For most of Wednesday night's game against the Rays, the Red Sox looked like the better team. They were hitting the ball harder, putting on tougher at bats, and Joe Kelly was...well, he was backing up that boastful "Cy Young" talk from spring training. He had struck out seven batters through five innings. Three of those came in the first, surrounding the only blemish on his night to that point: a very long solo shot to Steven Souza Jr.
At the time, the homer seemed downright bizarre. Kelly cut through the other three batters he faced in that first inning like they were nothing. It was just completely out of place. Then the bottom of the sixth inning happened, and it started to make a lot more sense.
The Sox entered that half-inning with a 5-1 lead. They had scored three runs in the third on a two-run shot from Dustin Pedroia and one of the stranger RBI singles from Mike Napoli you'll see--off Nathan Karns' glove, past a slip-sliding Asdrubal Cabrera, and out to Kevin Kiermaier for an offline throw home that let a helmetless Hanley Ramirez blow past a stop sign to score. They'd added another on a huge homer from David Ortiz in the fifth, and Mookie Betts produced a fifth run in the sixth by singling home Ryan Hanigan.
Out came Joe Kelly, looking like he was destined for the seventh, maybe even the eighth. instead, he allowed a ground ball single up the middle to Cabrera. And a hit to Evan Longoria. And another to Desmond Jennings. With the bases loaded and nobody out, Allan Dykstra kept the conga line going to make it 5-2, and four straight balls to Logan Forsythe ended Kelly's night with the bases still loaded, the first out still yet to come, and the lead down to just two.
Somehow, the Red Sox actually managed to escape that inning with a 5-5 tie. But Brad Boxberger got Tampa Bay their shutdown inning, and the next inning started off with, of course, two straight singles from Asdrubal Cabrera and Evan Longoria, just as the sixth had. This time, the threat was minimized by a double play ball, but it was a trade of one run for two outs, putting the Rays ahead 6-5, and the very next at bat resulted in a Jake Elmore home run off Edward Mujica, leaving the Red Sox down by two.
They had a chance to score in the eighth, but could not as the team's struggles with runners in scoring position continued. You could point to that as the problem tonight. You could talk about a pretty hideous strike zone from Bill Welke. There are excuses to be made.
But they're not the real problem. The real problem is that Joe Kelly went from untouchable to untenable in the blink of an eye. It was a meltdown the likes of which we haven't seen since--well, actually, Justin Masterson about a week ago. It was pretty damn hard to figure then, and it's even harder to figure out now. I don't think the Rays even particularly know what just happened. But they don't care, it's not their problem. It's Boston's. As is the loss.