ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — There were moments Tuesday when the Boston Red Sox looked utterly hopeless. They wasted opportunities at the plate, botched plays in the field and put runners on base at the worst times imaginable. It was a mess. An absolute mess.
And they nearly won anyway.
No doubt, the Red Sox fought on Tuesday. They made some big pitches, turned some nearly impossible double plays and gave themselves a chance to win in extra innings. There was something commendable at the end of all the disarray.
“We battled our asses off tonight,” manager Alex Cora said.
They did, but at that point, the time for silver linings was long gone. Tuesday was a game the Red Sox could have won, and they lost. That’s all that mattered. An 8-6 walk-off by the Tampa Bay Rays cost the Red Sox a chance to make up ground in the wild-card race. It cost them a chance to go for a sweep in this series at Tropicana Field. It cost them the luxury of overlooking mistakes to celebrate what might have been.
“We look around, we know what’s going on, and we have a chance,” Cora said. “A lot of people don’t feel that way, but if you win and look around, it was a wasted — quote unquote — opportunity tonight because we know what’s going on in other places.”
The Texas Rangers, the team the Red Sox are chasing for a wild-card spot, lost Tuesday.
“It is what it is,” Cora continued. “We just have to keep going, keep playing hard, and we’re going to be OK.”
The Red Sox played hard Tuesday, and it wasn’t enough.
They had the bases loaded with no outs in the sixth and didn’t score. Their starting pitcher threw 96 pitches but didn’t last through the fourth inning. A relief pitcher hit two batters with the bases loaded, each rookie middle infielder made an error, another rookie misplayed a fly ball in center field and the team botched a bunt play in extra innings. The Rays played sloppy, too, but the Red Sox were worse, and all the things they did well later in the game couldn’t make up the difference.
A loss is a loss, and the Red Sox had too many of those already.
“Obviously, right now it doesn’t feel good,” Adam Duvall said. “But I think we’re all professional enough when we show up tomorrow to realize we fought and we grinded and we didn’t quit.”
That’s one thing the Red Sox have been emphasizing for the past month: They’re not quitting. Their playoff odds are in the single digits, but they have three games remaining against the Toronto Blue Jays and three more against the Rangers — chances to make up significant ground against the teams they’re chasing — and Tuesday’s decision to use Kenley Jansen for a third day in a row, Cora said, was a result of their near desperation to keep going. They’re “all in,” Cora said.
“We have to,” Jansen said. “We’re here for one thing: to try and get in the playoffs. It sucks that we lost today. As hard as it is, we just have to move on.”
Jansen walked a batter and gave up a three-run homer in the 11th, but that was little more than the final straw in a game filled with mistakes and occasionally game-changing performances. It fell apart and came back together in a dozen unexpected ways.
Red Sox starter Kutter Crawford lasted only 3 2/3 innings. Some of that was his fault — four walks; he said his mechanics were off — but some of it was the Red Sox’s defense. A fly ball to left-center field should have been the third out of the second inning, but rookie Wilyer Abreu misplayed it into a double and Crawford wound up throwing 16 more pitches to get out of the inning. One of those pitches was a two-run homer.
Rookie shortstop Ceddanne Rafaela and rookie second baseman Enmanuel Valdez also made errors. But they also combined for five hits and scored four of the Red Sox’s runs. Valdez homered to put the Red Sox within a run in the third.
“It’s good, but we’re not here to teach them how to play the game,” Cora said. “We’re here to win games.”
Cora said his bullpen was — again — depleted, and so yet another rookie, Joe Jacques, relieved Crawford in the fourth. But Jacques hit two batters with the bases loaded to bring in two more runs. All told, the Red Sox walked nine and hit two batters in the game. They left 10 runners on base and went 4-for-13 with runners in scoring position. Two of those RISP hits should have been outs.
In the seventh inning, the Rays basically let the Red Sox back in the game. The Rays committed an error before one RBI single got past their shortstop (it was a tough play; hit hard) and another dropped in the middle of their left fielder, shortstop and third baseman (expected batting average of .010). At that point, the Red Sox had played a mostly atrocious game but somehow were tied at 5. And suddenly, they started playing well.
Brennan Bernardino put the side down in order with a dominant bottom of the seventh.
The Rays had two on and one out in the eighth when Masataka Yoshida — according to various defensive metrics, one of the worst left fielders in baseball — made a nice sliding catch to start a double play that got the Red Sox out of trouble.
John Schreiber pitched a 1-2-3 ninth, then got out of the 10th — after the Red Sox botched a bunt play — by striking out a batter and getting a fly ball to right field, where Duvall made a strong throw to Connor Wong, who applied a sweeping tag to keep the game tied. Momentum seemed to be in the Red Sox’s favor. It felt as if they might pull it off.
“It definitely brought some energy into the dugout,” Duvall said. “We ended up scoring one (in the next inning), but it’s baseball.”
Even when the Red Sox scored their free runner in the 11th, the inning came with a missed opportunity when pinch runner Trevor Story was caught stealing. Still, a one-run lead was the best the Red Sox had all night, and they went to Jansen, whose velocity was good even after pitching the previous two games. He walked a batter before allowing a walk-off home run to Brandon Lowe. There was no coming back from that.
“We played good baseball against a team that, they’re really good at what they do,” Cora said. “But we’re good, too. Just happened that we were short tonight. The guys, they played great. Obviously, we were short(-handed), but effort, the way we went about it, it was outstanding.”
All of that makes for a wonderful silver lining, if only the Red Sox were in a position to celebrate such things. But in this game and in this season, the Red Sox have left themselves with little room for such moral victories. They need the real thing, and Tuesday, they didn’t play well enough to get it.
(Top photo of Ceddanne Rafaela getting caught stealing by Brandon Lowe: Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)