The Red Sox are in absolute free fall, and by the time they hit the ground, they might be looking up at the Tampa Bay Rays in the playoff race.
Rays starter James Shields allowed just one earned run in 8.1 innings Sunday afternoon in St. Petersburg, and the Rays battered Jon Lester and the bullpen in a 9-1 Rays victory, completing the sweep and pulling Tampa Bay to just three losses behind Boston in the wild card race. The Red Sox have now lost five straight, and 10 of their last 13.
Lester Continues to Struggle Early
Lester entered Sunday’s game having allowed 13 first-inning earned runs, the most of any inning. His struggles continued Sunday, with the Rays sending eight to the plate against him in the first..
The Rays began the game with back-to-back singles, then Evan Longoria walked on four pitches to load the bases with no outs. Second baseman Ben Zobrist saw three pitches, then singled to left to drive in two. After a fielder’s choice moved Longoria to third, shortstop Sean Rodriguez hit a sacrifice fly to center to drive him in and make it 3-0 Rays.
None of Lester’s pitches worked Sunday. His fastball did not overpower, resulting in 29 foul balls to just 11 swinging strikes, and his cutter lacked the sharp movement necessary to fool hitters, leading to three walks and numerous long at-bats in which Rays hitters just waited Lester out.
Lester threw 43 pitches in the first, 26 in the second, 16 in the third, 26 in the fourth … and that was it. Lester couldn’t even make it to the fifth, suffering his seventh loss of the season. He threw 68 of his 111 total pitches for strikes, giving up four earned runs (the Rays added another on a Johnny Damon triple and a Rodriguez double in the third) on eight hits, three walks and two strikeouts.
The Oakland Athletics swung early and often Friday night at Fenway, and Tim Wakefield was powerless to stop them. Wakefield gave up eight runs (four earned) on eight hits, including two homers, and the Athletics battered the Red Sox, 15-5. The Red Sox maintained their one-game lead in the AL East because the Yankees lost 12-5 to the Orioles.
A Bad Night All Around for Red Sox Pitching
Up 2-1 entering the fourth, the Athletics took control of the game because Wakefield couldn’t get the third out. With one man on and two out, third baseman Scott Sizemore pulled the first pitch he saw just inside the Fisk Foul Pole for a two-run home run to go up 4-1.
DH Josh Willingham (2-5, four RBIs) waited a whole pitch before smashing his own two-run home run into the Green Monster seats to put Oakland up 8-1.
Wakefield had no one to blame but himself for his sixth failed attempt at his 200th win and sixth loss of the season. He left too many knuckleballs up in the zone and only struck out three despite eight two-strike counts. Just four of the eight runs Wakefield allowed were earned, but eight hits and two walks in four innings won’t get it done, no matter how good your offense is.
Wakefield had a faint chance of winning his 200th game when the Red Sox gave him a 1-0 lead to start the second, but he couldn’t hold it. First baseman Brandon Allen doubled to lead off the inning and scored on a single by right fielder David DeJesus. DeJesus moved to second on a wild pitch, and shortstop Chad Pennington (3-5, 2 RBIs) singled him to put the Athletics up 2-1.
Recently recalled Scott Atchison went three innings, saving the bullpen a bit but allowing a seventh-inning RBI double to Pennington that Mike Aviles – who was playing his first game ever in left field – may have misplayed.
Matt Albers continued his downward slide, allowing four runs on four hits and a walk in the eighth. In 10 August appearances, Albers has an ERA of 13.10.
Darnell McDonald made a rare pitching appearance in the ninth, giving up a two-RBI double to Willingham to put the Athletics up 15-4.
Red Sox Can’t Match Athletics’ Offense
The Red Sox struck early against Athletics starter Gio Gonzalez, with Jacoby Ellsbury leading off the first with a double, then scoring two batters later on Adrian Gonzalez‘s single just past Weeks at second base. David Ortiz followed Gonzalez with a single to extend his hitting streak to 10 games, but Jed Lowrie struck out to strand two.
That the Red Sox offense didn’t curl up and die after going 1-2-3 in both the second and third, then seeing the Athletics go up 8-1 in the fourth, is commendable, though it mattered little. Dustin Pedroia led off the bottom of the fourth with a home run off the Sports Authority sign above the Green Monster, and Ortiz followed him four pitches later with a solo shot into the center-field bullpen to make it 8-3 Oakland.
The Red Sox tacked on a fourth run in the fifth when Ellsbury led off with a triple and scored on a Marco Scutaro ground out, but they never closed the gap further. McDonald popped out on a 3-1 pitch with two men on in the sixth, then reliever Brian Fuentes got Ellsbury to foul out to end the threat. Gonzalez finished the game giving up four earned runs on seven hits, three walks and five strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings.
The Red Sox put two more on in the seventh on a Pedroia walk and an Ortiz double to right, but Lowrie struck out for the third time to end the inning. A pinch-hit double to right by Josh Reddick in the ninth scored Scutaro to make it 15-5, but Lowrie struck out again and Aviles flied out to the warning track in left to end the game.
With the win, Gonzalez evened his record to 11-11. It was his second career win against the Red Sox.
The Red Sox only hit against Rays starter James Shield in one inning Tuesday afternoon at Fenway, but sometimes one inning is all it takes.
Jacoby Ellsbury‘s three-run home run capped a three-hit third inning, and Jon Lester struck out eight in seven innings to pick up his 12th win. The Red Sox beat the Rays 3-1 in Game 1 of a doubleheader. With the win, Boston now leads New York by a half-game in the AL East.
Lester Pitches Better and Better Across Game
Two of Tampa Bay’s three hits off Lester Tuesday came in the first inning, and all came on high cutters to Rays batting righty.
Left fielder Desmond Jennings led off the game with a double to left, then stole third before scoring on a one-out ground out to third by Evan Longoria to put the Rays up 1-0 in the first. DH Ben Zobrist followed it up with a double to center, but a ground out stranded him.
Lester continued to struggle early in the second, hitting second baseman Sean Rodriguez and walking catcher Kelly Shoppach on four pitches with one out. Perhaps the walk shook off whatever rust Lester was pitching through, because after that Lester absolutely dominated, retiring the next two to preserve the one-run deficit.
Lester sailed through the next three innings, retiring all nine batters he faced. Given a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the third, he struck out the side swinging in the fourth, then retired the side 1-2-3 on six pitches in the fifth. The Rays did not put another runner on until Longoria singled with one out in the sixth, breaking up a string of 12 consecutively retired Rays. Lester responded to the single with two more strikeouts to end the sixth.
Lester’s strong middle innings allowed him to go a full seven innings (the last of which also went 1-2-3) despite needing over 50 pitches to get through the first three. He finished the game giving up just the one earned run on three hits, a walk, seven strikeouts and a hit batter. He earned his 12th win of the season, picked up his fifth day-game win (now 5-0, 1.55 ERA) and lowered his ERA to 3.22.
Lester’s control wasn’t perfect: he threw just 65 of his 113 pitches (57.5 percent) for strikes, and just nine first-pitch strikes to 26 batters. Nor was his power quite what it can be: Rays hitters fouled off 25 pitches to just 11 swings-and-misses.
Lester’s domination Tuesday, rather, was aided by the Rays always making easy outs when they put the ball in play. Of the 13 non-strike outs Lester recorded, nine were ground balls that Red Sox infielders handled with little difficulty. Of the remaining four, two were lazy fly balls and one was a muffed-bunt popup. Only Shoppach’s foul-out to end the seventh required any kind of defensive display, and that was only because Jarrod Saltalamacchia almost over-ran it.
Shields Dominates Red Sox in Every Inning but the One that Mattered
Boston hitters entered Tuesday’s game having already combined for 12 career home runs off Shields, so their free-swinging approach to him early in the game made sense. Unfortunately, it didn’t produce any results, as the Red Sox went 1-2-3 in both the first and second innings, flying out three times in the first.
Shields stopped relying on the fastball in the third, instead going to more change-ups. The Red Sox responded by switching from power to contact hitting, and the switch paid off. Josh Reddick led off the bottom of the third with a single to left, then took second two batters later on a single up the middle by Mike Aviles.
Shields next faced Ellsbury, getting the count to 1-1 before leaving another change-up over the middle of the plate. Ellsbury crushed it beyond the Tampa Bay bullpen in right-center for the 3-1 lead and Ellsbury’s 21st home run of the season.
Shields bore down after the home run however, and did not allow another hit in the game. Only Kevin Youkilis even reached base after that: on a leadoff walk in the fourth. Shields went the full eight innings in his 10th loss of the season and 8th career loss at Fenway (1-8, 6.99 ERA). He allowed three runs on three hits, a walk and six strikeouts.