Red Sox unravel in Kansas City during controversial 7th inning

The Boston Red Sox let a winnable game slip away in a pivotal inning

The Boston Red Sox entered a four-game set with the last-place Kansas City Royals knowing it was a series they had to win.

A sweep is now out of the question, as the Sox already dropped the series opener on Thursday in embarrassing fashion. Boston rallied to tie the game at three in the top of the seventh inning but the score wouldn’t remain even for long. The Royals tagged lefty reliever Darwinzon Hernandez for four runs in a controversial bottom of the seventh.

Hernandez missed with the first three pitches he threw to Royals No. 9 hitter, Nicky Lopez. He battled back to a full count but ultimately walked Lopez on seven pitches to lead off the inning. A base hit by MJ Melendez put men on the corners and Bobby Witt Jr. drove in the go-ahead run with a single to left center field.

It was clear that Hernandez, who has a well-documented history of control issues, didn’t have it that night. He had put his team back in a hole but the Red Sox could have stopped the bleeding by turning to a more trustworthy arm in their bullpen. Escaping the jam to keep it a one-run game puts a comeback within reach.

Manager Alex Cora surprisingly stuck with Hernandez to face Salvador Perez. The veteran catcher fired a 110.4 mph laser down the left field line on a 93 mph meatball over the middle of the plate.

The ball struck the green padding below the yellow foul pole and bounced back onto the field. The umpires ruled it a home run and after a lengthy review, the call was upheld.

The foul pole extends with a yellow line that covers the ledge above where the ball struck and travels down to the warning track. A ball that hits the foul pole is considered a home run. It’s baffling why that small section below the pole has green padding instead of the matching yellow if it’s considered part of the pole. Otherwise, that’s a wall-ball double.

Apparently, the Kauffman Stadium ground rules don’t specify anything about that sliver of outfield wall. Without an official rule dictating how it should be handled, the umpires had to stick with the call on the field.

Cora walked out on the field to get an explanation but was given a quick hook instead by home plate umpire Bill Welke. He was covering his mouth to prevent anyone from reading his lips but Cora appeared to be calm when discussing the call and he was even smiling moments before he was ejected. Sure, it’s possible that he was putting on a fake smile through a profanity laced tirade but that’s not Cora’s style. His actions didn’t seem to warrant getting tossed.

As controversial as the home run call was, it didn’t cost the Red Sox this game. The hard ricochet off the padding forced left fielder Tommy Pham to chase the ball nearly all the way to center field, giving plenty of time for both base runners to score. The lead-footed Perez probably would have held at second base if it hadn’t been ruled a home run and he may not have advanced considering how the rest of the inning played out. The Royals would have still taken a 6-3 lead.

One additional insurance run didn’t matter when Boston’s bats failed to score in the final two innings. It’s a different story if it had been a one-run game since the Red Sox would have put the tying run on base in both the eighth and ninth. That puts significantly more pressure on a pitcher compared to protecting a three or four-run lead.

Who do we blame for this Red Sox meltdown?

Many will question why the erratic Hernandez was sent in for the seventh inning of a tie game. He had been called up from Triple-A Worcester earlier that day and his last stint in the majors ended in disaster. Hernandez owns a horrific career 7.4 BB/9 that doesn’t inspire much confidence in a tight game.

The decision to use Hernandez was primarily based on the Royals starting the inning with a pair of left-handed hitters. The southpaw has held lefties to a .164 batting average in his career. If you’re not willing to use Hernandez in that spot, why bother calling him up to the big leagues?

A lack of options was also a factor. Austin Davis was the only other lefty available in the bullpen and he’s been heavily leaned on lately. Over the previous nine days, Davis had logged 4 2/3 innings and thrown 100 pitches in four appearances.

Chaim Bloom is drawing criticism for putting Cora in this unenviable spot by failing to upgrade the bullpen at the trade deadline. Hernandez was called up after Bloom shipped Jake Diekman out of town. Considering Diekman’s own control issues, would we really have trusted him in that spot?

Bloom could have traded for a more reliable lefty instead of calling up Hernandez but the market wasn’t exactly overflowing with appealing options. Aside from Josh Hader, who the San Diego Padres surrendered a hefty haul to acquire, which lefty reliever was dealt at the deadline that the Red Sox should have outbid the competition for? It’s easy to say that Boston’s bullpen needed a shutdown lefty for that spot but it’s much more difficult to find an available option for a reasonable cost. Otherwise, every contender would have added one.

Starting the inning with Hernandez was reasonable under the circumstances. Sticking with him against Perez, who mashes lefties to the tune of a .282/.325/.888 slash line, was where Cora went wrong. Hernandez had faced the minimum three batters, failing to retire any of them. That was the time to get him when the game was still within reach.

John Schreiber hadn’t pitched in the previous two games. Garrett Whitlock hasn’t been used yet this month. Either of those right-handed relievers would have had much better odds of limiting the damage to one run to bail out Hernandez.

We shouldn’t blame Cora for sending Hernandez in to start the inning but we can certainly question why he didn’t have the lefty on a shorter leash. Seeing the light-hitting Vinnie Pasquantino, a lefty with fairly even splits, on deck wasn’t a convincing reason to allow Hernandez to face Perez. He was followed by right-hander Hunter Dozier, who can also punish left-handed pitching.

Cora should have pulled Hernandez after three batters. Instead, he kept him in long enough to allow the Royals to blow the game open on a play that led to the manager getting the hook instead.