Zobrist hit a fly ball that landed on the top of the Green Monster for a two run home run. That ball is an out in every other ball park but Fenway. After that, Lester settled down. Sort of.
He gave up another run in the third on a double by Desmond Jennings, a ground out, and a wild pitch. Incidentally, Jennings has five hits and four walks so far in this series. Three consecutive singles plated the final Rays run in the fifth, the ultimate damage done by Evan Longoria, who has five hits and seven RBIs this series.
The Sox got two back in the third when Carl Crawford (single) scored on a Mike Aviles double off the Green Monster. It looked like Crawford was tagged out at home on the play but in just another in a series of wrong calls, home plate umpire Brian Knight called him safe. Aviles later scored on a Jacoby Ellsbury sac fly. The Sox third run came on a ground out by Ellsbury with Crawford on third in the seventh. Yes, it was another what seems like a long line of doughnuts with runners in scoring position for the Sox. Today's was 0-8.
A few notes on the game:
- The Red Sox 1-4 hitters were 1-12 with two walks. The lone hit was a single by Ellsbury. Tough to pull out the win when your best hitters don't hit. The Rays 1-4 weren't much better at 4-13, but they had a homer and double among those four hits.
- Neimann pitched well, but he wasn't perfect. There were a few pitches that he left over the plate that Red Sox hitters fouled back or popped up. In particular, Pedroia missed a Niemann fastball out over the plate in the first inning and Scutaro missed one the fifth.
- Memo to the Red Sox: Please! Enough with the bunting! Terry Francona asked Marco Scutaro to sacrifice bunt twice tonight. The first time with the score 3-1 in the third inning and no outs after a single by Crawford and double by Aviles, Francona had Scutaro bunt Aviles (who runs quite well, it should be said) to third. Aviles did score on Ellsbury's sac fly, so sure, "it worked" but with no outs and a pitcher struggling, giving handing him an out like that is just rotten strategy.
The second time was in the 7th inning also with no outs. The Sox had singles from Crawford and Aviles to lead off the inning against rookie pitcher Matt Moore (who had a 9 run ERA coming into the game). Despite getting up in the count 2-1 Scutaro tried the sac bunt again, and this time it didn't work as Even Longoria cut Aviles down at second base. Again, no outs, a pitcher struggling, and you hand him an out (almost two). This is just losing baseball.
- [Added after first published] In my blind rage I forgot to mention Jacoby Ellsbury, MVP Candidate, was thrown out trying to steal third base with Dustin Pedroia batting. Ellsbury had singled and stolen second base, putting himself in scoring position. With two outs he'd be running on contact. Why was he trying to steal third? It was an unnecessary risk, one with huge downside (ends the inning with the middle of the order up) and little upside (Ellsbury would have very likely scored anyway had Pedroia singled). Just a bad play.
- The Red Sox had their chances against Niemann, but what lost the game for them was their failure to capitalize on rookie Matt Moore's wildness. Moore entered the game in the sixth and after getting Pedroia to ground out, he walked the next two hitters on ten total pitches. Two on, one out, but Josh Reddick and Jarrod Saltalamacchia went meekly to end the inning. Surprisingly Joe Maddon left Moore out there for two more innings and the Red Sox only pushed one one across against him.
One could say it's somewhat sad for a team with the talent and payroll of the Red Sox to enter a four game series at home hoping to break even. Yet that's exactly what the Red Sox wanted and needed to do against the Rays. With ten games left in the season following this four game series, a four game lead would just all but signal the death of the Ray's playoff hopes. Instead, the Sox have given the Rays hope.
Today's loss plus tomorrow's Tim Wakefield versus David Price match up makes it likely the Rays leave Boston down just two games in the Wild Card. That game hasn't been played yet, but if I asked for a show of hands, I can't imagine many of you would feel particularly confident. As I noted over twitter, the last time David Price gave up five or more runs in a game was May 21st. Since that time Tim Wakefield has started nineteen games and given up five or more runs in ten of those starts.
Even if the Red Sox lose tomorrow, there is hope. As has been noted here at OTM, the schedule for the final ten games favors the Red Sox by a lot. The Rays have seven left versus the first place Yankees, while Boston gets seven against the perpetually cellar-dwelling Orioles.
The Red Sox won't be favored in their own home tomorrow, nor should they be, but a final masterful performance by Tim Wakefield would considerably ease tensions and improve playoff standing while, again, putting the Rays on the brink of elimination. You'd be a fool to bet on it, but as we've seen over this past month, a month the Red Sox are now 4-12 in, just about anything can happen.