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Closing Time: Sputtering Red Sox offense falls to Orioles, loses sole claim on first place

07.26.13 at 9:44 pm ET
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BALTIMORE — The Red Sox offense, the best in the majors for most of the year, has sputtered to open the second half against a string of the American League’s top pitchers. As a consequence, the team has stumbled to a 3-4 start to the second half that now, for the first time since May 25, can no longer claim sole possession of first.

Indeed, in short order, the Sox may be looking up at another team in the division, as their current tie in that spot with the Rays seems short-lived given that Tampa Bay is crushing the Yankees, capitalizing on a night when the Sox were overmatched by Orioles All-Star Chris Tillman and the Baltimore bullpen on Friday night en route to a 6-0 defeat. The team is now averaging just 3.0 runs per nine innings since the break — a mark that undoubtedly reflects on the considerable talents of pitcher such as Hiroki Kuroda, Matt Moore, David Price and Tillman but that likewise points to a collective midyear slump.

As such, while the team’s focus in the trade market has been primarily on adding pitchers, the team’s need to breathe life into a suddenly moribund offense appears increasingly acute. That’s not to say that the team needs to deal for lineup additions (though, of course, the Sox have explored the third base market), but it does suggest that unless the restores its lineup to the form that had it leading the majors in runs, the upgrades to the pitching staff may be insufficient to stem the rising tides of the Rays and perhaps Orioles.

“We’ve got to get more back to what makes us good, grinding out at-bats and I think a lot of guys are trying too hard right now,” said second baseman Dustin Pedroia. “We’ve got to let the game come to us, find a way if a starter’s got great stuff, find a way to get him out of there. We haven’t done that the last week or something, so we’ll get back to that tomorrow, start being a better team offensively.

“There’s times when two or three guys go in funks and other guys step up. It seems like right now, everyone is trying to be the guy that gets us out of it,” he added. “That makes it tough, because then you’re trying to hard and coming out of what makes you good. Just got to take a step back, have quality at-bats and pass it to the next guy.”

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX

John Lackey fell prey to the longball early and often while yielding five runs (matching a season high) in 6 1/3 innings. The right-hander gave up three homers — a pair of opposite-field shots by Adam Jones that snuck just over the scoreboard down the right-field line and a resounding shot by Manny Machado — and he’s now permitted 1.4 homers per nine innings this year, with his vulnerability to the longball representing the primary blemish on a season that has been extremely impressive.

Still, Lackey clearly was missing his best stuff on Friday. In addition to the season highs in runs and homers, he matched a season-low with two punchouts and permitted nine hits. Of slightly greater concern to the Sox, in his first two starts of the second half, he’s yielded four or more earned runs in both — the first time all year that he’s struggled thusly in consecutive games.

“Ballpark got me a little bit, a couple of times. Their guy pitched pretty good,” said Lackey. “I felt fine, yeah. Just didn’€™t pitch good enough tonight.’€

Daniel Nava, in the lineup for just the third time in the second half, seemed overmatched by quality fastballs, striking out twice, including in a pivotal bases-loaded situation with two outs in the top of the first. He went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts and a walk.

Mike Napoli, who had shown signs of getting hot in the second half, had a dreadful night, going 0-for-3 with a pair of strikeouts and grounding into a double play. He did negotiate a walk.

Jose Iglesias went 0-for-3 with a strikeout. He’s now gone 15 games without either a walk or an extra-base hit, the fourth longest streak by any Red Sox since 2000, a span in which he’s hitting .164/.190/.164.

WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX

Drake Britton showed impressive power out of the bullpen, entering in relief of Lackey and recording a groundout (Nick Markakis), strikeout swinging (Adam Jones, fastball) and a strikeout looking (Chris Davis, fastball) in an inning of work (two outs in the seventh, one in the eighth). Despite never having pitched out of the bullpen before his call-up this month, he’s now recorded four scoreless innings in as many appearances to start his career.

“He’€™s been great. Tonight, came in and got strikeouts. Obviously has a live arm. Competes. Doesn’€™t look like he’€™s scared,” said Lackey. “He got put in a couple of situations where he’€™s come through for us and it looks like, with that kind of stuff, that kind of arm, you don’€™t have a whole lot to be scared of. Fire it in there.’€

— On a night when the Red Sox amassed just three hits, Jacoby Ellsbury represented the majority of the team’s offensive attack, collecting a double and a single while going 2-for-4. He’s hitting .333 with a .917 OPS in July.

Shane Victorino gunned down J.J. Hardy, attempting to score from second, at the plate, to record his team-leading seventh outfield assist of the season.

David Ortiz went 1-for-3 with a walk and a strikeout. However, despite his solid night, he’s now gone 11 straight games without a homer, his longest such streak since ending 2011 in a 19-game home run drought.

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