The Red Sox, playing their 20th game in 20 days, took a heavy dose of fatigue and a ragtag bunch, relatively speaking of course, into Wednesday's series finale against the Minnesota Twins. It showed.
Three Twins pitchers limited the high-powered but restructured Boston lineup to eight hits — six singles — and then got to the Red Sox late, taking advantage of Terry Francona's need to give his bullpen a break.
The first factor was evident in the lineup card, which was without Dustin Pedroia for the first time in over two months. It was just a scheduled night off for Pedroia and he did get in late as a pinch hitter and remained in the game at second, but his absence spoke to the altered nature of this game.
The next scenario that signaled Francona's limited options came just as the Red Sox were beginning to mount some momentum. Jon Lester pitched very well, but trailed 2-0 after six innings. Boston rallied for an unearned run in the seventh and then got a solo homer from David Ortiz in the eighth to tie it.
Lester was at 106 pitches, certainly nothing he couldn't extend. But when he walked Joe Mauer to lead off the bottom of the eighth and his pitch count sailed to 112, it would've been a good time for someone like Daniel Bard or Matt Albers — the guys that have put out those little brush fires all year.
However, Francona was hoping to stay away from the oft-used Bard, had utilized Albers the night before and also had no Jonathan Papelbon.
Obviously, he would not be using Papelbon in such a situation, but the limited options meant that Francona needed to stick with Lester as long as he could. If there was a need for someone like Alfredo Aceves to get the save in the ninth or to carry the game into extra innings, it would not help to have him waste bullets in the eighth.
And so, Lester was left in there as Mauer moved to second on a groundout and then scored the go-ahead run on a double by Jim Thome. That's when the hook finally came, but it was perhaps a batter too late.
"With the pitch count the way it was, time to get him out of there just to preserve for next time," Francona said of Lester, who then watched as things got worse.
Aceves came on and gave up an RBI double to Danny Valencia that made it 4-2. After an intentional walk, Matt Tolbert lifted a fly to right that seemed catchable for Mike Aviles, who started in Pedroia's place but moved to right when Pedroia hit for Josh Reddick.
The ball sailed over the head of Aviles, setting up a bases-loaded situation that preceded another run-scoring hit to cap the rally.
Had Pedroia not needed a day off, the lineup shuffle would never have played out the way it did. Francona needed Pedroia to hit for Reddick when he did (two outs in the top of the eighth, go-ahead run at first, left-hander on the mound), and the only option in that case was to move Aviles to a position he barely knows. While Pedroia's an upgrade at second over just about anyone, the Reddick-for-Aviles swap does not help.
The misplay by Aviles was not the difference in the game, but it did force the Red Sox to pull the infield in, which helped Tsuyoshi Nishioka's grounder to get through to center and score the final run of the night.
None of this is a major issue. Francona simply needed to give a breather to a few players. But from the moment the lineup card was filled out to the point where things fell apart in the eighth, those 20 games in 20 days had an impact.
Thursday is the first day off since July 21 for the Red Sox. They almost made it.