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Red Sox 2, Devil Rays 1

Emotional rescue

Lester and Lowell shine in feel-good walkoff win

Mike Lowell has had 4,567 at-bats in his major league career. Until last night, he'd hit one home run in the bottom of the ninth to tie a ballgame.

That the second one should save a game started by a fellow cancer survivor, Jon Lester, who got to jump up and down like a little kid with the rest of his teammates after a 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, only the Red Sox' second walkoff win of the season? Well, that's enough to make a man wonder just who thinks up these things.

"Maybe they were looking down on us from up above," Lowell said. "You never know."

Of course it was special, Lowell said, hitting one over the Monster in Lester's first start this season in Fenway Park, nearly a year after the pitcher was diagnosed with cancer and his future depended not on his strong left arm but on how malignant cells would respond to chemotherapy. But that was just one thread of the story line, he said, not the entire tale.

"It makes it a better story," Lowell said after Lester allowed Tampa Bay just a run on two hits in seven innings, "and I think it's kind of a nice twist. But if Tek [Jason Varitek] had hit the tying home run, I would have been just as happy. It just adds a little flavor.

"I'm just glad his efforts didn't go to waste. It would have been a shame if we'd lost, 1-0."

With the Sox two outs away from doing just that, Lowell tied the score by launching a 2-and-0 fastball from Devil Rays closer Al Reyes for his 16th home run of the season, the 11th he's hit over the left-field wall here. One out later, Varitek lined a ball that hopped into the right-field grandstand for a double, and Coco Crisp followed by slapping a full-count pitch into right field that fell in front of Delmon Young, the Devil Rays' strong-armed right fielder.

"You're just hoping," Sox manager Terry Francona said, "that the ball short-hops like it did."

Varitek slid in ahead of Young's throw, and a team that twice last weekend in Baltimore watched the other guys frolic after last-at-bat wins emptied out of the home dugout. A crowd of 36,837, which began the ninth inning booing the arrival of Eric Gagné, then cheered him after he fanned three, had the double pleasure of watching not only the Sox win but also the Yankees get clobbered on the scoreboard.

The Sox, who now lead the AL East by five games over the Yanks, had been 1-41 in games in which they trailed after eight innings. Their previous walkoff win was the Mother's Day Miracle against the Orioles, when they scored six times to come back from 5-0. No team in the majors had fewer walkoff wins this season, a striking departure for a team that had nine such wins last season.

"Nice to see our guys jumping on each other," Francona said. "We haven't seen that a lot."

And why not?

"Not enough holidays," Francona cracked. "You know what, if I had a real good answer, we'd have a bunch of them. Fortunately, our record is still good. I think everybody gets so used to those heroics, the bar's been set pretty high. If we want to start now, that would be OK."

Lester, the recipient of a sustained ovation as he walked in from the bullpen after warm-ups, threw three straight balls to Akinori Iwamura, the Tampa Bay leadoff batter, and eventually walked him. High pitch counts dogged Lester in his first four starts since his recall from Pawtucket, and walking Iwamura was hardly a sign that things were about to change for the better.

But they did. Lester didn't walk another batter. He struck out the next two batters, Carl Crawford, who chased a breaking ball, and B.J. Upton, who looked at a 2-and-2 fastball. He set down nine batters in a row in one stretch and the last dozen he faced before Francona went to the bullpen after seven.

"He pitched like he can pitch," Francona said. "He was aggressive with his fastball, commanded it. He threw his cutter, changeup, and curveball.

"Even his demeanor on the mound looked different. He looked like he was in charge of the game. And he can do that. He's a 6-4 lefthander who has some presence out there. It was good to see that."

Still, the Devil Rays had gotten to Lester for one run, Crawford doubling in the fourth, taking third on Upton's bloop single, and scoring on a sacrifice fly by Carlos Peña.

Lester, who needed just eight pitches to get through the sixth and six more in the seventh, was in danger of having his night spoiled by Scott Kazmir, another lefthander who is the same age (23) as Lester but already has achieved the kind of status to which Lester aspires.

The Devil Rays threatened against the Sox bullpen in the eighth, when Manny Delcarmen loaded the bases on Jonny Gomes's single, a walk to Josh Wilson, a sacrifice bunt, and a two-out intentional walk to Crawford. That's when Mike Timlin entered and struck out Upton.

Gagné was given the ninth, and he struck out Peña looking on a changeup, then blew away Delmon Young with a 93-mile-an-hour fastball. Brendan Harris doubled over J.D. Drew's head in right, but Gagné whiffed Gomes, setting the stage for the sweet finale.

"It's great," Lester said. "It's been a while since I've been a part of that. I think last year I got up here and the first two games we had walkoffs.

"It's fun. It's fun to grind out the whole game -- Kazmir threw a great game -- grind out the game and win it in the bottom of the ninth."

And one of these days, he said, he hopes the extra story line becomes just a footnote.

"That's all I've asked from the beginning," he said. "Just to be treated normal and nothing special. I just want to go out and pitch every fifth day and hopefully do well."

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