BOSTON — If ever there was a night the Red Sox needed their starting pitcher to set the tone, it was Tuesday, one day after an early six-run lead melted away amid a series of defensive miscues.
Eduardo Rodriguez was not up to the task. The lefty, who proclaimed his most recent start his best of the season, followed with one of his most disappointing.
Facing the same opponent — the ultra-tough Tampa Bay Rays — the lefty got hammered as the Red Sox suffered a 12-7 defeat, their third in a row since starting September with four straight wins.
Lasting just 3 2/3 innings, Rodriguez (11-8, 5.15 ERA) was belted around for six runs on eight hits, including a pair of monster home runs. This, after firing six scoreless innings at Tropicana Field against the Rays six days ago.
“I feel like they just made an adjustment,” Rodriguez said. “They were aggressive in all their at-bats. I feel like they were looking for one certain pitch, they got it, and they hit it. That’s the way that it is.”
It is hard to shut down an elite team like the Rays — who have an 88-51 record, which is far and away the best in the American League — twice in one week.
The reality of that didn’t make Tuesday’s result any easier to stomach for Rodriguez and the Red Sox. Not at this point of the season.
“It’s kind of hard, you know? This is the time that we really need to step it up as starting pitchers, win every game, because we’re now in the chase to the postseason,” said Rodriguez. “It feels really hard to lose the game today, especially a game that I started. So that’s the way I see it. You’ve got to go out there and win every game the rest of the way. It was kind of hard for me today.”
The postseason race Rodriguez mentioned seems to be getting tighter by the day.
For the third straight day, the Red Sox could have leap-frogged the struggling Yankees (78-60) for the top spot in the AL Wild Card standings, but they missed that opportunity.
Then there are the red-hot Blue Jays, who have won eight out of 10 and five in a row to bring them within two games of Boston for the second AL Wild Card spot. However, the race is even tighter than that in reality. Toronto (75-62) is tied with the 79-62 Sox in the loss column.
With 21 games to go, the Red Sox know that they can’t let this mini-slide turn into a prolonged one.
The first goal will be to salvage the finale against the Rays before heading on the road to play two contending teams in the White Sox and Mariners.
“Every game counts,” Rodriguez said. “Tomorrow, the next series — every game counts from now on. So we’re gonna go out there and [try to] win tomorrow and start winning every game, every series we play. That’s the way it is the rest of the season for us.”
The Red Sox will have a better chance of reaching the postseason if E-Rod can escape a season-long pattern that has gone something like this: Up, down, up, down, up, down.
“I feel like the first half was kind of that way — all over the place and all that,” said Rodriguez. “I feel like the second half is getting better every start. I feel like that right now. I feel like today was just one of those days that I was throwing the pitches they were looking for and they hit it. That’s the way I see it.”
There has been some incremental progress for Rodriguez. Prior to the All-Star break, he had a 5.52 ERA in 17 starts. Since the break, he has a 4.44 ERA in 10 starts. He likely has four more turns in the rotation before the regular season ends on Oct. 3.
The Red Sox have a few more days to get Rodriguez on track. His next start will come either Sunday in Chicago or Monday in Seattle.
The more immediate task for manager Alex Cora’s team is to find a way to leave Boston on a good note on Wednesday and have a happy flight to Chicago.
“Every loss matters. Every loss hurts,” said catcher Christian Vázquez. “It sucks, but we need to come tomorrow to the field and win tomorrow and get back on track, go to the road and keep playing better and better.”