BOSTON -- If there was one moment last season when the Boston Red Sox began to prove they were very much for real, it was their 35th game -- on the 12th night in May -- when they opened a series at Fenway Park by putting an 11-1 beating on the Houston Astros and defending Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel.
Suffice it to say, this isn't going to be like last season.
That couldn't have been clearer Friday night. In their 35th game -- on May 12, no less -- the Sox sent their reigning Cy Young winner to the mound in a series opener at Fenway. And they supported Rick Porcello with one hit and two errors through six innings of an eventual 5-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, Porcello's fifth defeat in seven decisions after dropping only four games all of last year.
The Red Sox rallied in the seventh inning, taking advantage of three Rays errors to score four runs. But they wasted a two-on, none-out rally in the eighth in part because Hanley Ramirez, who slugged 30 homers and drove in 111 runs in a renaissance 2016 season, was nursing a sore right trapezius muscle and unavailable to pinch hit. Instead, Josh Rutledge grounded out to end the inning, leaving the tying run on third base.
Rutledge was spared a throwing error in the third inning but made one in the fourth, the Red Sox's 13th error at third base, five more than any other team and already half of their total at the position from all of last season.
"It's been a tough position for us, make no mistake about it," manager John Farrell said. "We've made far too many errors there as a group. Tonight I thought there were some long transfers on Rut's part that led to some tardy throws. Opportunity is there for someone to step up and grab the job."
Of course, to pin the outcome of one game on Rutledge's mistakes would be as simplistic as blaming an 18-17 record through 35 games entirely on shoddy defense at third base. These Red Sox, in their first season without retired slugger David Ortiz, haven't hit like last year's team, which outscored every other club in the American League by more than 100 runs. And led by the motley crew at third base, they haven't fielded like last year's team, which featured three Gold Glove finalists.
It has made life unnecessarily difficult for the pitchers, none more than Porcello. Last season, the Red Sox supported him with an average of 6.83 runs per start; this season, they have given him only 4.38. Porcello also has yielded seven unearned runs, second most in the league behind only Chicago White Sox lefty Derek Holland (11).
"It's part of baseball," Porcello said of being let down by his defense. "That's out of your control. You've just got to focus on making pitches regardless what happens. That's it. That's the one thing your mindset can be."
At this point last season, the Red Sox were in the midst of a 15-7 roll that pushed their record to 31-20 through Memorial Day. They did it with their bats, scoring 157 runs in that 22-game span, including a stretch of four consecutive games with at least 11.
But once again, this clearly isn't last season. Although the Sox scored 28 runs in two games last weekend in Minnesota, they haven't gotten on a real roll yet. And they haven't won more than two games in a row since a four-game winning streak April 15-18. At a time in the schedule when they're playing sub-.500 teams such as the Rays and Milwaukee Brewers, they seem to be treading water.
Rather than holding steady in first place, as they did a year ago, the Red Sox are closer in the standings to last-place Tampa Bay than they are to the first-place Baltimore Orioles.
By now, though, it's evident that the Sox will have to win differently this season if they're going to be taken seriously as a contender. Without Ortiz, the offense is bound to be less consistent and far less potent, which puts more of the onus on the pitching and defense to be sharper.
"I don't think anybody in here is satisfied despite the challenges that we've gone through as a team," Farrell said. "Every team has their challenges in their own right, injuries and otherwise. But we feel there's a real capability that we could be better. That's a pitch made differently in one certain way or if that's a swing of the bat a little different or a play made that would lend to that."
Just don't go expecting things to suddenly go as smoothly as last year.