ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Joe Maddon did the best he could. One of his Full Maddon 2-1-4 zone defenses had taken a ball off the bat of David Ortiz that would have been a hit 999 times out of a 1,000 and turned it into an L-4 in your scorebook.
``A guy said to me the other day, `Why aren't you hitting .300?' " Big Papi said with a sigh. ``I said, `You been watching the games?' That's a hit. That's why I'm not hitting .300."
But there is only so much even an innovator like the Tampa Bay skipper can do. So it was that Papi hit a fifth-inning first pitch served up by James Shields over the left-center-field fence for a two-run homer. And so it was that Papi hit another first pitch, this one thrown by Shawn Camp, over that same left-center fence for a ninth-inning grand slam that broke open a one-run game and ensured that the plane ride to Chicago would be a happy one.
``You just can't play him high enough sometimes," Maddon said.
This was one weird, wonderful ballgame. Six runs in the ninth made the Red Sox 12-5 victors, but this was no laugher. The Red Sox never trailed, accumulating such early leads as 2-0 and 5-1. But the Devil Rays did not go gently into the night. They had designs on a sweep, and they eventually reached a point where they had the deficit down to 6-5 in the seventh, with the tying run on first following Aubrey Huff's solid, RBI single off Javier Lopez.
At this point, Red Sox manager Terry Francona entrusted the lead to Manny Delcarmen.
The kid from Hyde Park and West Roxbury High started Jorge Cantu off with one breaking ball and eventually finished him off with another for a fairly humungous strikeout. ``[Curt Schilling] said the whole at-bat was set up by that first breaking ball," reported Delcarmen, who has been growing up before our very eyes. ``You can see him gaining confidence," said pitching coach Al Nipper. ``You can see it in his demeanor out there."
The eighth inning belonged to Mike Timlin, who had been knocked around Tuesday. This time he had one out after one pitch, two outs after three, and a seat in the dugout after six.
``I don't think he looked old tonight," Francona noted.
``Yeah, it feels good to bounce back like that," said Timlin. ``It feels good to throw the ball well."
The ninth? Routine Papelbon. The Kid had not pitched since Sunday in Miami, so he had lots of giddyup on his fastball. He threw 10 strikes in 14 pitches during his 1-2-3 outing, fanning crowd fave Carl Crawford with a 95-mile-per-hour heater as a punctuation mark.
The Red Sox left town heaping praise on the Devil Rays, and trust me when I tell you none of it was lip service. From the moment Scott Kazmir threw his first pitch Monday, this was Tampa Bay's series. The home team won those first three games fair and square, and it was right in last night's affair until the ninth, when the Red Sox put on an impressive baseball clinic.
Alex Gonzalez got things started with his third hit, a sharp single to center. Remember, this was then a 6-5 game, and who says Francona won't play small ball when he has to? With Kevin Youkilis up, the manager called for a hit and run, and Youk somehow or other poked an outside pitch to the right side. A retreating Jorge Cantu couldn't make a clean pickup, and Gonzalez never broke stride. First and third, no one out.
``Youk did a great job," said Francona. ``That ball was well out of the strike zone, and then Gonzi made it to third. And then Loretta had a great at-bat."
Loretta walked, in fact, and that meant the bases were loaded with nobody out for Mr. David Ortiz. For once, Big Papi was looking out at a standard defense, but it really didn't matter how the fielders were deployed as he hit a low, outside fastball over the left-center-field fence for the sixth grand slam of his career, and the first hit in a ballpark that didn't open in 1912.
Papi said there was nothing particularly strategic about hitting two first pitches, particularly the second one. ``It was nothing," he explained. ``I was just trying to get something to hit."
``He's so good," said Maddon. ``And he's so good when it matters. He is an impressive hitter."
This was a game loaded with, you know, stuff. Manny Ramírez hit a Shields pitch deep into the left-field seats for a first-inning, two-run homer. Doug Mirabelli had a solo homer, two ribbies, and one memorable 270-foot sprint around the bases in front of a Gonzalez triple.
Yeah, triple. Take note. Anyone in attendance should save the ticket stub. The Red Sox are still dead last in all of baseball with seven triples. I mean, the Mets' Jose Reyes has 12 all by himself.
Tim Wakefield started, and he actually entered the fourth without allowing a hit. But he gave up homers to Huff, Crawford, and Cantu before departing in the sixth. We were told he had a back problem and that a week off will do him good. He was, however, the pitcher of record. He's now 7-8 and you know there is a hot streak lying in wait somewhere in the second half.
That's a lot of contributors, but that's the kind of night it was. The Red Sox needed this W. A sweep would have been real bad, and certainly no way to hit Chicago for what promises to be a very nice series.
This win was work. If the Devil Rays need any PR help, they can just turn to the Red Sox.
``They have a great offense," said Timlin, who's seen a few in his day. ``That's a good young team."
``I like that team," said Ortiz. ``They have some very talented players. They hustle all the time and right now their pitching is outstanding. Young teams don't always know about focusing every day, but when they learn that, look out."
``I've never been so happy to get out of here with a win," said Francona. ``I knew they were feeling good about themselves, and we didn't want them feeling any better. And if they get a lead they start running wild."
So it's goodbye to The Trop, and hello to The Cell, as in U.S. Cellular Field. Can't wait to hear what Ozzie has to say. About anything.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail is email@example.com