The mood sure turned quickly after that sweep of the Yankees, right? No one said the final six weeks of the season would be easy, given that the Red Sox have the highest strength of schedule in all of baseball and face an uphill battle to blow the four-game deficit for a Wild Card spot. Bbut Monday night’s contest against the Astros was marred by quite poor pitching by James Paxton, two defensive errors (one by Rafael Devers, who’s been racking them up lately), and eleven base runners stranded. Even against a struggling Christian Javier, the only batter to leave the park was Adam Duvall, and the missed opportunities, quantified by going 3-for-18 with runners in scoring position, spoke volumes about the state of the team for the remainder of the Astros series.
The path did not look any easier on Tuesday night for game two in Houston. Sure, Tanner Houck was back, but remember the last time he was on a Major League diamond he caught a Kyle Higashioka line drive to the face and required surgery. You don’t need me to remind you of that, of course, but no one would blame Houck for having some nerves or change of mannerisms or mechanics going into post-traumatic injury life. Fortunately, he looked very solid, especially considering a poor start that saw Kyle Tucker drive a two-run homer into the stands in the first frame. Due to another Devers error directly following the home run, the Astros’ relentless traffic continued for a second straight night, as Houck loaded the bases with a pair of walks. But as guest Roger Clemens pointed out a couple of innings later on the air, while most pitchers would shrivel up and allow their mechanics to further slip down a jagged path, Houck gutted up and got through the inning. He then was extremely efficient the rest of his five-frame outing, allowing just one more run off an extremely well-placed bunt by Martin Maldonado to score Mauricio Dubon... and it wasn’t from a lack of effort by Connor Wong or Triston Casas.
Jose Altuve grounds into a double play, shortstop Trevor Story to first baseman Triston Casas. Martin Maldonado out at 2nd. Jose Altuve out at 1st. pic.twitter.com/21lcSx7YIu— The Pesky Report (65-59) (@PeskyReport) August 23, 2023
Regardless, the Red Sox found themselves trailing 3-0 after six. The pattern of leaving runners stranded continued in this one, because the guy they were facing was no slouch, to say the least. In fact, it was future first-ballot Hall of Famer Justin Verlander, who simply outmatched and outworked this lineup. While he’s lost some ticks on his velocity, the 40-year-old simply threw a smart game, devoid of any predictable sequence. Boston batters fanned nine times in Verlander’s six innings. One notable strikeout was Wilyer Abreu, who earned his “Welcome to the Major Leagues” moment by swinging out of his shoes against one of the best pitchers of this generation, perhaps of all time. Abreu ended up getting his first Major League hit later in the game when Kendall Graveman served him up a meatball. Not a bad pitcher to get your first hit off of, and the fact that Jose Altuve was there to greet him at second and Alex Bregman tossed the ball to Cora to save it for him makes for a good story. What’s not a good story is that seventh inning ending with Boston squandering yet another opportunity to get on the board with runners in scoring position. Even with Justin Tucker getting the wrong end of a called strike for out number two, stranding runners is happening entirely too much this series.... and this whole season.
Wilyer Abreu doubles for his first big league hit!— Tyler Milliken ⚾️ (@tylermilliken_) August 23, 2023
What a cool moment with his family in attendance.
Oh, yeah! I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge why Abreu was in the game in the first place, of course. In the fourth inning, umpite Pat Hoberg was visibly bothered by some chirping coming from Boston’s dugout, and quickly tossed someone, though it was indistinct who, which caused some uproar from Alex Cora, who was trying not to start an Aaron Boone impersonation by getting kicked out himself twice in three days. Hoberg informed Cora that it was Alex Verdugo, the Sox’s leadoff hitter and right fielder, and Cora quickly retreated to the dugout, and Verdugo retreated to the showers. We can read a lot from this interaction, but without context of why Verdugo got ejected, the important part is: Abreu’s debut moved up 24 hours, and three hours into his career, he had already faced two experienced - and frankly, quite good - pitchers.
Alex Cora ended up losing his cool on a Mauricio Llovera pitch was called differently than a similar pitch to Justin Turner the inning prior, and earned a trip to join Verdugo in the clubhouse for his second ejection of the week. If you thought this would ignite a fire in Llovera, I have bad news for you... he made a throwing error going to second on a routine grounder a couple pitches later. Yainer Diaz found a hole to make the score 4-0, and Abreu had another “welcome to the big leagues” moment by advancing the runners from a throw to Dallas/Fort Worth. A runner would score to make it 5-0 following a faulty throw home that had Hoberg change his mind with no review. That brought Ramon Vazquez, er, Cora II out of the dugout. This game was officially ugly. Adam Duvall got the Red Sox on the board in the eighth inning, but it was too little, far too late. The score became manageable due to Justin Turner hitting a 2-run double to make it 7-3. That was how it stayed when Masataka Yoshida batted into a double play to end it. The Red Sox had again stranded 11.
JONRÓN DE ADAM DUVALL ️ pic.twitter.com/xY91ajdQQ2— Red Sox de Boston (@RedSoxBeisbol) August 23, 2023
I would place maybe 5% of this ugliness on Tanner Houck. You can’t blame the guy - he kept the team in the game despite the early fumble. Although he gets saddled with the loss, he didn’t commit any of the three defensive errors, nor did he strikeout 10+ times, and it’s hard to secure a win without runs backing you up. While people would lament the defense in the bottom of the seventh inning, saying this game could have been a lot closer, another ugly reality is that it could have been a lot worse had Houck not gotten a clutch out all the way back in the first inning.
As familiar problems rear their heads as usual, the trek uphill for the final Wild Card spot gets steeper and steeper. The Mariners, who won, now sit five games above the Red Sox in the Wild Card race. But, honestly, this Boston team can’t match up well against Seattle or Toronto playing this way. It gets even more horrifying thinking that the Dodgers are next on the schedule. Who knows what the deficit will be by then. These defensive blunders can’t happen. This wasting of baserunners can’t happen. The opposing team big innings and breakthroughs can’t happen, especially when this team gets those same opportunities and cannot capitalize.
“We don’t have any words and we know you don’t want to hear them.”
Josh Winckowski: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 BB, 2 K
Adam Duvall: 2-4, HR, RBI, 2B, 2 K
Tanner Houck: 5 IP, 4 H, 3 ER, 3 BB, 3 K (you had to be there)
(Honorary mentions: Justin Turner, Wilyer Abreu)
Mauricio Llovera (who I’m not sure why is still on a Major League roster): 1 IP, 1 K, 2 H, BB, 4 ER
Alex Verdugo: 0-2, K, ejection
Rafael Devers: 1-4, 2B, 1 BB, 1 K, E (I put him on here before the garbage-time double, so he stays)
Honorary fourth: The umpires. I’ll go there. No consistency, and Hobart changing his mind on that fifth run was brutal. Doesn’t excuse how badly this team played, though. I’d be mistaken if I suggested that had they called it down the middle, the Red Sox would have won. They wouldn’t have, and it may not have even been closer.
Play of the Game
That Maldonado bunt was one of the most well-placed bunts I’ve ever seen, and even with the Red Sox playing some sneaky passable defense that didn’t go their way due to home plate being left wide open, the play could have been more embarrassing. I can’t even be mad, though, it just looked so cool.
You know the drill: in losses like this, I do not do Player of the Game polls. Concerning player of the game for the Red Sox, I’ll give second place overall to Abreu for securing his first two Major League hits. At least someone had a good memory from tonight!