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On baseball

Hero Peña makes himself right at home

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / September 11, 2008
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He had often dreamed of hitting a game-winning homer for the Red Sox while practicing his stroke with a Wiffle bat in his backyard in Haverhill.

He was Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, or Fred Lynn.

He'd mimic the call of his favorite announcer and he'd always be the hero.

On Sept. 4, 2006, Carlos Peña was wearing a Red Sox uniform when he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 10th inning against White Sox righthander Brandon McCarthy and fulfilled a dream - hitting a homer to lead Boston to a 3-2 win.

"I was reminded of that homer today," said Peña. "But this one, given the circumstances and given that we're in first place and hitting it here, yeah, this one is the biggest one I've hit."

Resurrecting his career in Tampa the past two years after being discarded by the Tigers, Yankees, and Red Sox, Peña, the centerpiece of the Rays' lineup, stroked a three-run homer off Mike Timlin in the 14th for a 4-1 lead last night en route to a 4-2 win. It enabled the Rays to take two out of three at Fenway to raise their lead to 2 1/2 games in the American League East.

The best part for Peña is that the ball was hit over the Green Monster.

For a lefthander known to be more of a pull hitter, hitting one over the Monster was special. But when Peña connected, the game was far from over.

Rays closer Troy Percival, who had stiffness in his balky knee, loaded the bases with no outs. A three-run lead in this marathon was hardly guaranteed. But in the end, the dregs of the Rays' bullpen got the job done, preserving Peña's hero status and capping a night between two of the league's best teams that won't soon be forgotten.

"I was shocked that it got over the wall," said Peña. "Timlin is a veteran, smart pitcher. I was trying to keep it simple. I was just trying to hit it to the opposite field and not try to do too much with it and hoped to get it off the wall. I was so happy to see it go over. We battled so hard. We kept coming and coming and coming, and we didn't stop until we got the job done."

It ended a long and rather disconcerting night for the Red Sox, who were coming off a tough 5-4 loss to the Rays the night before when Dan Johnson tied the game at 4, and Dioner Navarro knocked in the winning run. Two dramatic wins for the Rays. Two disheartening losses for the Red Sox.

"I didn't think we could top last night's win, but tonight I think we did," said Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon.

The Sox were quiet after that loss, quiet before last night's game, and quiet after it. It appeared the seriousness of the season was upon them. While prior to Tuesday's game there was the jocularity of a Jonathan Papelbon dance video that was shown in front of players and media, there was no such looseness in the pregame clubhouse last night. It was almost as if the Sox had turned off the humor and turned on the urgency.

If they were saving their energy, boy did they need it. Nine innings turned into 10. Then 12. Then 14. The game that wouldn't end was actually pretty well played. You'd be hard pressed to remember that Josh Beckett started and that he and Andy Sonnanstine dueled to a 1-1 deadlock. Beckett bowed out after six innings, Sonnanstine after seven.

The rest was bullpen heaven.

Both teams were atrocious with runners in scoring position. The Rays were 0 for 27 over the last two games before Peña's blast, his 28th of the season.

Along the way, you wondered: Why on earth didn't Maddon, the likely Manager of the Year in the AL, not have rookie outfielder Fernando Perez bunt with runners at first and second, nobody out, in the 13th?

Perez hit a double-play grounder, then Navarro grounded to first.

Peña made sure the Rays wouldn't be down for long. He made sure his hometown team would not win on this night.

"Carlos had opportunities and you just knew at some point he was going to come through," said Maddon. "Love the fact he went the other way. Love the fact that he went over the wall. That was a pretty proper at-bat right there."

It was also another example of the Rays fighting for every win. They now have the confidence they can win at Fenway. They get to go home for a series with the Yankees this weekend, and host the Red Sox at The Trop, where they have won all six meetings with Boston this season.

"It's about the effort level," said Maddon. "The continuous effort. That's all I preach. Pretty simple actually, when it comes right down to it. The group within the clubhouse and the dugout, during the game, their work prior to the game, the support for one another . . . I just love the way they do that, and I think that's a big part of our success."

"Eric Hinske always tells us, 'OK, let's try to win this inning. Let's try to win this at-bat. Let's try to win this pitch,' " said Peña. "That's the attitude we're taking. We're living in the moment. Not three days down the road. We just want to be the best we can be right now. We've had a tough time lately, but we came out of it. We fought our way out of it."

The last two nights have reinforced Tampa Bay's place in this race. Suffice to say, the Rays will be players, ones to be taken seriously.

No team knows that more than the Red Sox, who must now go from a pair of tough losses to four games against the red-hot Toronto Blue Jays this weekend.

Peña hit the most important home run of his career last night. Greater than any he hit in the backyard in Haverhill.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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