Rafael Devers reacts to striking out during Boston’s 9-5 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday night. Boston lost all three games to Tampa Bay and trails in the AL East by 1 game. Scott Audette/Associated Press

This has been a mostly magical season for the Red Sox. We’ve had four months of baseball featuring dozens of come-from-behind wins and a cast of likable characters who have bonded together to put the stench of 2020 behind them.

Fans who jumped on the bandwagon early have been treated to an unexpectedly fun ride. There haven’t been a lot of bumps along the way.

Until now. The dreaded dog days of August have come early for the Red Sox. They have lost four straight games for the first time all season, and are 1 game behind  Tampa Bay after being swept by the Rays at Tropicana Field. The Sox were outscored 19-10 over three games, giving up a hold on first place that they’d held since June 28 and were swept in a three-game set for the first time since the season-opening series with the Orioles.

The lost weekend in St. Pete was made worse by Boston’s inability to land a starting pitcher at the trade deadline. While the other contenders bulked up for the stretch run the Sox decided the asking price was too high for the likes of Max Scherzer (who went to the Dodgers) or José Berríos (the Blue Jays.)

It was a sellers’ market with an eye-popping list of players moved before the 4 p.m. deadline. Ten players who were named All-Stars this season were moved, including outfielder Kyle Schwarber, who the Red Sox acquired on Thursday night.

Schwarber is on the injured list and will get a long look at first base, a position he has never played at the major league level. It’s an area of need for the Sox, who have the MLB’s lowest on-base percentage at the position.

Anthony Rizzo seemed like a better fit, but the Yankees grabbed him, and he responded with two home runs and an eighth inning, tying RBI in three games with New York.

If Schwarber can handle the position he’ll be a great fit with the Sox. If not they’ll have to move him around the outfield and DH to get his big bat in the lineup. The bigger need for the Sox right now is starting pitching.

Nate Eovaldi’s performance Saturday night was the third straight time a Sox starter gave up six or more runs, the first time that’s happened in two seasons. The Sox have the second-highest starters’ ERA over the past week.

All of this means the Sox will be leaning on the return of Chris Sale to prop up their sagging rotation. Sale was strong on Saturday in his rehab start with Worcester, and will make one more start later this week. Barring a setback he should return to the team next week to face the Rays at Fenway Park.

Tanner Houck, who has a 2.45 ERA in six appearances (four starts) with the Sox this season, will return to the club for Saturday’s doubleheader in Toronto. If he performs well you would think the Sox would have to keep him going forward, especially with another doubleheader looming in the Bronx 10 days later.

Those two arms, and Nick Pivetta’s performance on Sunday night at the Trop (three earned runs allowed in 4 2/3 innings) represent the hope that this rotation won’t crumble late in the season. Eovaldi has been Boston’s most consistent starter and he should be able to bounce back from one bad night.

“We’re still here,” Manager Alex Cora said after Sunday’s game. “Obviously we don’t like losing. We want to be more consistent. It’s just part of the game.”

Strap in for these final two months because the ride is getting bumpy. The Yankees and Blue Jays were two of the deadline’s biggest buyers and this is once again shaping up to be a four-team race.

It’s a remarkable turnaround from where they were a year ago. Now, Cora’s team has to live up to the expectations they spent the last four months building.

Tom Caron is a studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on NESN. His column runs on Tuesdays in the Portland Press Herald.


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