In the annals of hard-to-watch Red Sox games, the sixth inning on Monday night deserves special mention. Followed by the seventh, eighth, and ninth.
If you trust, as I do, that manager Alex Cora is not about to sabotage his team's remote playoff chances out of some petty grievance with chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, it hardly helps make sense of what unfolded vs. the Astros.
Facing a must-win game against a team they're chasing for a wild card, the Red Sox entered the sixth with a 4-3 lead. That they had entrusted it to journeyman right-hander Kyle Barraclough seemed dubious, but if trouble arose, he could certainly be replaced.
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Instead, the Astros started dancing the conga around the bases while the Red Sox bullpen remained quieter than a Sunday morning Chick-Fil-A.
The Astros batted around and scored six runs and still no one stirred. Barraclough allowed two runs in the seventh and two more in the eighth, including the home run that completed Jose Altuve's salt-in-the-wound cycle, before we finally saw movement in the form of Mauricio Llovera. But by that point the game -- and maybe the season -- was over.
The obvious question -- How the hell could this happen? -- had an answer. Because Red Sox starters not named Brayan Bello generally can't pitch past the fifth inning, and because the schedule has been so unforgiving during this stretch of 25 games in 26 days, Cora had basically zero healthy relievers in front of setup man Chris Martin and closer Kenley Jansen.
Cora had hoped for length out of Chris Sale, but that story predictably ended with two outs in the fifth, prompting Sale to go full self-flagellation mode after the game, which I won't bother quoting, because you've heard it all before. (TLDR; he's letting the team down).
It turns out an opener-heavy rotation only works when you've got a couple of days off a week, which the Red Sox enjoyed for a nice stretch of July. Once the meat grinder of August arrives, otherwise reliable arms tire, which meant no Nick Pivetta or Josh Winckowski. Players returning from injury can't go every day, either, which meant no Jon Schreiber or Garrett Whitlock. And with Brennan Bernardino on the COVID list, the Red Sox missed their only healthy left-hander.
So Cora rolled the dice with Barraclough and came up not so much empty as bereft.
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It's hardly Barraclough's fault. Monday's misery traces to the front office's stubborn refusal to help the pitching staff when injuries waylaid 60 percent of the rotation. The Red Sox survived for a month, but attrition never stops marching, and it turns out the Barracloughs and Lloveras of the world aren't really solutions, at least not if you're trying.
Barraclough couldn't throw a strike to save his life. He walked five and hit three. He had no hope of protecting that one-run lead. Not since Bobby Valentine inexplicably left Jon Lester to eat 11 runs vs. the Blue Jays in 2012 has a manager effectively told his pitcher, "You're on your own."
Cora hated doing it.
"It's awful," he said. "I feel bad. ... You saw me. Probably my face was all over TV. It's uncomfortable."
Cora considered sending a position player out for the ninth, but Barraclough asked to finish things off, which gives him points for perseverance that nevertheless will not help his ERA. When the carnage subsided, the right-hander had allowed 10 runs on 11 hits.
But with the Red Sox running it back without a break, there's no longer anywhere to hide.
"It's tough, but this is where we're at," Cora said. "It's 16 games in a row. A lot of teams go through this. We've just got to get over that hurdle. Right now for us, this is where we're at. We're going to be in better shape tomorrow, bullpen-wise. Much better."
That's a positive spin, but it can't be much consolation for Barraclough, who wore this one like Lady Gaga's meat dress after a week festering in the sun.
Barraclough was pitching for the independent High Point (N.C.) Rockers in June when the Red Sox purchased his contract and sent him to Triple-A Worcester. The 33-year-old has actually spent parts of eight seasons in the big leagues since 2015, and he is well-traveled to the point of relevance on the Immaculate Grid, between stops with the Marlins, Twins, Giants, Angels, Nationals, and now Red Sox.
Cora had expected he'd throw strikes, but he was instead thrown to the wolves. That's just how it goes sometimes, especially when your season is heading nowhere and we're all on the lookout for rock bottom.
On Monday it looks like we finally may have found it.