Tyler O’Neill’s three-run home run not enough as Red Sox lose 5-3 to Rays

As great as he’s been to start the season, Tyler O’Neill has done almost all of his damage with the bases empty. Entering Monday eight of his nine home runs had been solo shots, and the other was a two-run bomb.

That was bound to change eventually, but when the moment finally came the rest of the lineup couldn’t capitalize.

Outside of a clutch three-run home run by O’Neill in the bottom of the first, the Red Sox lineup otherwise no-showed against the Tampa Bay Rays, who took the first game of this week’s four-game series 5-3. The Red Sox collectively managed just six baserunners and went 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position from the second inning onwards.

The club also wasted a gutsy effort by starting pitcher Kutter Crawford, who allowed three runs on 35 pitches in the first inning but settled down to give the Red Sox a chance to win.

Before Monday O’Neill was becoming the poster child for the team’s woes with runners in scoring position. His nine home runs entering Monday collectively accounted for 10 of his 13 RBI, an astonishingly small number all things considered stemming largely from his being only 3 for 24 (.125) with RISP.

But after Wilyer Abreu singled and Rafael Devers doubled to put two men on with two outs, O’Neill smoked one to the Green Monster to tie the game at 3-3. In doing so he also surpassed his season total from last year (9), and is currently on pace to hit 39, which would top his career-high of 34 set in 2021.

“It’s good to come up clutch, those are situations that I want, obviously i’m coming up a little short lately so that’s been on my mind a little bit,” O’Neill said. “But for me it’s just about sticking to the process, a lot of at-bats coming, so I want to make sure I’m in good position to put a good swing on the ball when I get up to hit and make sure I’m controlling the strike zone.”

The homer was especially clutch given the way Tampa Bay had jumped all over Crawford to start the game. The Red Sox right-hander didn’t have his best stuff out of the gate, allowing three runs on four hits and a walk in the top of the first. He almost got out of the jam unscathed when Ceddanne Rafaela nearly made a preposterous diving catch that would have ended the inning, but the ball bounced off his glove and wound up giving Amed Rosario a two-run triple.

At that point a short outing seemed inevitable, but to Crawford’s credit he settled down and wound up finishing six innings, marking his sixth outing in nine starts with six innings or more, and his fifth straight. His 101 pitches were also a new career high.

“Those are the outings last year that game was 4.2 (innings), six runs, seven runs, and puts us in a bad spot for the rest of the series,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “After that he found it and gave us six, threw the ball OK, and he gave us a chance to win the game.”

Crawford only allowed one additional run from the second inning on, which came in the fourth on a Jose Siri sacrifice fly that scored Jose Caballero, who reached out a bloop double into no-man’s land and promptly stole third base. Crawford finished with four runs allowed on seven hits, a walk and six strikeouts, and he retired the last seven batters he faced.

“It’s still frustrating having a first inning like that, but for me at that point I’ve got to do everything I can to not get the bullpen in the game in the fourth inning,” Crawford said. “It makes it a little easier to lay my head down at night being able to go six, but still frustrating.”

The problem was the Red Sox couldn’t get much going against the Rays’ pitchers outside of O’Neill’s home run. The club stranded Romy Gonzalez at second in the second inning and wasted a Wilyer Abreu leadoff double in the third. Rays starter Zach Eflin wound up going five innings with six hits, no walks and two strikeouts along with the three-run home run, and right-hander Kevin Kelly followed with two scoreless innings of relief.

Tampa Bay ultimately tacked on an insurance run in the eighth on an RBI double by Rosario, who finished 2 for 4 with two extra-base hits and three RBI, and Jason Adam threw a scoreless ninth to record his third save of the season. Abreu was the only Red Sox batter with more than one hit, going 2 for 3 with a double and a run scored.

With the loss the Red Sox fall to 21-20 and stand a half-game ahead of the Rays (21-21) in the AL East standings. Boston will look to bounce back Tuesday when Nick Pivetta (1-2, 3.60 ERA) takes on Rays right-hander Aaron Civale (2-3, 5.88). First pitch is scheduled for 7:10 p.m.

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