For a few days there, it had started to look as though things were coming together for the Red Sox. They were finally healthy, and starting to thrive. They were happily spending off days together, if not on a massive ranch in Alabama than playing arcade games and riding roller coasters. They were as close as half a game from first place in the AL East.
But their rise from the mires of mediocrity isn’t proving to be quite so easy.
On the day they put their third baseman back on the disabled list, and sat their starting center fielder in hopes of getting more from the lineup’s lumbering lower half, the Sox never gave themselves much of a chance in any phase and lost for the fourth time in five games, this time dropping a 6-1 decision to a Tigers team that appears to have supplanted Boston as the class of the American League.
"I didn't locate a few fastballs tonight," Lackey said. "They're a good team. It was one of those nights."
With their latest loss, the Sox – at 20-22 – fell two games under .500 for the first time since May 4, and assured themselves of a second straight series loss to a team out of the AL Central after dropping two of three on a visit to Minnesota earlier this week.
They also fell to 5-18 when allowing the opponent to score first, as opposed to 15-4 when they’ve struck first themselves, as John Lackey was outpitched by Rick Porcello, who improved to 7-1 and lowered his ERA to 2.91 by surrendering just six hits and a walk over eight strong innings.
That performance, coupled with Friday's 1-0 win for Detroit, leaves the Red Sox with one run through the series' first in 18 innings.
"[Porcello] threw a lot of strikes," said Red Sox manager John Farrell, who gave slumping center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. a night off after announcing prior to the game that third baseman Will Middlebrooks was headed to the disabled list with a fractured right index finger. "He attacked the strike zone. He didn't issue the walks to help building an inning.
"They've done a good job, and their infield defense is obviously got improved range from a year ago -- and it's a good team."
Facing the Tigers for the first time since tossing 6.2 shutout innings at them in last year’s ALCS, this proved a much different result for Lackey. The right-hander did well to limit the early damage after loading the bases with nobody out in the second, yielding just a run, and the third-inning homer Miguel Cabrera (3-for-5) dropped into the seats near Pesky’s Pole was more about the dimensions of the park than a bad pitch. But the outing started to slip away from Lackey in the fifth.
Facing the top of the Tigers’ order for a third time, Lackey yielded three doubles and a single in the frame, and had it not been for a sensational diving stab by Dustin Pedroia, robbing Victor Martinez of a hit, it might’ve been worse. Still, the rally doubled Detroit’s advantage to 4-0 – and with the Sox offense idling its way through a 14-inning scoreless streak, even a deficit of that size looked a bit daunting.
The view changed momentarily in the bottom of the inning, when Xander Bogaerts ripped his first Fenway homer into the Monster Seats, and made it a three-run game with his first RBI since April. But the Tigers wouldn’t allow the optimism to linger.
Alex Avila and Rajai Davis sandwiched doubles around a strikeout to start the sixth, and after allowing his fourth and fifth two-baggers, Lackey’s night was done. In came Edward Mujica, who subsequently tried four times to pick off Davis at second base, but threw the fourth into center field, and when Davis advanced it allowed Ian Kinsler’s fly to go for a sacrifice that made it a 6-1 game.
That run was unearned, though that didn’t make Lackey’s line any prettier: 6 runs, 5 earned, 9 hits, two walks, four strikeouts in 5.1 innings.
“I thought he had very good stuff,” Farrell said. “There were some mislocated fastballs, particularly to the arm side, they were able to capitalize. You saw the doubles by right-handers, those were balls that ended up on the inside part of the plate.
“The way Porcello has been pitching all season, and again tonight, early runs, we find ourselves behind. One real scoring threat we come up empty, and that was pretty much the story.”
Chris Capuano worked two scoreless innings, then Koji Uehara got his first work since last Sunday in pitching the ninth, but Porcello never gave the Sox a chance to get back in the game, nor did Phil Coke in the ninth.
So now, once looking at this series as a chance to begin the surge, the Sox go into Sunday night just trying not to get swept.
*With a single off the wall in the third inning, David Ortiz extended his hitting streak to 10 games.
*After Ortiz’s single, Mike Napoli flared an 0-2 pitch into center field, then – after Grady Sizemore grounded out to second – Mike Carp walked to load the bases in what was at the time a 2-0 game. A.J. Pierzynski grounded meekly to second, however, to leave the sacks full.
*That Sizemore grounded out to second should’ve come as no surprise, considering he has pulled the ball to either first or second base in each of his first eight at-bats in the series, including a couple of double plays.
*Napoli had three hits for the Sox, all singles, lifting his average 14 points -- to .266 – by coming out of a 2-for-25 spell.
*At 21 years and 228 days, Bogaerts became the youngest player to homer for the home team at Fenway since Jim Rice did it in 1974, when he was 21 years and 207 days.