The Red Sox once again played without any energy offensively on Saturday, but the pitching was good enough to salvage them a split in a doubleheader with the Blue Jays.
The Sox squeezed out a 2-1 win in eight innings during the nightcap.
“That was a big one,” said Alex Verdugo, whose solo homer in the sixth tied the game and sent it to extras, where Jonathan Arauz delivered the go-ahead RBI single and Adam Ottavino saved the day with three big outs in the bottom of the eighth.
Tanner Houck pitched well, as usual, but got an early hook, as usual. With six strikeouts, two walks and three hits allowed in 3 2/3 innings, Houck looked largely in control when he was pulled after just 74 pitches.
Houck’s final offense was a single by Bo Bichette, one of the best pure hitters in the league, who was out in front on a perfectly-placed slider, but remarkably made clean contact for a liner to left field. Houck then recorded a groundout by Teoscar Hernandez and a strikeout by Randal Grichuk, and that’s when manager Alex Cora took the ball out of his hand.
Josh Taylor entered and promptly allowed an RBI single as the Blue Jays took a 1-0 lead.
Cora said the bullpen was well-rested and that’s why Houck was pulled early, but he’s been doing that all year, a confusing strategy indeed considering Houck’s ERA is just 2.45 and he’s looked like a future ace ever since his first appearance in the big leagues.
Houck has averaged just 76 pitches per start this year, a large difference from the 86 pitches and 87 pitches that Garrett Richards (5.21 ERA) and Eduardo Rodriguez (5.33 ERA) have averaged this year, respectively.
After Taylor allowed Houck’s runner to score on a two-out single, the Sox used another pitcher who has been confusingly under-utilized this season: Garrett Whitlock. Whitlock threw two scoreless innings and has thrown just 54 innings all year.
Regardless, the Sox’ lack of urgency isn’t helping the matter when the offense has played without much energy for more than a month.
They got picked off twice to end the sixth inning when the game was tied 1-1, scored just two runs all day and were walked-off on in the first game, a 1-0 loss after closer Matt Barnes served up a walk-off homer to Marcus Semien.
It marked the seventh loss in eight games since the Red Sox’ mellow trade deadline, one in which they acquired an injured Kyle Schwarber and a pair of middling relievers, Hansel Robles and Austin Davis, who have combined to allow seven runs in their first 7 2/3 innings in their new threads.
The Sox are now just 2 1/2 games up on the Yankees and four games up on the Jays in the American League Wild Card chase. They’ve fallen to three games back of the first-place Rays in the AL East. It’s tied for their largest deficit of the season.
Offensively, the Sox have scored just 23 runs in their last nine games.
“We haven’t been able to do much,” Cora said Saturday.
They finally received the starting pitching they needed, with Nick Pivetta going six scoreless innings in the opener and allowing just one hit and one walk while striking out five.
But with the seven-inning game, Cora opted to remove Pivetta after just 76 pitches and went to Barnes to keep the game scoreless in the bottom of the seventh.
The first pitch Barnes threw out of the bullpen was a 95-mph fastball down the middle and Semien smoked it to left field for his 26th homer of the year.
Asked if he was upset that he didn’t pitch the seventh inning, Pivetta said, “I never want to come out of the game but Alex is a tremendous manager who has a really good feel and knowledge for the game.”
Semien was frequently connected to the Red Sox via rumors during the offseason free-agent period, but he ultimately signed with the Jays on a one-year deal worth $18 million. He’s been every bit worth the price, with a .276 average, .873 OPS, 29 doubles, 26 home runs, 11 stolen bases and 66 RBIs.
He entered Saturday as the second-most valuable player in baseball this year, with 4.6 WAR, according to Fan Graphs.
The Jays further strengthened their roster by acquiring Twins’ ace Jose Berrios for a pair of top prospects at the trade deadline. They also added relievers Brad Hand, Joakim Soria and Trevor Richards.
They’ve gone 8-2 since the trade deadline. The New York Yankees are 8-1. Together, they’ve caught up 5 1/2 and six games, respectively, on the Sox since then.
In a matter of a week, the Sox’ have seen their chances of making the playoffs go from 88% to 62%, the biggest drop of any MLB team in that span. The Blue Jays’ odds have jumped from 38% to 63% in that same window.
To make matters worse, the Sox are dealing with a possible COVID-19 outbreak and currently without J.D. Martinez, Jarren Duran and coaches Will Venable and Tom Goodwin.