Short stints undo Red Sox again as Yankees sweep doubleheader

BOSTON — Kutter Crawford was one pitch away. He had a one-run lead with two outs in the fifth, but he couldn’t hold on and he couldn’t keep going. The New York Yankees’ Estevan Florial got his first big league hit of the year, the tying run scored, and Crawford was finished. Four and 2/3 innings. Again.

Five innings isn’t a lot by starting pitcher standards, but the Red Sox have had a hard time getting five innings this season. When they’ve had it — either from a starting pitcher or a bulk reliever — they’ve been good enough to make the playoffs, but no American League team has gotten five innings less often than the Red Sox, and it’s going to be one of the biggest factors keeping them home in October.

It wasn’t what did them in on Tuesday — going 0-for-19 with runners in scoring position did that — but it was a key reason it didn’t mean much. The Yankees swept a doubleheader at Fenway Park, and although both games were relatively close — 3-2 in the opener, 4-1 in the nightcap — the end result was a two-way tie for last-place in the American League East. The Red Sox and Yankees are both 73-72 with no real hope of making the postseason. It seems little coincidence that the three American League teams with the fewest five-inning outings this season are the Red Sox, the Yankees and the miserable Oakland A’s.

That’s not good company.

The Red Sox have had a pitcher go at least five innings only 91 times this season. That number was boosted by Nick Pivetta going 5 1/3 innings in Tuesday’s opener, but still, it’s the fourth-lowest total in the majors. That alone would be problematic — it’s intuitively harder to win when pitchers don’t go deep into games — but short outings have been especially hard on the Red Sox.

Overall, they have a .503 winning percentage, but they’re 57-34 — a .626 winning percentage — when one of their pitchers goes at least five innings. That 123-point difference in winning percentage is basically tied with the Rays for the largest such gap in the American League. Other playoff contenders aren’t even close. Consider the numbers for the current American League wild-card race (for simplicity’s sake, these are the records heading into Tuesday):

American League wild card race



Record, Win%


When pitcher goes 5 IP



71-72, .497

55-39, .585


68-77, .469

56-53, .514


73-70, .510

57-33, .633


68-77, .469

59-50, .541


79-64, .552

67-45, .598


80-64, .556

68-39, .636


79-65, .549

71-45, .612


89-56, .614

73-26, .737


Basically, when a pitcher’s gone at least five innings, the Rays have played at a 119-win pace and the Orioles have played at a 112-win pace, but the Red Sox have been nearly as good or better than every other American League team in those situations. Even the division-leading Astros (.589) and Twins (.583) have lower winning percentages than the Red Sox (.626) when a pitcher goes at least five. If Red Sox pitchers had gone five innings — just five innings — a little more often this season, these past few weeks might have meant a little more, and there might still be something to play for down the stretch.

Every team, of course, is a little bit better when someone goes at least five innings. Getting at least five largely eliminates the games when a starting pitcher gets hammered out of the gate. But the difference for the Red Sox has been huge. The lack of five-inning outings has been a problem of quantity (not nearly enough of them) and quality (unable to make up the difference).

The Giants have had the major’s fewest games with a pitcher going at least five innings (86), but their bullpen has been able to make up the difference so that their overall winning percentage (.514) is nearly identical to their winning percentage when a pitcher goes five (.523). It really doesn’t matter much to the Giants.

It matters a great deal to the Red Sox. Their pitching staff has been decimated by injuries, at one point they were using a three-man rotation, and their bullpen has been regularly cobbled together with Triple-A call-ups and last-ditch additions. The Red Sox have needed pitchers to go at least five and haven’t gotten it nearly enough.

“Getting into the fifth inning is important,” manager Alex Cora said.

Then Cora corrected himself.

“It’s not getting to the fifth,” he continued. “It’s finishing the fifth. That’s something that we’ve been talking about. Getting to the sixth inning would be great. Finishing the sixth inning (would be even better). So, how do we do that?”

That might be the most important question of the winter.

Six innings has been a pipe dream most nights this season. The Red Sox have had a pitcher go at least six innings only 45 times this season, third-fewest in the majors. Fifteen of those outings — a full third — belonged to Brayan Bello. Another eight came from James Paxton (before he wore down late in the year). Chris Sale was the only other Red Sox pitcher to go six innings more than four times, and Sale did it in only five of his 17 starts.

How is that going to improve next year?

Bello seems to have emerged as a homegrown rotation lynchpin, but Paxton is about to be a free agent, Sale got hurt (again) this season, Garrett Whitlock’s injuries limited him to only 10 starts, Pivetta got better after he moved to the bullpen, Josh Winckowski has settled in as a full-time reliever, and both Crawford and Tanner Houck have regularly run into trouble their second time through the order, never mind their third time through.

“I do believe Tanner and Kutter have taken a step,” Cora said. “I think stuff-wise they are really good. It’s just pushing for that (distance). We’re going to give them the chance to do it (the rest of the year). We’re not tapping out. We’re not quitting. We’re trying to win as many as possible. … But at the same time, we’ve got pitch these guys. For us to (play well), they’ve got to go six (or) they’ve got to go five, let’s put it that way.”

The upcoming free agent market should offer opportunities to supplement around Bello and some combination of Sale, Pivetta, Houck, Crawford and Whitlock. Shohei Ohtani’s elbow injury might eliminate him as a pitcher in the short-term, but Blake Snell and Aaron Nola are known quantities at the top of the offseason market, Japanese ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto is a fascinating possibility at just 25 years old, and free agency should also offer Clayton Kershaw, Lucas Giolito, Jordan Montgomery, Sonny Gray, Eduardo Rodriguez and others. The Red Sox will have to be in that market.

Five innings isn’t a lot, but if Red Sox pitchers had lasted five innings a little more often this season, they might be playing more realistically meaningful games here in the final month. Instead, they’re simply trying to avoid last place. Inability to work deep into games has been a problem, and it’s one they’re going to have to address to avoid a similar fate next season.

(Top photo: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

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