It’s been almost five years since any Boston Red Sox catcher threw out Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Carl Crawford. He has stolen 35 consecutive bases. Sunday night, when the Red Sox and Rays played the rubber match of their three-game series at Tropicana Field, he stole no bases. Instead, he did his damage with his bat. Crawford’s two-run home run tied what was a 3-1 deficit in the sixth and catalyzed a Tampa Bay offense that up until that point had managed just one run on four hits (three of which were singles). After that the floodgates opened, as the Rays scored three runs in the sixth and another in the seventh as part of a 5-run, 11-hit attack. The end result: a 5-3 Rays victory over the Red Sox.
The game featured a battle of 12-win pitchers, with John Lackey facing off against James Shields. The similarities between the two pitchers did not stop at the number of victories. In each pitcher’s previous start (Lackey versus Seattle, Shields versus Los Angeles) he went eight innings, striking out ten while allowing two earned runs. Both games resulted in decisive victories for their clubs. And during the first two innings of Sunday’s game, both pitchers allowed just a lone two-out single to the opposing hitters. Unfortunately, after that the two pitchers started to separate. Engaged in a tremendous pitcher’s duel through three innings, it was Lackey who faltered first. With two outs in the bottom of the fourth, Carlos Pena crushed a 1-0 pitch deep into the right-field bleachers. Thankfully, Shields faltered just an inning later, giving up a lead-off double to Mike Lowell. He would come around to tie the game one out later, when Yamaico Navarro would drive in the first run of his major-league career. Darnell McDonald, having walked and gone to second on Navarro’s hit, would soon be driven home as well, this time by Marco Scutaro. The Red Sox would put up a third run in the top of sixth on a Daniel Nava RBI single, but after that everything went south in a hurry.
With one on and one down in the bottom of the sixth, Carl Crawford came to the plate. Two pitches later, the game was tied. That home run seemed to cause Lackey to become unglued, as he then proceeded to give up a ground-rule double to Evan Longoria, then walk the next two batters (one was intentional). With the bases thus loaded and only one out, Dan Johnson laced a 1-1 pitch back up the middle and into center field. It drove in Longoria, but McDonald fielded the ball quickly and threw a bullet to home, throwing out Carlos Pena, who was attempting to score from second base. Lackey would escape the inning without further damage, but the Rays had taken a 4-3 lead and never relinquished it.
Lackey pitched into the seventh, but he exited with two men on and just one man out. On came Hideki Okajima, who struck out Crawford but then gave up an RBI single to Longoria. Okajima would not allow any other runners to score, but the Red Sox could do nothing offensively. Boston managed zero hits following Nava’s sixth inning single and could not even get on base until they were down to their final out of the game, when they drew a two-out walk against American League saves leader Rafael Soriano. Unfazed by the walk, Soriano struck out Boston’s last hitter and picked up his 39th save of the season. Shields picked up his 13th win, and Lackey picked up his 8th loss.
Red Sox at the Plate
Kudos to Yamaico Navarro for his second career hit and first RBI. With Boston’s luck regarding the health of its infielders, Navarro may see a fair amount of playing time before the season ends. If he can establish himself as a capable major-league hitter, he may be usable as trade bait in the off-season. It seems unlikely he will get much playing time at the major-league level if he stays with Boston through to next spring. Meanwhile, Mike Lowell was the only player to have a multi-hit game, going 2-4 with a double and a run scored. No one else on the team had a particularly strong night, with nearly everyone going either 0-4 or 1-4. Shields, not usually a strong pitcher against the Red Sox, had good stuff tonight. His change-up was especially deceptive, causing numerous swings-and-misses by even Boston’s most experienced hitters. Boston struck out ten times against Tampa Bay’s pitchers. The only positive a strikeout occasionally allows for is a runner on first trying to steal, but the Red Sox don’t have the speed to steal with any regularity. So, essentially, the strike out is the worst way to make an out. And Sunday night Boston struck out ten times. When you’re relying on smallball tactics to score runs, that many strikeouts makes winning impossible.
Red Sox on the Mound
The problem with John Lackey’s pitches is that they lack movement. He has decent control, so when he’s hitting his spots he’s very difficult on opposing batters. But when his pitches flatten out they REALLY flatten out, and that’s what happened tonight more times than not. Compare his pitches with James Shields’ and you can see how much more Shields makes the ball dance. His change-up is especially devastating, because it looks flat until the bottom falls out from under it and you’re swinging at something in the dirt. Lackey needs to pitch with crispness in order to be effective, and Sunday night he wasn’t able to do so in the later innings. Perhaps that’s a stamina issue, perhaps he just lost the feel for his pitches. Either way his pitches looked more and more hittable as the game went on, and by the end Rays hitters were teeing off him with ease. The Red Sox bullpen allowed an inherited runner to score, but for once this loss doesn’t really belong to them. Had the Red Sox managed more of an offensive attack, perhaps we could say the bullpen let the game get out of hand. But when your hitters manage just a walk after the sixth inning, it doesn’t matter how well you pitch: you’re still going to lose.
This is the End, Beautiful Friend
This was a pivotal series for the Red Sox. They came into it 5 1/2 games back in both races. Had they swept the Rays, they would’ve been at least within striking distance of the wild card, with six games left against the Yankees and three against the Rays. Even if they had just won the series there would’ve been cause to at least keep hoping. But they lost the series and are now 6 1/2 games back in both the divisonal and wild card races. Worse, they are now 10-5 against the Rays, meaning they are guaranteed to lose the season series. Which means that, even if they catch the Rays, they would have to surpass them if it comes down to those two teams for the division. They have six games left to catch the Yankees, but the Yankees are a more powerful team by far than the Rays. It will be difficult to limit their scoring enough to overcome Boston’s offensive deficiencies. The Red Sox needed this series to get back into the races, and they couldn’t do it. Though a glimmer of hope will remain until the 162nd game is played, it seems increasingly likely that Boston fans will have nothing but the Patriots and the changing leaves to entertain them come October.