BOSTON — Asked for his thoughts on the club’s defensive play so far prior to Wednesday’s game, Red Sox manager Alex Cora didn’t mince words.
“We’re not a good defensive team, we’re 29th in the league,” Cora said. “We have a pitching staff that doesn’t have swing and miss stuff, when we get to two strikes and we induce to weak contact, we’ve got to make the plays. We’re really good when we’re making plays, when we’re not we struggle.”
Hours after Cora’s blunt assessment, the Red Sox made their manager look prophetic in the worst possible way.
Thanks in part to a Rafael Devers throwing error to lead off the seventh, the Cincinnati Reds rallied for three runs in the inning to come from behind and beat the Red Sox 5-4. It was Boston’s third straight loss and ensured a series defeat to a Reds club that came to Boston five games under .500.
Devers’ error came on a routine grounder right down the third base line, which necessitated a long but makeable throw across the diamond that the third baseman couldn’t complete. That was followed by two straight singles to load the bases, and Josh Winckowski subsequently drew what would have otherwise been an inning-ending double play that instead resulted in the Red Sox giving up the tying run in exchange for two outs.
Then, the next at bat, Reds first baseman Spencer Steer struck for what wound up being the game-winning two-run home run.
“It’s tough, it’s a routine play that we have to make at this level,” Cora said afterwards. “I always say if you give the opposition more than 27 outs most of the time they’re going to score, they’re going to make you pay. Obviously that play we had to make, we didn’t, and it opened the gates for them.”
The error came amid what has been a confounding stretch for Devers, who has also been stuck in no-man’s land at the plate.
On one hand he’s been unusually passive on the first pitch, a trend Cora said has gone on for the past 15 games or so. On the other hand he’s been more aggressive than usual later in the at bat. While he’s remained among the most prolific run-producers in the league, he also has an on-base percentage of just .286, on pace to be the worst of his career by far.
“He hasn’t walked in months, so that’s part of the equation,” Cora quipped pregame, only a slight exaggeration since Devers had just two walks in 94 plate appearances in May entering the night. “Obviously he’s an aggressive guy but at the end of the day you still have to control the strike zone.”
That combination has limited Devers’ overall effectiveness, and Wednesday he made a clear effort to at least swing more aggressively on the first pitch. He laced the first pitch he saw from Reds starter Luke Weaver for a scorched lineout the opposite way, and his next time up he went the other way again, taking a 1-1 fastball high off the Green Monster for an RBI double, the 200th of his career.
Devers later won a 10-pitch at bat to draw a huge walk in the seventh, which loaded the bases for Justin Turner, but the Red Sox couldn’t capitalize.
Hhe finished 1 for 4 and flew out to deep center field to end the game.
The Red Sox took a 3-1 lead into the seventh after Masataka Yoshida hit a solo home run to lead off the second, Devers tacked on his RBI double in the third and Enmanuel Valdez added a solo shot of his own in the fifth. Cincinnati managed a run off Red Sox starter James Paxton on a Luke Maile RBI double in the fifth, but otherwise the veteran was fantastic, striking out eight batters while drawing a season-high 22 whiffs over five strong innings.
“I felt good, fastball felt really good coming out, I felt the breaking ball took some steps forward,” said Paxton, who allowed one run on four hits and a walk while throwing 100 pitches. “I was throwing some first-pitch breaking balls for strikes like I wanted to.”
The Reds began making their run in the sixth when Kutter Crawford was uncharacteristically sloppy in his first appearance since being hit in the ankle with a comebacker over the weekend. Crawford walked the first two batters and allowed an RBI single to Nick Senzel, and while Winckowski was able to slam the door with a quick strikeout to end the inning, things came unglued in the seventh.
Much like Tuesday the Red Sox did make one last push at the end. Jarren Duran got the Red Sox within one after hitting an RBI double to score Yoshida in the eighth, but pinch hitter Raimel Tapia and Valdez couldn’t get him in, with Valdez striking out at the end of an eight-pitch at bat.
The Red Sox then went 1-2-3 in the bottom of the ninth, with Devers’ deep fly out wrapping things up.
Boston (28-27) finishes May 13-13 and is 2-7 over its last nine games. Chris Sale (5-2, 4.72 ERA) will look to stop the skid when he takes the mound against young Reds phenom Hunter Greene (1-4, 4.18). First pitch for the series finale is set for 7:10 p.m.