When you have a starting pitcher on the ropes, it's imperative that you do not let him off the hook. If you have the opportunity to knock out the opposing team's starter, you absolutely want to get into their bullpen as fast as possible, and make them work and grind to get every out.
This is what the Red Sox failed to do to Detroit Tigers starter Max Scherzer after he struggled through his first three innings Thursday. Despite putting up two runs in the second inning and adding another in the third, the Sox couldn't do any more damage against a pitcher who didn't seem to have his best command.
After upping Scherzer's pitch count through the first three innings and looking like they might get to Detroit's bullpen — which has a 4.45 ERA thus far, the third worst in Major League Baseball — early, Scherzer essentially cruised through the latter three of his six innings. Before walking Nick Punto to begin the seventh inning, Scherzer had retired nine Red Sox in a row, and managed to escape with a quality start despite allowing nine baserunners in those six frames.
"We just let him off the hook," said Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine. "We had his pitch count up in the 80s after four innings. We were having good at bats, we just kind of let it slip away."
Letting games and opportunities slip away is exactly the kind of thing the Red Sox cannot afford at this point. After Thursday's 7-3 loss, the Sox remain only three games back of the Orioles and Rays for the AL East lead, but after their rough start to the season they probably can't afford to give back any winnable games. When you have a chance to sweep a four game series and keep your winning streak in tact, it's one less game you have to win in September. This is especially important in the ultra-competitive East.
It was Kevin Youkilis who exemplified what went wrong with the Sox on Thursday. After a very solid first two at bats, where he worked a walk and doubled, Youkilis struck out swinging on what looked to be a very hittable changeup to end the fifth. Working counts is exactly what you want to see from a team who has the opposing starter on the ropes, but somehow Scherzer was able to settle in and cruise during his last time through Boston's lineup.
From there on out the Detroit bullpen did exactly what it's failed to do most of the season — lock down the game. After Scherzer put Punto on to begin the seventh, Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde combined to put down the final nine Red Sox in order, while Rich Hill was busy giving up insurance runs.
Granted, on any given day you'd probably take the Red Sox' bullpen over the Tigers', but on this night their fortunes were reversed. However, if the Red Sox manage to deliver a knockout blow to Scherzer in the second or third, the whole game changes.