Even from a distance, Terry Francona has marveled at the mystery of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a $30 million bargain-basement team reaping a big-budget bonanza.
While Francona's Red Sox barely have broken even (17-16) since they lost May 20 at Tampa Bay, after last night's win the Rays are on a 26-7 run and have won 15 of their last 16 games.
"It's amazing how this game works," Francona said. "I never have been able to understand that."
While the Rays have won big on the cheap, the $127 million Sox have endured one self-inflicted calamity after another in costing themselves a chance to approach the kind of consistency they sorely need to achieve. They betrayed themselves yet again yesterday, faltering both in the field and at the plate as the Phillies steamrolled them, 9-2, before a frustrated 34,712 (except for throngs of Philly fanatics) at Fenway Park.
The day after an exhilarating 12-1 triumph that seemed a harbinger of better days, the Sox committed a season-high four errors in allowing five unearned runs and managed to score only twice despite putting 15 runners on base with 14 hits and a walk. As a consequence, they ended the game closer to the third-place Rays than the first-place Yankees.
Francona hardly needed a forensic team to explain the mess. The Sox, who lead the majors in unearned runs allowed (54) and are fourth in errors (61), were unable to overcome a pair of miscues by center fielder Johnny Damon and single errors by pitcher Bronson Arroyo and first baseman Kevin Millar.
"We came out and kind of shot ourselves in the foot more than once," Francona said.
The Sox managed to go only 2 for 12 with runners in scoring position and stranded 11 runners. The futility contributed to the body of evidence behind the team's failure to amass more than one three-game winning streak over the last month.
"You can't pitch well and not hit well, and you can't hit well and not pitch well," catcher Jason Varitek said. "We have to match up to be successful over the long run."
Pitching and hitting well sometimes can mask a defense as deficient as the Sox displayed yesterday. But Arroyo, who dropped his sixth straight decision and remains winless at Fenway Park, was hardly at his best as he surrendered seven runs (two earned) on seven hits, including a two-run jack by Jim Thome, and three walks over five innings. And the Sox trailed, 9-1, in the eighth inning before they could muster a consolation run on Gabe Kapler's double after singles by Millar and Kevin Youkilis.
"It was one of those weird days of baseball where we hit the ball but the runs just didn't fall in," Youkilis said. "We had the hits. We just didn't have the runs."
The Phillies did, thanks largely to some shoddy fielding. The trouble began amid a scoreless tie in the second inning when Philadelphia's Todd Pratt singled to center with two outs and runners at first and second. As Chase Utley scored from second, Damon fired to third, but his throw banged off the foot of the sliding Jason Michaels and skipped away. And since Arroyo chose to back up Varitek at the plate instead of Youkilis at third, Michaels scored easily.
"I know Johnny doesn't have the strongest arm out there and a lot of times we don't get guys at the plate, but the ball was hit hard enough and he was really coming in for the ball," Arroyo said. "I thought he was going to take a shot at the plate, but by the time I turned around, the ball was already bouncing in the infield."
Trailing, 2-0, Arroyo put himself in further jeopardy by allowing consecutive singles to Michaels and Pratt leading off the fourth. Then he got Jimmy Rollins to bounce back to the mound, only to misplay the ball for an error, allowing Michaels to score.
"He hit it kind of off the end [of the bat] and it had some funny spin on it," Arroyo said. "I tried to field it off to my right a little bit and it hit my right knee and ricocheted off my left knee and then took off."
The bottom line, Arroyo conceded, was that he "made the error that snowballed the rest of the inning."
A batter later, Millar shared Arroyo's misery. Millar let Bobby Abreu's grounder bounce off him for an error, allowing two more runs to score before Thome delivered the crushing blow to put the Sox in a 7-1 hole.
"I was playing back and had a chance to throw Pratt out [at the plate]," Millar said. "But I slipped up and took one off the heel [of his glove]."
Millar was as hard on himself as Arroyo.
"My play was big," Millar said. "I take full blame for that. You've got to catch the ball there and get one. I tried to do too much and looked up and missed the ball."
Damon, who committed his second error on a throw in the seventh inning, departed before reporters arrived in the clubhouse, a rarity for him. He consistently has ranked among the most accessible and accountable players on the team. He committed as many errors in the game as he made in the 2002 and '03 seasons combined.
"That's a freak," Youkilis said, referring to the bad hops that contributed to the errors. "It's always hard to get errors like that, freak errors."
It's also hard for the Sox to struggle as much as they have. All they could do was hope they turn it around soon.
"I definitely believe this team can play better," Varitek said. "I believe this team is going to get on a roll."