BALTIMORE — Ten years to the day, the Boston Red Sox returned to the site of one of the most calamitous and pivotal evenings in their oft-tortured history. And while these 2021 Sox aren’t yet covered in similar ignominy, this late-September fade is nudging them toward that end.
Gifted with three games against a 106-game loser as they fight for survival in the final week of a suddenly frenetic American League wild-card race, the Red Sox quietly surrendered their first of three shots at the Baltimore Orioles, managing just three hits against the worst pitching staff in the major leagues.
And Tuesday night’s 4-2 loss, its fourth in a row, left Boston no hope but regard the calendar and measure the calamity of its latest failing.
“That (expletive) sucked,” said starting pitcher Chris Sale, whose one significant mistake, a poorly placed changeup, was demolished by Orioles rookie Ryan Mountcastle for a game-tying two-run home run. “Any game we lose, (expletive sucks). Any game we win, we’re one step closer.
“We’ve been getting drug through the mud the last four games. We gotta find something, man. These games, they’re not making any more of them. And we’re getting to the end.”
And as the schedule compresses – two more games against Baltimore, three at Washington to close the season – the standings only get tighter.
Just five days ago, the Red Sox held a two-game lead over the New York Yankees for the American League’s No. 1 wild-card slot, and a three-game lead over Toronto for the No. 2 bid.
Now, after the Yankees cold-cocked them with a three-game sweep at Fenway Park and the Orioles bobbed and weaved for a victory Tuesday, the Red Sox are in the position of begging the Yankees for mercy.
Forget hosting the wild card game at Fenway. The Yankees’ 7-2 win at Toronto extended their lead over Boston to two games with five to play. And though it kept the Blue Jays off the Red Sox’s tail – Toronto still trails Boston by a game for the No. 2 wild card – Seattle is now their biggest problem. The Mariners won again at home against Oakland and pulled within a half-game of the Red Sox.
It wasn’t supposed to be this tenuous.
The Red Sox led the AL East into August and have been in playoff position ever since, save for a virtual third-place tie for two days in mid-September. A seven-game win streak preceded this four-game skid.
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Yet the calendar can no longer accommodate the Red Sox’s streaky tendencies.
“Our goal is to win both series, one here, one in Washington,” manager Alex Cora said, opting for painful literalism in the face of adversity. “No one’s hiding from it; of course, they know what’s at stake.
“But you try to keep it as normal as possible.”
That’s not typically possible for this franchise. On Sept. 28, 2011, the Red Sox capped one of the greatest September collapses in baseball history – 20 losses in 27 games – with a walk-off loss at Camden Yards – that, paired with Evan Longoria’s 12th-inning walk-off homer at Tampa Bay – knocked them out of the postseason altogether.
That marked the end of manager Terry Francona and GM Theo Epstein’s tenures, spawning new generations of Sox that delivered World Series titles in 2013 and 2018.
Tuesday’s low point was far quieter, the ramifications not so dramatic. The Orioles, whose 5.81 staff ERA entering Tuesday was nearly a run worse than the No. 29 team, retired the final 12 Red Sox batters after Hunter Renfroe’s home run leading off the sixth inning. Boston has failed to score more than three runs in this four-game streak.
While the wild-card race is taut, its participants are flawed, and matchups essential. In this environment, Sale vs. the Orioles was a must-win. After all, the Blue Jays will get their own three-game window against the Orioles in Toronto over the weekend.
That may leave Sale pitching for the Red Sox’s season Sunday at Washington, the last of five games in a struggle for survival that Sale insists is internal.
“It’s not even us vs. anybody,” Sale said. “It’s us vs. us. We just gotta win games. The more we get back to that, the better we’ll be.”