The Red Sox were looking for a clinch of at least a series victory on Saturday, and to a slightly lesser extent were looking for a big performance from Rick Porcello. For one thing, they could really use a couple of guys stepping up to end the year and take a firm grasp of the last two playoff rotation slots. On top of that, they were coming off such a long game on Friday night and the bullpen deserved a bit of a rest. Well, Porcello delivered on that desire and then some. The righty was wildly efficient all game and kept the Rays off the scoreboard while preventing them from really threatening at any point except the very end of his start. The offense, meanwhile, finally got to Alex Cobb just enough to pull out the team’s third consecutive win and fourth consecutive series win.
For much of this season, the first inning has been able to tell us what we are going to expect from Porcello. Don’t get me wrong, he hasn’t been great in any inning, but more often than not he’s gotten into a lot of trouble in his first inning of games this year and it’s set the tone for his outings. There’s more to it than that, of course — he’s been a bad pitcher this year, so of course he’s going to have bad first innings whether he’s “setting the tone” or not — but that has been the feel for his outings for the majority of 2017.
Anyway, if we look at this outing through that lens, it was pretty clear what we were going to see from the 2016 Cy Young winner on Saturday evening. What we saw was probably his best outing of the season and the closest he’s looked to his 2016 self. The righty was pounding the strike zone without finding the middle of it. Although he didn’t get a ton of strikeouts, he got plenty of weak contact. In fact, that lack of strikeouts was part of the reason he was able to get so deep into the game with so few pitches.
Porcello cruised early on, allowing only two hits through the first three innings. To make things even better, thanks to a double play and a caught stealing, he was able to make it through those three frames facing the minimum number of hitters. The most trouble he got into all night was in the fourth when Evan Longoria smacked a two-out double then got to third on a stolen base. With the runner just 90 feet away and Lucas Duda — a scary left-handed bat who kills righties — up at the plate, Porcello induced a weak pop up to get out of the inning.
From there, things kept going well for a few innings as he sailed into the eighth inning. With under 90 pitches at that point, he started to get into trouble. Things started with a double out to right-center field, which was followed by the first out and a walk. With runners on the corners and just one out, Porcello was pulled in favor of Addison Reed. It was a great start for the righty, though he left a high-pressure situation for his bullpen.
On the other side of things, the Red Sox were finally able to pick up a win against Cobb, though they didn’t dominate him by any means. They got on the board early, though not in the first when they went down without much of a fight. In the second, though, Mookie Betts led things off with a bang. Cobb tossed Betts a fastball on the inner half of the plate, and Betts looked a lot like he did in 2016 when he showed the world just how quick his hands can be. He turned on the heater and demolished a no-doubt home run out to left field to give Boston an early 1-0 lead. Mitch Moreland would follow that up with a double and made it seem like it could be a big inning, but he’d be stranded there.
The Red Sox would slow down for a few innings after that, making Porcello’s impressive performance through his start all the more impressive. In the sixth, they’d finally give their pitcher a little more breathing room. With Cobb’s pitch count starting to climb, Christian Vazquez started the inning off with a single and then Andrew Benintendi replaced him at first on a fielder’s choice. At this point, the rookie outfielder got in Cobb’s head. He made it to second base on a balk, then a couple pitches later stole third without Cobb even throwing the pitch. Cobb was clearly frustrated, then became frustrated with the umpire before allowing an RBI single to Betts to give Boston a 2-0 lead. That ended the day for Cobb, but not the rally for Boston. Moreland came through with a walk in the next at bat before Rafael Devers smacked a double to left field to knock in Boston’s third run.
So, from here we go back to that bottom of the eighth with Reed now in for Porcello and with Tampa having runners on the corners and just one out. Kevin Kiermaier was the first batter Reed would face, and he hit a ground ball to Moreland. The Red Sox first baseman took the out at first base, and then tried to get the double play at second. Instead, he’d throw the ball off the runner and allowed the runner from third to score. Reed would get out of it from there, though, picking up a big strikeout to end the rally. That also closed the book on Porcello, who allowed just the one run through 7 1⁄3 innings, and it wasn’t earned.
The ninth belonged to Craig Kimbrel, who came in and did what he has done all year in picking up a dominant save.
So, the Red Sox were able to get another win in Tampa but once again they couldn’t gain any ground in the division as the Yankees picked up another victory over the Orioles. The good news is they didn’t lose any ground either, remaining three games over New York with a magic number of 12. Boston will go for a sweep on Sunday afternoon with Eduardo Rodriguez on the bump.