Red Sox’ Division Lead Slips Away Amid Offensive Struggles, Which Is Ironic Given Current Trade Chatter

Dustin PedroiaThe Red Sox had been atop the American League East for 60 straight days since reclaiming the division lead on May 27. They’ll need to start a new streak.

Chris Tillman completely shut down Boston’s offense and the Orioles launched four home runs as Baltimore coasted to a 6-0 victory Friday. The Rays, meanwhile, took care of the Yankees, meaning that Tampa Bay now holds a half-game lead over Boston in the AL East.

The reason for the flip-flop is rather ironic.

With the trade deadline less than a week away, much of the talk surrounding the Red Sox has focused on their need for pitching, and understandably so. The Red Sox’ bullpen could use a boost, especially after losing Andrew Bailey and Andrew Miller, and Clay Buchholz’s uncertain status makes it reasonable to think that Boston could consider dealing for a starter. But amid all the speculation, it’s the offense that’s been coming up short.

The Red Sox only mustered up four hits Friday, and they were shut out for the third time in nine games. If you take out Boston’s 8-7 win over New York on Sunday, the Red Sox are averaging less than two runs per game in that span.

The Red Sox entered Friday’s contest sitting atop the majors with a .346 on-base percentage, 519 runs, 500 RBIs, a .785 OPS and 354 extra-base hits, so it’s hard to complain too much about Boston’s offensive production. Plus, the Red Sox have faced some stiff competition recently, as they’ve squared off against the likes of Tillman, David Price, Matt Moore, Hiroki Kuroda, Bartolo Colo, and even CC Sabathia, although he was touched up Sunday. Down the stretch, however, good pitching will likely become the norm, and the Red Sox will need to be able to make in-game modifications when things aren’t going their way.

“Well, we’ve got to adjust to the pitcher on the mound,” manager John Farrell said. “In those games reference, they’ve attacked the strike zone early [and] they’ve pitched ahead in the count for the most part, with the exception of the first inning [Friday], where we were able to bunch together a couple of walks in there. But other than that, when we’ve gotten some pitches on the plate, like tonight, we squared some things up [and] it doesn’t go our way. But the opposition has attacked the strike zone early and has gotten ahead of us.”

The Red Sox pride themselves on grinding out at-bats, but it’s tough to grind out at-bats when the opposing pitchers are pounding the strike zone. Tillman followed a two-out single with back-to-back walks in the first inning Friday, but he struck out Daniel Nava to escape the bases-loaded jam, and it was smooth sailing from there for the right-hander. Tillman allowed just one hit and one walk the rest of the way.

“First game of the series, if we get a big hit [in the first inning], it quiets the crowd a bit and gets us rolling,” Dustin Pedroia said. “I liked the way we got to that point. The more opportunities that we have with the bases loaded and guys grinding out at-bats — Nap’s at-bat was great, David’s at-bat was good — so that’s what makes us good, over and over, [No.] 1 through 9. We gotta do that.”

The Red Sox aren’t going to change their offensive approach any time soon. It has worked for almost four months, and in all likelihood, the unit is just going through a rough patch. But the woes are still somewhat concerning when you consider that they’ve come against divisional opponents — and pitchers — that the Red Sox need to beat. And the Sox won’t beat those opponents until they stop beating themselves.

“There’s times when two or three guys go into funks and other guys step up, so it seems like right now everybody’s trying to be the guy who gets us out of it,” Pedroia said. “That makes it tough because then you try too hard and you’re coming out of what makes you good. We’ve just got to take a step back and have quality at-bats and pass it to the next guy.”

The Red Sox have been in first place or tied for first for 98 days in 2013 — including the All-Star break. They’re now looking up at the Rays, and surprisingly, it’s the offense that’s failing them.

Have a question for Ricky Doyle? Send it to him via Twitter at @TheRickyDoyle or send it here.

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