ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- When Red Sox manager Terry Francona said new catcher Javy Lopez would have a short learning curve because the club could not afford otherwise, little did he know.
Lopez's role as neutral observer ended in the top of the third inning last night, when he was summoned to hit for Doug Mirabelli after Mirabelli twisted his left ankle and was forced to depart, a common occurrence in this week of living dangerously for the Sox. Instead of having the luxury of watching Curt Schilling, Lopez found himself catching him, the niceties of getting acquainted replaced by the necessity of learning on the fly in a 3-2 win over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays before a crowd of 27,871 cowbell ringers (there was a dairy promotion) at Tropicana Field.
``I'm not giving players any speeches anymore," said Francona, who didn't think he could feel worse than he did because of a heavy cold until he saw Mirabelli crumple to the ground after Carl Crawford's spike caught the catcher's ankle in a first-inning tag play at the plate, another nasty turn of events that was only partially mitigated by another two-homer night from David Ortiz, No. 39 breaking a 2-all tie in the eighth.
``I called [Lopez] in, gave him the `A' speech -- `Welcome to the club, take a night to relax,' " Francona said. ``A half-hour into it, he's the only catcher.
``I tell you what, he did a great job. Thankfully these guys [the Devil Rays] are in our division, so he's seen them a lot. It's also not his first rodeo. This guy has caught a lot of games."
Lopez experienced Schilling at his ferocious best, especially in the sixth inning. The Devil Rays, who took three of four from the Sox the last time they pitched their tent under the Trop, appeared focused on more of the same last night, except for that moment in the fourth inning when catcher Dioner Navarro charged into the dugout, flipping the ball to a fan after Kevin Youkilis was called out on strikes, only to discover it was just the second out.
No such lapses in concentration from Schilling (14-4), who dialed up the intensity -- and the velocity, touching 97 -- to strike out rookie B.J. Upton and Tomas Perez with the bases loaded to end the sixth, then blew a 95-mile-per-hour fastball past Jorge Cantu with a runner on to end the seventh with his 102d and last pitch.
``This is the time of year when you don't scale it back, you have to step it up, for me, from a physical standpoint and preparation, because you're going to have to make better pitches and pitch better at this point of the season," Schilling said. ``After the first pitch to B.J., I knew I had a lot left and went after it.
``After everything that has happened the last couple of days, and what the Yankees have done, I've told you guys time and again, I know where I belong here, I know what people expect from me every time I go out there. Winning games like this can be momentum changers. I understand my responsibility and that's why I was so frustrated early in the game."
Schilling dug in after a leadoff home run by Damon Hollins and another solo shot two innings later by Crawford seemed to augur a repeat of his struggles in his last start, when he gave up three home runs in an inning to the Angels in Fenway Park.
``The pitch to Crawford wasn't bad, but in the first inning I threw a ball [that was supposed to be] down and away that ended up being up and in for a home run," Schilling said. ``I was missing with my fastball by a large margin, which is something I normally don't do. I was frustrated, really frustrated, but I had to gather myself because the game's still going to go, and I've got to find a way to compose myself and make pitches."
Schilling finally was allowed to yield the floor by Ortiz, who is becoming no worse than co-closer with Jonathan Papelbon, who pitched a scoreless ninth, striking out two, for his major league-leading 30th save.
Ortiz, who homered to lead off the fourth for the first run for an undermanned and tired Sox team, broke a 2-all tie when he launched a ball over Joe Maddon's famed 3-4 defense, which is becoming less innovative every time Ortiz goes over the top to beat it -- Ortiz has six home runs this season against the Devil Rays, not an insignificant fraction of his major league-leading 39.
The tiebreaking home run, to straightaway center field, came off Seth McClung, who is now a bona fide Ortiz punching bag after giving up his fourth home run to Big Papi in just seven career at-bats.
``It's amazing," said Maddon, who had rookie third baseman Upton taking fly balls during batting practice so he would be prepared when the Devil Rays manager dropped into punt formation against Ortiz, with Upton becoming the fourth outfielder while the left side of the infield went untended. ``He's truly amazing. I don't know what to say. Every team has seen it. He does not miss a mistake. And he's got this propensity in the clutch that's incredible."
McClung was the third Tampa Bay pitcher on a night when rookie righthander James Shields, who was 0-5 with a 7.26 ERA in his previous seven starts, dominated a Sox lineup that was missing a third regular, third baseman Mike Lowell, who had fouled balls off his feet the last two nights and could barely walk.
``Right now we're certainly not situated perfectly," said Francona, acknowledging that Mirabelli will be out at least a few days and could go on the disabled list, with another catcher (Corky Miller?) expected here for tonight's game. ``Mike Lowell went from being unavailable to being a pinch runner. We had nobody. But we banded together. That was the best our dugout's been all year. We wanted to win the game so bad, we found a way to win."
Francona, his roster swollen by 13 pitchers, elected to insert his last able-bodied player, outfielder Gabe Kapler, for defensive purposes in the Tampa Bay eighth after Ortiz gave the Sox the lead with his home run (Kevin Youkilis's bases-loaded sacrifice fly in the fifth had accounted for Boston's second run).
That move paid immediate dividends, as Kapler made fast work of Travis Lee, who opened the inning with a single off reliever Manny Delcarmen, hesitated as Kapler dashed over to cut off the ball in right-center, then unwisely took off for second, where shortstop Alex Gonzalez was waiting with the tag after Kapler's strong throw.
``If something [bad] happens, we're out of players and I'd have to answer a lot of questions," Francona said. ``But that gives us the best chance to win the game.
``I told Kap that if he went down, I'd show him some love, but he couldn't come out."