'Right now, they're better than us': As Rays rock Red Sox, pressure mounts in Boston

BOSTON -- The 2019 Boston Red Sox made an admission this weekend: They're not as good as the Tampa Bay Rays -- at least not right now.

Boston squandered an opportunity to climb back up the American League East standings this past weekend, when Tampa Bay took three of four games, putting the Red Sox seven games behind the Rays and New York Yankees in the division race. The last time Boston won a series against a team with an above-.500 record was at the end of April, when the Red Sox swept the Rays at Tropicana Field. In this past series, Tampa Bay routinely displayed its dominance, outscoring Boston 21-9.

"Right now, they're better than us," Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. "We've gotta keep working. We've been saying all along, we've gotta be better with men in scoring position, executing out of the bullpen. Everything."

Seeing Boston squander opportunities to score with men on base has become routine. In his postgame news conference Sunday, Cora highlighted one such instance from the first inning, when the Red Sox had outfielder Mookie Betts on third base and Christian Vazquez on second with no outs following a single, a walk and a wild pitch from Rays lefty Blake Snell.

Boston followed with three straight strikeouts from Xander Bogaerts, Michael Chavis and Eduardo Nunez.

The Red Sox have looked overmatched against Rays pitching before. Tampa Bay starter Yonny Chirinos retired the first 15 Red Sox hitters in order Friday, allowing just two hits in eight shutout innings. That wasn't a fluke, either: The Rays rank first in baseball with a 2.96 team ERA.

"S---, give them credit," Bogaerts told ESPN. "Their pitching was real good. S---, you've got Blake Snell on the mound, and he worked out of it with big pitches at big times. Last year, we capitalized a lot more on those opportunities, and it hasn't been there."

Boston finds itself in a dramatically different position heading into this June 10 than last year's, when the team was tied for first place with the Yankees with a 44-21 record, 14 games ahead of the Rays. Boston finished the season with 108 wins, a franchise record for a season, before winning the World Series. On June 10 this year, the Red Sox find themselves looking up in the division -- way up.

There are caveats here. Slugger J.D. Martinez was out of the starting lineup Sunday for the fourth straight game due to back tightness, missing the entire Rays series. Boston was also without first baseman Mitch Moreland, who leads the team with 13 home runs. But Cora said the offensive consistency problems that have plagued the team all season continue to persist.

"We keep addressing it and keep talking about it," Cora said. "It's game planning. They made some good pitches too. It's game planning. We have to attack them as a group. Like I said earlier today, doing the little things. A ground ball up the middle, make contact, all of that stuff that helps you get to the big hit. We haven't done that in a while. We have to start doing it."

With the trade deadline a little over a month and a half away, Boston sits in a definitive third place in the AL East. Boston entered the season expected to compete in the same weight class as the Houston Astros and Yankees. Instead, the Red Sox have struggled to keep up with the best teams in the American League, posting a 7-13 record against the Astros, Yankees and Rays thus far.

Dave Dombrowski, Boston's president of baseball operations, was confident about this team. He brought back much of last season's World Series-winning roster, with closer Craig Kimbrel being the only major departure. Cora came into the season confident too, telling reporters at the 2019 BBWAA Boston dinner, "If you thought last year was special, wait 'til this year."

The team hasn't played up to that expectation so far, and with a fan base like Boston's, opting for the status quo can lasts only so long when things aren't going well. This, after all, is a city that spent time speculating on local sports radio about whether its teams could string together titles in all four major American professional sports leagues. Boston doesn't acknowledge postseason participation medals, and as the Bruins' Stanley Cup run wraps up this week, the Red Sox will face increasing scrutiny if the self-feeding circle of inconsistency and mediocrity doesn't end soon. Public acceptance of the Red Sox status quo could disappear if the team's performance does not change quickly.

But things aren't all doom and gloom. David Price, who has been Boston's best and most consistent pitcher, continued his stellar season, throwing six innings against the Rays on Saturday, allowing one run, striking out 10 and walking two batters. Since Aug. 1, including the postseason, Price has 150 strikeouts in 133 2/3 innings pitched with a 2.96 ERA and 1.09 WHIP.

Meanwhile, Bogaerts continues to play like the best shortstop in baseball, hitting .291/.374/.516 with 12 homers, 19 doubles and 42 RBIs, and is on pace for 29 homers and 103 RBIs. Boston will need them both when the Texas Rangers come to town Monday for a four-game series. The Rangers sit one game above the Red Sox in the wild-card standings.

A poor performance against Texas could cement Boston's status as a team resigned to chasing the second wild-card slot alongside the likes of the Rangers, Oakland Athletics and Cleveland Indians. Bogaerts said the team knows it needs to be more consistent at the plate if it hopes to make anything resembling a playoff run. When asked the reason for the team's lack of consistency, the shortstop did not pretend to have answers.

"I don't know," Bogaerts said. "I don't know."

He paused, gathering his thoughts.

"It'll come," he said.