|Takashi Saito felt the heat after walking Michel Hernandez to open the 13th. (Scott Audette/ Reuters)|
Longoria makes it hurt as Tampa outlasts Sox
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Earning a playoff spot in the American League East may be baseball’s most arduous challenge this year. The Red Sox and Rays proved as much for almost five hours, until last night bled into today and every last nerve in New England had been frayed.
When Evan Longoria turned on a fastball from Takashi Saito, raised his arms, and started walking toward first base, the clock above center field showed 12:06 a.m., and the difficulty of the game was evident. The Sox slogged off the field slowly. Clay Buchholz, Saturday’s starter, had to walk in from the bullpen, where he was warming up.
The Red Sox led for most of the night, a chance to stretch their winning streak to five games. Instead, they began their most pivotal stretch of the season - six games in six days against the Rays and Yankees - with a deflating, 13-inning, 4-2 loss at Tropicana Field.
The Sox fell 1 1/2 games behind the Yankees for first place in the division and let the surging Rays creep a game closer, now just four back of the Sox. The Sox survived so much - the bullpen loaded the bases with no outs in the eighth and 10th innings and escaped both times - only to come so close.
“It’s one of those games where nobody deserves to lose,’’ closer Jonathan Papelbon said. “It seems like whoever makes the first mistake ends up taking a bump.’’
The mistake came from Saito after manager Terry Francona decided to pitch to Longoria, a bonafide terror against the Red Sox, with a man on third and first and second base open. Longoria entered with six home runs and 21 RBIs against the Sox. Despite striking out in four of his at-bats leading up to the 13th inning, he hit a solo shot to tie the game in the eighth.
The Red Sox could have intentionally walked Longoria and Ben Zobrist and loaded the bases for Joe Dillon, who had entered as pinch runner and came into the game with seven plate appearances in the previous 44 games.
Longoria came up half-expecting to be given first base. “It was in the back of my mind,’’ he said. “I thought they might walk me and Ben [Zobrist] to force an out at every base, but I’m happy the way it turned out.’’
But because he did not want Saito pitching with the bases loaded and the game in the balance, Francona never considered walking Longoria.
“We’re getting into a situation where, at least with the open bases, we have some room to make some pitches,’’ Francona said. “If we back him to a bind with Zobrist next, if you want to go all the way with the bases loaded, the guy’s thrown 40 pitches. That’s putting him in an unfair position.’’
Saito started Longoria with a ball, then threw him a 1-and-0, 91-miles-per-hour fastball. “He just left the ball up in the zone,’’ Longoria said. There was no doubt from the moment the ball rocketed off his bat. It landed deep in left-field seats while the Rays exploded from their dugout.
“We’ve seen him at his best,’’ Francona said. “We know he’s a great player. We seem to bring out a lot in him.’’
The Red Sox played ahead for the majority of the game thanks to Jon Lester’s brilliant start and solo home runs by Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia. The Red Sox’ lead slipped away when no-longer-invincible phenom Daniel Bard surrendered a game-tying home run to Longoria.
The Red Sox bullpen escaped from bases-loaded, no-out jams twice, once in the eighth after Bard went wild and again in the 10th, when Ramon Ramirez bailed himself out. But the Red Sox tempted fate for the final time in the 13th, and the close call spoke to how tense the next two months might be.
The Red Sox squandered an opportunity to take the lead in the 10th inning. Pedroia was up with one out and the bases loaded. He cracked a ball to third base, right at Longoria, who stepped on third and rifled a throw across the diamond, an inning-ending double play, the last real chance the Sox had.
“Anyone could have won that game,’’ Youkilis said. “The teams in this division, you’ve got to battle every night. And it’s not just the teams in the AL East. We don’t have too many games left, and we’ve got to play our best ball for the next two months.’’
By the time the drama subsided, it was easy to forget the dramatic beginning. Matt Garza and Lester faced off in a rematch from Game 7 of last fall’s American League Championship Series. Then, Lester was very good and his team’s season ended. Garza was great and his team went to the World Series.
Both pitchers oppressed the other lineup, but Lester was better, at times unhittable. While Garza gave up home runs to Youkilis and Pedroia in the second and sixth, Lester allowed no runs in his first six innings and struck out 10.
“Anytime we play these guys down here, it’s intense, it’s playoff atmosphere,’’ Lester said. “We want to beat them. They want to beat us.’’
The Rays nearly scored the winning run in the eighth, and might have if not for a ground rule. Bard unraveled after the homer to Longoria, walking Zobrist, his first free pass in more than 14 innings. Bard had struck out 23 batters since the last time he walked one.
The Rays further tested Bard’s composure. Willy Aybar dropped a sacrifice bunt between the mound and the third base line. Bard scampered to it and unleashed a wild, side-armed throw in the general direction of first base. Victor Martinez watched it sailed 20 feet wide and roll all the way into the right-field corner.
Both runners circled the bases, but the ball rolled into an equipment bag. By rule, the runners returned to second and third. Bard and Manny Delcarmen would squirm out of the inning allowing no further damage.
“It’s an exciting game,’’ Francona said. “It’s a fun one to be a part of. I wish it would have ended differently.’’