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Tanner Houck hit hard early, and Red Sox can’t recover in dropping road trip finale to Diamondbacks

Tanner Houck has often struggled on later trips through opposing batting orders, but the Diamondbacks were on him Sunday from the first inning.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

PHOENIX — Just one pitch into Tanner Houck’s outing Sunday afternoon, the Red Sox experienced a glitch. Catcher Connor Wong’s PitchCom malfunctioned, requiring a lengthy effort to surmount the technical difficulties.

Though the device was fixed, Houck soon proved in need of his own recalibration. The Diamondbacks lineup wasted little time in attacking the Sox starter, plating four runs before he recorded his fourth out of the game.

By the time the Red Sox showed offensive life in the final three innings, it was too late, with the Sox falling to the Diamondbacks, 4-2, in the final contest of the team’s nine-game Western swing.


“I wish I could go back and take back the first inning, but you can’t do it,” said Houck.

Entering Sunday, Houck had allowed just four first-inning hits all season, with opponents batting .133 against him in the opening frame. The Diamondbacks defied the pattern.

Houck yielded four earned runs in four innings of work.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Five straight Arizona hitters rocketed one-out hits against Houck, with a Ketel Marte single preceding a two-run, opposite-field homer by rookie phenom Corbin Carroll. Three straight followed with singles to push another run across the plate, leaving the Sox in a 3-0 hole.

Houck simply had nowhere to turn during the rally. The Diamondbacks collected their five hits on five pitch types — a cutter, four-seam fastball, sinker, slider, and splitter. One inning later, the hill became steeper.

Geraldo Perdomo jumped on a Houck sinker that stayed up and over the middle of the plate, sending a searing liner just over the fence in right for a solo homer that put Arizona ahead, 4-0, in the second.

Houck (3-4, 5.30 ERA) attributed those immediate struggles to faulty mechanics — becoming too rotational in his delivery, with his hand positioned too much on the side of the ball rather than on top of it. His slider and sinker thus moved side to side without downward break, staying in the nitro zone of Arizona hitters.


“Whenever I get two planes, horizontal and depth, my pitches are a lot better,” said Houck. “Whenever I get too rotational, everything flattens out, it’s a little easier to hit.”

Houck made the necessary adjustments to avoid damage thereafter — notable given his typical pattern of dominating early before fading in his second time through a lineup — and finished his four innings having allowed four runs on six hits.

But the four-run deficit seemed as vast as a nearby canyon of some renown, thanks to a masterful demonstration in the art of pitching by Diamondbacks starter Merrill Kelly. He flummoxed the Sox with a six-pitch mix that left players staring blankly at called third strikes.

Kelly (6-3, 2.83) struck out 10, six concluding without a swing. Both were season highs by any pitcher against the Sox.

“That’s pitchability,” saluted Sox manager Alex Cora. “In an era that people talk about overpowering stuff and all that, his command is perfect. Similar to, back in the day, like [Greg] Maddux . . . We battled with him. We did a good job putting [up] good at-bats, but we didn’t finish them.”

The Sox did mount a threat when Kelly tired in the seventh. He exited the game with two on and one out. Reliever Andrew Chafin then walked pinch-hitter Rob Refsnyder to load the bases, setting the stage for Alex Verdugo to line a two-out RBI single to left and make it a 4-1 game.


Devers was frustrated after a seventh-inning strikeout Sunday, slamming his bat and helmet to the ground.Christian Petersen/Getty

That brought Rafael Devers to the plate as the potential go-ahead run. But on a 2-and-2 count, Chafin blew a 94 mile-per-hour sinker past Devers, ending the threat. Devers, disgusted by the lost opportunity, slammed his helmet and bat to the ground.

“I didn’t think it was a good pitch,” Devers said through a translator. “I was frustrated.”

The Sox — who managed just three hits through the first six innings — continued to claw. Justin Turner led off the eighth with a solo homer off reliever Kyle Nelson to make it 4-2. Two more Sox runners reached, putting the tying run on base against righthanded reliever José Ruiz.

Pinch-hitter Raimel Tapia then barreled a Ruiz changeup, but his opposite-field fly expired on the warning track, a few feet shy of the wall, for the third out of the eighth. One inning later, Turner — representing the tying run — struck out against Arizona closer Miguel Castro to end the contest.

The scoring difficulties Sunday seemed an appropriate conclusion to a trip during which the Sox collected three runs or fewer in six of their last seven contests.

The team pitched well enough to claim wins in two of their three series, but went 4-5 thanks to an Angels sweep in the middle leg.

Certainly, they’re eager to return home. The Sox are 13-14 (.481) while averaging 4.3 runs per game on the road, and 15-11 (.577) with 6.0 runs per game at home. The Sox are hopeful the familiar Fenway setting will prove restorative when the team returns to the field Tuesday against the Reds.


“The beauty of this, all those lefties, they get home, they flip one to the Wall, and they’re back on track. We’ll do that,” said Cora. “Just stay on pitches, go the other way, and that’s the beginning of something good.”

Alex Speier can be reached at Follow him @alexspeier.