By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Chris Owings is a 28-year-old utility man who entered Wednesday night sporting an .083 batting average in his five games with Boston. He was dumped by the Royals earlier this season after he put together a solid .133 batting average. He currently leads the league in inspiring questions of “Who is that guy?” from Red Sox fans every time he’s stridden to the plate.
Nevertheless, undeterred by Owings’ struggles at the plate this year (and last year), Red Sox manager Alex Cora called upon Owings to hit with two outs in the eighth inning. With runners on second and third, Owings pinch hit for Marco Hernandez, representing the go-ahead run at the plate, as the Red Sox sought to avoid a two-game sweep at the hands of the Phillies.
What happened next was damn near magical: foul ball, called strike, ball one, strike three swinging. Inning over. Game (essentially) over. Season over (though that’s been true for some time).
Lefty-right matchups are one thing, sure. But typically, the manager inserting an .077 hitter to replace a .316 hitter with a runner in scoring position in the eighth inning would draw weeks worth of criticism, scorn and rage from the Red Sox fanbase. But in 2019? It’s just the latest 2019 occurrence to take place. It was very 2019. Perfectly 2019, even.
For his part, Cora explained the head-scratching decision.
“We felt like that was a good matchup for us,” Cora said of the Owings-Jose Alvarez matchup. “You know, fastball-changeup guy, down in the zone. [Owings] has struggled with fastballs up in the zone. So, we felt the matchup was good. He got some changeups and he swung and missed.”
It’s not the best explanation. It got a little worse.
“We were very patient today, waiting for the perfect matchup for us to hit for Marco. We felt like there, second and third, two outs, it was a good one,” Cora explained. “It just didn’t happen.”
For one, it didn’t happen because “it” has only happened in less than 17 percent of Owings’ at-bats dating back to last May. Secondly … perfect matchup?
If a Chris Owings pinch-hitting opportunity looks like the “perfect matchup,” then it might be time for Cora and his staff to take a day or two off from baseball in order to refresh the mind. A hard reset appears to be overdue.
The left-right usage only makes sense in a theoretical sense, too as the right-handed hitting Owens has actually hit better against righties (.135) than lefties (.115) this season. After Wednesday’s whiff, Owings now has a preposterous 31 strikeouts in 52 at-bats against lefties this season.
Doesn’t sound like the perfect matchup.
Of course, as is always the case with the Red Sox these days, there was no one single reason for this loss. Rick Porcello hung a breaking ball to Bryce Harper, who mashed it over the Monster. Porcello was tagged for three runs but lasted just five innings. Rafael Devers couldn’t handle a Christian Vazquez throw on a stolen base attempt, allowing the ball to trickle into left field and allowing the base stealer to waltz home. The Red Sox collectively went 2-for-8 with runners in scoring position, leaving nine runners on base. Mookie Betts, Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez went a combined 4-for-16 with zero extra-base hits. And Brandon Workman allowed a fifth Phillies run in the top of the ninth with the old walk/balk/single combination, making the Red Sox comeback in the bottom of the inning that much more unrealistic.
The Red Sox, as they tend to do, lost this game for a multitude of reasons.
Still, it was the insertion of Owings that stands out, much like it did two Sundays ago at Fenway Park against the Angels. That day was Owings’ Red Sox debut, after he had been scorching the baseball in Triple-A. Owings was rewarded with a spot atop the Red Sox’ batting order, even though he had flown to Boston on a 5:45 a.m. flight that same morning.
Owings rewarded Cora and the Red Sox by going 0-for-5 with three strikeouts, including a bases-loaded strikeout in the second inning and a strikeout to lead off in a tied game in the ninth inning. The perfect matchup must not have been available to Cora at the time.
That’s not to put too much focus on one player in two games, but when the team with baseball’s highest payroll is trying to win games when they are technically still alive in the wild-card race with players who weren’t good enough to stick on the miserable Royals this season, it’s a sign that very little has gone to plan for the 2019 Boston Red Sox.
For now, they’ll just have to wait for the next perfect matchup.