ST. PETERSBURG — The general thinking going into the season was that the Red Sox would have to figure out a few things pitching-wise, but they would have enough offense to stay afloat.
Surprisingly, a lack of thump through most of the lineup is at the forefront of why the Sox are off to a 7-9 start as they head to Toronto for a four-game series against the ever-dangerous Blue Jays, starting Monday.
In the rubber match of a three-game series against the Rays on Sunday afternoon, the Red Sox again couldn’t generate much offense, falling, 5-2, at Tropicana Field.
Just when it looked like the bats might be coming alive with a two-run first inning against Rays ace lefty Shane McClanahan, the Red Sox were stifled for the rest of the game.
How is this for a breakdown?
The Red Sox had four hits in their first five plate appearances. The rest of the game? They were 2-for-28 with one walk.
Much of that can be chalked up to McClanhan, who is one of the most underrated young starting pitchers in the game.
However, Sunday was the completion of a futile week offensively for the Red Sox. Playing for seven straight days, Boston scored 16 runs.
The Red Sox scored three runs or fewer in six of the seven games. The week-high performance was four runs in Friday’s 4-3 win over the Rays. Unsurprisingly, the team’s record was 2-5 during the week-long rut at the plate.
Unfortunately for the Red Sox, the slump isn’t limited to the week that just passed. Over 16 games, Boston has scored 58 runs, 3.6 per game. That is the club’s second-lowest total through 16 games in the 21st century.
The only time they scored fewer at the start of the season since 2000 was in the forgettable ’14 season, when they accumulated 56 runs through 16 games and also started 7-9.
“It’s still early,” said Red Sox hitting coach Pete Fatse. “We have guys still grinding, they’re working really hard. It’s just at this moment, it’s about putting good at-bats together and putting things together as a group, passing the baton to the next guy and hoping to string more runs across.”
So how is it that a team with so many established hitters is continually getting contained? The best answer to that question is that they are trying to figure it out.
“It’s a good question,” said Red Sox center fielder Kiké Hernández. “I think if we knew the answer to that by now, we would have figured it out.”
Sure, offensive slumps are always most glaring when they happen at the start of the season.
But the Red Sox realize that time is of the essence to get it going.
“Yeah, it’s a matter of time,” Hernández said. “But at the same time, we’ve been saying that for quite some days right now. We’ve got to figure out a way to get it done.”
Hernández (.180/.275/.328) is one of several hitters who hasn’t found a groove.
Trevor Story, who had a shortened Spring Training and early-season food poisoning, is also still trying to find it. The free-agent acquisition has a line of .234/.294/.298 and is still looking for his first home run with his new team.
Story did hit the ball hard several times over the weekend at Tropicana Field, but he has just one multihit game on the season.
“Yeah, he’s real close,” said Fatse. “Expecting [big] things from him going forward.”
The two players off to solid starts are Xander Bogaerts (.350/.371/.500) and Alex Verdugo (.291/.349/.491, three homers, 11 RBIs).
For the second straight season, Bobby Dalbec (.154/.214/.269) is off to a tepid start. Dalbec showed a glimpse by belting a triple that broke up a combined no-hitter by the Rays in the 10th inning Saturday night, but he went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts on Sunday.
While the Red Sox aren’t going to use an injury as an excuse, the timing of J.D. Martinez missing the past four games with a left adductor strain hasn’t been ideal. It’s unclear how soon Martinez will return. The fact that he hasn’t gone on the injured list yet is a good sign.
The tendency for slumping hitters is to press, which makes it only harder to get out of a slump. The key, Fatse emphasized several times, is for his hitters to stay in the strike zone.
Veteran starter Rich Hill, who fired four shutout innings after returning from the bereavement list, thinks this is just part of the process sometimes.
“It’s making things small and not trying to hit a three-run homer when nobody’s on,” said Hill. “I’ve seen it before in other places I’ve been that have excellent lineups, where you go through a little bit of a funk.
“It’s just like pitching. If I started thinking about the outing as a whole, I’m not going to be able to see what’s right in front of me. It’s the same way with hitting, I believe, taking that one-pitch-at-a-time mentality, that one-swing-at-a-time approach, that gets us back to where we need to be.”