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To them, nothing to fear

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / April 9, 2009
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Their first win at Fenway Park in 2008 came on Sept. 9 in their eighth game here.

Whether there was a fear factor involved in playing in the tiny confines with excitable crowds and an electric atmosphere, which has eaten up many opponents, who knows? But the defending American League champion Tampa Bay Rays didn't have to wait that long this time. In fact, after Boston's Opening Day euphoria, the Rays brought a sobering reality back to Red Sox Nation: Tampa Bay is going to be a factor once again in an AL East race that will likely be as tight and nail-biting as the pundits and the teams involved (Yankees, Rays, Red Sox) thought it would be.

The Rays, who might have been tight Opening Day, showed no signs of that last night.

"Yes, it's nice to get that going," said Rays manager Joe Maddon about winning at Fenway. "If you saw our guys before the game - everybody was fine and it's more or less turning into another venue as opposed to this really ominous place, and that's a good thing. Our guys are getting more experienced playing here and the Red Sox are always going to be tough here, but we're at the point now where we're able to accept being able to do it more readily."

That was certainly the case for starter Scott Kazmir. The lefthander was as in command as James Shields wasn't on Opening Day. Kazmir went six innings, allowing one run and five hits. He was still not as economical as he would have liked, throwing 111 pitches, but he got into a rhythm, got out of a two-on, one-out jam in the sixth, and departed with a four-run lead that his bullpen turned into a 7-2 victory.

It was a turnaround for Kazmir, who had gone 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA in four 2008 starts vs. Boston. Kazmir, however, is the poster child for the "not being afraid of Fenway" theme. He is now 5-4 with a 2.88 ERA (22 earned runs in 68 2/3 innings) here in 11 starts. That's the best ERA of any opposing pitcher at Fenway. Quite a difference from the '60s when the Yankees wouldn't pitch Whitey Ford in this ballpark, fearing Boston's righthanded hitters would clobber him because of the left-field wall.

"I had no idea," said Kazmir about his ERA at Fenway. "I like playing here. The adrenaline really flows for me here because the atmosphere here is just so amazing. Every time you go out there, the ballpark is going to be filled and there's going to be excitement in the air. You definitely get a rush pitching here, not only because you have to bear down against their lineup, which is always tough, but because you know you're in a special place."

The Rays got on track last night in many ways.

Carlos Peña, who had struck out in his first five at-bats, uncorked a two-run homer in a four-run fifth inning against Jon Lester that helped separate the Rays from the Sox. Peña had run the count to 3-0, and Maddon talked about taking a good pitch and then unleashing a homer to center field.

'We just started getting more confident, that's all," said Maddon. "The guy yesterday [Josh Beckett] was really good and Lester's really good also. We just had to get into the flow of the game a little bit. We got the lead and we were able to maintain it."

Maddon feels his team is better offensively than a year ago. He mentioned the difficulty the Rays had with lefthanded pitchers - 25-24 last season. They have added Pat Burrell and Gabe Kapler, and Maddon feels they're capable of good at-bats against lefties, as they had against Lester and Javier Lopez (four hits, one run) last night and Hideki Okajima on Opening Day.

He was especially pleased with veteran Carl Crawford setting an example. Crawford was never known for being patient at the plate, but he's becoming just that.

"Carl is grinding out his at-bats as well as anybody right now," said Maddon. "And I'm really liking what he's doing at the plate and he's kind of setting the tone for the whole group."

Lefty J.P. Howell struggled in the eighth, but the other good news for the Rays was the way Grant Balfour closed things out. With the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth, Maddon didn't want Howell facing switch-hitting Jed Lowrie, who is capable of hitting the wall righthanded. So he brought in Balfour and turned around Lowrie. Balfour struck him out. He also got out of the ninth unscathed.

Balfour was a huge part of the Rays' bullpen last season, leading all AL relievers by holding opponents to a .143 average, but had a shaky spring training (0-1, 5.62).

The Rays also did what they do best - played small ball. It came in the form of a safety squeeze by Jason Bartlett in the fifth on a nicely placed bunt toward first base that scored Kapler.

Maddon thought that was the play that got the Rays' offense going.

"We just tried it in that moment and it was just great execution by J.B. and that's what permitted it to work," said Maddon. "In the beginning of the game, we continued to not swing the bats well - a lot of strikeouts - but as the game got in progress, we started getting things together. That was the play that might have moved things along a little bit. We just needed a bit of offensive momentum, and that might have started it up."

Earlier in the inning, Kapler took it upon himself to start a nice hit-and-run with No. 1 hitter Akinori Iwamura, who stroked a single through the shortstop hole.

While Burrell didn't add to the hit parade with an 0-for-3 night, Maddon feels his presence will eventually pay dividends against lefthanders. Anyway, Maddon thought Burrell had a pretty full and emotional day. He went to Philadelphia to receive his ring for being a member of the 2008 Phillies, who beat the Rays in the World Series. With Daisuke Matsuzaka toeing the rubber for the Sox today, Maddon will give Burrell a day off.

The rest of the Rays will be back today with one prevalent feeling - they are not afraid of Fenway.

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

Wednesday's game
TB
7
BOS
2

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