BOSTON -- Sometimes you just have to tip your cap. A lot of teams have been doing that to the Tampa Bay Rays lately.
Behind the easiest-looking nine innings one might ever witness from lefty Matt Moore, the Rays struck first in a big four-game series at Fenway Park on Monday, scoring a tidy 3-0 victory and moving to within a half-game of the Red Sox in the American League East. Boston, which has been in first place alone for nearly two months, turns to Jon Lester on Tuesday in an effort to stay on top of hard-charging Tampa Bay, which has won 14 of 15 games and 18 of 20.
Rookie Brandon Workman allowed two runs in six innings to provide the silver lining for the Red Sox, who have lost seven of 13. That qualifies as a slump when you lead the majors in wins, and it might be worth noting that Boston has been shut out three times in that span.
Here is some of what we saw along the way:
That’s Moore like it: The Red Sox had scored 13 runs in 21 1/3 innings in their prior encounters with Moore but some of that came as the youngster was finding his game. Aside from an ugly three-game losing streak in June, it appears as if he has found it.
Moore faced only one over the minimum through the first six innings and let just one man reach second base, that being David Ortiz, who singled with two outs in the seventh and scampered up 90 feet on a wild pitch. Boston managed just two hits and a walk.
The 24-year-old Moore needed 109 pitches to win his sixth straight start since that June slump, record his first career shutout and improve to 14-3. With Moore and David Price, the Rays have a legitimate two-headed monster at the front of their rotation, much like the one of which the Red Sox boasted before Clay Buchholz was shelved and Jon Lester began to struggle.
No wonder the gap between the teams has closed by 6 1/2 games in less than a month.
Work it: Manager John Farrell raved the last couple of days about Workman’s demeanor. He recognizes the youngster’s ability to not become overwhelmed by the moment. When the Rays started the game with three straight singles, that cool-as-a-cucumber façade was tested, and again the 24-year-old passed.
Workman first picked off leadoff hitter Desmond Jennings before escaping the jam with just one run scoring on a sacrifice fly. By limiting the damage in the first, Workman was able to settle down and keep his team in the game.
Farrell also has noted Workman’s ability to pound the strike zone, perhaps a by-product of that confident demeanor. The right-hander threw 68 of 103 pitches for strikes, a slight improvement from his outstanding effort at Oakland on July 14, when he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. He’s been steady and on target, all the Sox could ask for as they fill the Buchholz void.
Slow starts: Workman and Ryan Dempster, Sunday’s starter, combined to throw 64 pitches in the first inning. Their opponents threw just 24. Although Dempster eventually outshined counterpart CC Sabathia, and Workman hung in there against Moore, that kind of a disparity can set a tone.
Bottomed out: As the Red Sox navigate a portion of their season with a fluctuating left side of the infield and a catching tandem in Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway that is not providing much pop right now, the bottom of the order has become rather weak. Jose Iglesias’ average is plummeting toward normalcy, Stephen Drew is just getting back from the DL and there are a lot of Holts and Snyders showing up in the box score.
The 7-8-9 hitters have combined to go 5-for-65 (.077) with 21 strikeouts over the last six games. All five hits have been singles.
See you in September: Players on both sides will downplay the significance of these four games all week. Deep down they know that head-to-head games matter a bit more when you’re neck and neck with someone. And these two rivals do not meet again until Sept. 10-12 in Tampa Bay, three games that close out the front-loaded season series. Now’s a good time to make hay.