On a night where the two teams directly behind them in the American League Wild Card race both lost, the Red Sox were unable to take advantage of the opportunity in front of them and instead dropped their series opener to the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field.
Boston fell to Chicago by a final score of 4-3 on Friday night, marking their fourth loss in their five games.
Tanner Houck, making his 11th start and 13th overall appearance of the season for the Sox, was quite simply not as sharp as he was in his last time out.
Coming off an outing in which he tossed five scoreless innings where he walked none and struck out seven against the Indians last Saturday, Houck’s command of the strike zone was not as sharp on Friday.
Over just 3 2/3 innings of work, the right-hander surrendered four runs — three of which were earned — on four hits, three walks, and one hit batsman to go along with one strikeout on the night.
After maneuvering his way around a walk in the first and putting up a 1-2-3 second, Houck ran into some trouble in the bottom of the third, where he was just one out — and one pitch — away from escaping a jam with runners at first and second base.
Rather than getting out of the jam, though, Houck served up a 378-foot three-run home run to the vaunted Jose Abreu off a hanging, 0-2 slider on the outer half of the plate.
Houck’s struggles did not end there, as he issued a two-out single to Eloy Jimenez before plunking Yasmani Grandal to put runners at first and second once more, but got out of the inning when Christian Vazquez gunned down Jimenez at second base for the final out.
Still, even after running into an out, the White Sox added on to their three-run lead in the fourth, with Gavin Sheets leading off by reaching first base on a Jose Iglesias fielding error while playing in the shift, moving up to second on a six-pitch walk of Brian Goodwin, and up to third on a Cesar Hernandez groundout.
Once again, Houck was just one out from getting through four full frames, but instead allowed that runner from third to score on an RBI single off the bat of Luis Robert that gave Chicago a 4-0 lead and marked the end of the line for the rookie righty as he got the hook from Red Sox manager Alex Cora.
Finishing with a final pitch count of 70 (39 strikes), the 25-year-old hurler was ultimately hit with his fourth loss of the year while raising his ERA on the season to 3.54.
In relief of Houck, left-hander Darwinzon Hernandez got the first call from Cora out of the Boston bullpen in order to face the switch-hitting Yoan Moncada from the right side of the plate.
Hernandez, in his first appearance since late July after being reinstated from the 10-day injured list on Friday, beaned Moncada to load the bases, but rebounded by getting Abreu to ground out to retire the side.
To that point in the contest, a J.D. Martinez-less Red Sox lineup had been held in check by White Sox All-Star starter Carlos Rodon. Bobby Dalbec, though, had other plans to lead off the top half of the fifth, as he stayed hot by crushing a 414-foot solo shot to deep left field.
Dalbec’s 21st home run of 2021 got the Sox on the board to make it a 3-1 game, but Rodon rallied by sitting down the final three batters he faced while former Red Sox prospect Michael Kopech got the first two outs of the sixth before running into some trouble himself.
Having seen Enrique Hernandez and Kyle Schwarber both punch out ahead of him, Hunter Renfroe changed the tone by drawing a five-pitch walk off Kopech and promptly moved up to second on a hard-hit single off the bat of Xander Bogaerts.
That brought Rafael Devers to the plate representing the tying run, and he — now matched up against left-handed reliever Aaron Bummer — could only manage a sharply-hit, inning-ending groundout that stranded yet another runner in scoring position.
Following scoreless innings of relief from Hernandez (in the fifth) and Michael Feliz (in the sixth), Dalbec again proved to be an offensive catalyst in his side’s half of the seventh.
With Ryan Tepera on the mound for Chicago, Dalbec lifted a leadoff triple just out of the reach of Goodwin in right field and quickly scored on an RBI groundout courtesy of Vazquez.
Danny Santana followed by ripping a single to right field and advanced into scoring position on a wild pitch from Tepera.
Alex Verdugo, coming off the bench to pinch-hit for Jose Iglesias in that spot, brought in Santana from second by lifting a 196-foot run-scoring single to left field.
That cut Boston’s deficit down to one run at 4-3, but they were unable to push across another runner in that particular inning.
After Adam Ottavino danced his way around a leadoff walk in the bottom of the seventh, former Red Sox closer and current White Sox reliever Craig Kimbrel countered by stranding a runner of his own in the top of the eighth.
Ryan Brasier, who took over for Ottavino, put two of the four batters he faced on base, while Josh Taylor came in and plunked Moncada to load the bases with two outs.
Taylor did manage to strand the bases loaded by fanning Abreu to keep it at a one-run game going into the ninth, where the bottom of the Boston lineup would be squaring up against another All-Star in Liam Hendriks.
Vazquez led off the ninth with an infield single and moved up to second on a groundout from Santana.
With the potential tying run in scoring position, Verdugo grounded out sharply to shortstop for the second out of the inning, while Travis Shaw — pinch-hitting for Hernandez — flew out to center field for the third out, meaning 4-3 would go on to be Friday’s final score.
With the loss, the Red Sox fall to 80-63 on the season as their lead over the Yankees for the first American League Wild Card spot remains at one full game.
Next up: Seabold(?) vs. Cease
The Red Sox have yet to officially name a starter for the middle game of this three-game set on Saturday, though it seems likely that that responsibility will fall to right-handed pitching prospect Connor Seabold, who traveled with the club to Chicago as part of their taxi squad.
The White Sox, meanwhile, will turn to fellow right-hander Dylan Cease as they look to secure a series win.
First pitch Saturday is scheduled for 7:10 p.m. eastern time on NESN.
(Picture of Bobby Dalbec: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)