ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Walk into the Devil Rays' clubhouse, canvass the room, and you will walk out with this conclusion: Personal feelings aside, there remains immense respect for 39-year-old Curt Schilling.
Talk to Ty Wigginton, whose solo shot leading off the Tampa Bay seventh snapped a 3-3 tie, propelling the Devil Rays toward a resounding 9-6 win, and he'll tell you his goal was merely to put bat on ball, not necessarily to put ball in seats. Talk to Jonny Gomes, who unloaded on an 0-and-1 splitter in the fourth, and he'll tell you he merely wanted to get the best of Schilling before Schilling put him in a defensive position.
``He threw an 0-0 fastball, which was probably the better pitch to hit," Gomes said. ``I thought to myself, `I don't want the at-bat to go too much further.' I was going to be real aggressive the next two pitches."
He was. His compact but spring-loaded swing sent a lingering splitter off the second catwalk in left-center. Gomes, talking to his teammates on the bench, estimated the blast to be 500 feet. Team staff estimated it to be 430 feet.
The distance matters far less than the statement those swings made: these Devil Rays -- maturing as a lineup and at long last healthy top to bottom with Rocco Baldelli, Jorge Cantu, and Gomes in the lineup at the same time -- can hit.
``Say what you want about the Tampa Bay Devil Rays," said Schilling, who certainly has over the years, ``but those are not the expansion Devil Rays any more. They have a very good lineup top to bottom, an AL offense that can hit. I would put that lineup against a lot of lineups in this league. When they get pitching they're going to win games."
They got pitching yesterday, in the form of former Sox lefthander Casey Fossum and three relievers. Fossum, for five innings and 100 pitches, was artistic, spotting breaking pitches where he needed, piling up eight strikeouts, including two of David Ortiz's on sweeping, mid-70s breaking balls. He allowed just four hits and only one run, on Gabe Kapler's homer with two outs in the fourth.
Kapler's at-bat was a memorable one. Fossum started him with an eephus pitch at 50 miles per hour for a called strike. Teammates said he throws about three of those per game. Kapler battled back to 3 and 1, then turned on an 87-m.p.h. fastball for his second homer of the season, pulling the Sox within 2-1 (they'd fallen behind on Julio Lugo's third-inning homer on a hanging Schilling curveball).
Loquacious Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, on Lugo: ``He's our catalytic converter."
Gomes made it 3-1 in the fourth, with his 18th of the year and first since June 11. A towering shot off the catwalk, the homer was his sixth measuring 430 feet or more this season. Until then, he'd been 0 for 16 in his career against Schilling, with 11 whiffs.
Kapler, though, who earned the start in place of Coco Crisp (0 for his last 14), delivered an RBI single in the sixth. Why Kapler over Crisp?
``Coco looks a little frustrated," Francona said of his starting center fielder, who is down to .267. ``He's so fast he's still getting hits but he's not swinging it like he's going to. I think it will do him some good."
Kapler, meanwhile, is batting .370 (10 for 27, 2 HRs, 7 RBIs) in 14 games since coming off the DL.
``I think you always know what you're going to get defensively and with his effort," Francona said. ``The nice thing is he came out swinging the bat so well. You can prepare all you want -- nobody does that better than Gabe -- but you can't predict whether a guy is going to be hot or not. It's been great."
Ortiz, in the seventh, tied it at 3-3 with a solo homer, his 27th. At this pace he'll hit 54 (Jimmie Foxx's club record is 50, in 1938).
Schilling (10-3), though, gave that back with his next pitch, to begin the bottom of the seventh.
``That's a pitch I've thrown probably 30,000, 40,000 times -- first-pitch fastball away," Schilling said. ``And I threw it right down the middle. And that's the game."
Schilling said he'd handled Wigginton in the past with his splitter and began with a fastball as a means of setting him up.
``In my mind that was the only fastball I was going to throw him in that at-bat," Schilling said.
And, indeed, it was.
That marked the sixth homer Tampa Bay had hit off Josh Beckett and/or Schilling in two nights. The Devil Rays have hit 108 homers through 84 games, 35 more than they hit through an equivalent number of games last season.
They piled it on in the eighth, turning a 4-3 lead into 9-3 against Mike Timlin (six batters, 4 hits, 5 runs, 3 earned runs, 1 out recorded).
``Jam shot to [Aubrey] Huff down the line, and it escalated," Timlin said.
Huff led off with a double. Cantu popped out, but then Gomes laced a run-scoring double to right-center. Greg Norton singled, and Wigginton, with a safety squeeze (the runner on third didn't break for home until the bunt was down) knocked in Gomes when Kevin Youkilis botched the bunt on a hop. Dioner Navarro then launched a two-run double to right-center, knocking out Timlin. Manny Delcarmen inherited the runner, who scored on a Carl Crawford triple.
``Just got beat up," said Timlin, who contends he's healthy. ``I'm fine. I just, today was not a good location day for me. My balls were up probably 2 to 3 inches [above] where they should have been. Guys in the major leagues hit, and they hit it hard."
Manny Ramírez hits hard too, and he did so in the ninth, unleashing a three-run bomb to dead-center off Shawn Camp. The ball cleared the 404-foot sign, the 20 or so feet between the wall and the Batter's Eye restaurant, and landed well up on the restaurant, which looms at least 30 feet high. The ball was estimated at 457 feet. An estimation of 470 to 490 would have been entirely believable.
Gomes said he hit one ball in that spot last year. He was appreciative of the homer but spent little time arguing which traveled farther, his or Ramírez's. The win was foremost on his mind.
``There's definitely a little bit more satisfaction," he said, of beating the Sox and Schilling. ``This is our first time we've played the AL East at full strength, with Rocco back, Cantu back, myself. We're a team to be reckoned with.
``The home runs are good. But Wigginton, hitting three home runs in two days and dropping down a squeeze, just shows what this team can bring to the plate."