Tanner Houck cost Red Sox a game; he and others could cost them a playoff series

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Tomase: Implications of Houck's absence in Toronto go beyond ugly loss originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Red Sox winning virtually every game in June obscured a crucial fact -- they weren't exactly stomping opponents like the 2007 Patriots.

Even while taking 19 of 24, their margin for error remained fretfully slim. They won four one-run games and another by a score of 2-0 on a season-altering West Coast trip. They swept the Guardians over the weekend despite being tied in the seventh of Friday's opener and trailing in the sixth a night later.

Entering this week's showdown with the Blue Jays, they had to know it wouldn't take much to knock them off their axis. One minute the good times are rolling, the next they're rolling over like a wayward dune buggy. Or perhaps more aptly: One minute Tanner Houck is closing, the next he's staying home because Canada won't let him in the country.

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Tuesday's result was simultaneously surprising, predictable, and devastating. After another late-innings comeback, the Red Sox only needed three outs to secure a signature victory.

Instead they got none behind a pair of relievers ill-suited for the ninth. Perhaps that's why manager Alex Cora sounded so uncharacteristically irritated following the 6-5 walk-off loss that highlighted just how much the Red Sox should hope they don't visit the Jays in October.

"We're trying to get 27 (outs) there and we didn't finish it," Cora told reporters.

Houck cost them the game, and he spent it 500 miles away in Boston. Cora asked journeyman Tyler Danish to take the ninth against the most dangerous bats in Toronto's order after a perfect eighth, and he wasn't up to the task. Neither was replacement Hansel Robles, who blew his fifth save by allowing the tying single to Bo Bichette and the winning knock to Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

The ninth should've belonged to Houck, who assumed the closer's role two and a half weeks ago and promptly saved six games in six chances. His presence had finally allowed Cora to give shape to the late innings. His absence opened a wormhole back to April, when the Red Sox constantly blew winnable games.

Cora was asked about giving Danish a second inning instead of summoning, say, left-hander Matt Strahm, but let's be honest -- there were no good options against George Springer, Bichette, and Guerrero, especially after one of the AL's leading hitters, catcher Alejandro Kirk, led off with a pinch single.

"I mean, that's the way I saw it," Cora said. "That's the way I managed the game. I'm the manager here and I decided to go with (Danish) for two innings."

Each of the aforementioned batters swings right-handed. Strahm would've been a risky choice, because righties hit him 41 points better than lefties. The same cannot be said of Houck, who dominates righties to the tune of a .526 OPS. But his refusal to get vaccinated once again got in the way, just as it did in April, when his absence contributed to three losses in four games and sent the Red Sox into a tailspin that ended at 10-19 and the second-worst record in the American League.

Glaring loss

Houck's save percentage (6 for 6)

100.0

Save percentage of other Red Sox relievers (11 for 26)

42.3

Variation

Double

It took them six weeks to climb out of that hole, and they can only hope they're not about to tumble back in, especially since they're in the midst of 20 out of 23 games vs. the Jays, Yankees, and Rays.

That's their immediate concern, but the big picture poses problems, too. The Red Sox return to Toronto on Sept. 30 for the penultimate series of the season. They might need Games 157-159 to clinch a playoff berth. Furthermore, if the Jays win the wild card and the Red Sox finish second, then Toronto will host three games in October.

As things stand now, the Red Sox would be without Houck and outfielder Jarren Duran, who has provided a spark out of the leadoff spot. There's also the matter of rehabbing ace Chris Sale, who revealed in spring training that he's not vaccinated and hasn't addressed his status since. While there's time for all three to get a shot, that didn't help the Red Sox on Tuesday, and it won't help them in Wednesday's finale, when they look to avoid a sweep.

Players are entitled to individual choices, and no one wants to hear any more arguments about vaccines. But as Tuesday night reminded us, decisions such as Houck's have consequences that can impact the standings.