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Red Sox 6, Rays 3

Tampa is held at bay

Behind Buchholz, Sox win the series

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / September 4, 2009

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Coming into the series, in a place that had given the Red Sox nightmares the past two years, one could have been excused for feverish visions of a sweep that would have put the Sox in danger and would have gotten the Rays back in the wild-card picture.

The Sox had, after all, managed just two wins in 15 regular-season games against the Rays in 2008 and 2009, including a two-game sweep in their most recent attempt on the Tropicana Field’s turf.

After things went their way Tuesday, they lost Wednesday, but they knew going into last night’s finale they would, at the very least, not be swept.

They rode a good pitching performance by Clay Buchholz, coupled with another outburst from their offense, to a 6-3 win last night, and a win in the series. As Jason Bay said, “This game was a two-game swing in the standings. I think probably pretty important either way, for us and them. Lucky for us, we won it.’’

With the Rays now six games out of first place, the Sox have likely shut off one area of competition for the wild card. Texas was off last night, leaving the Sox’ closest competition three games out for the final playoff spot.

“Even if we had [had success here], wins are wins,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “This is a tough place for everybody. We’ve had a run lately that hasn’t been very good. I think part of that is they’re good, and they play us very good. For us to win here, you have to play good games. Five, six years ago we’d come down here and Manny [Ramirez] or David [Ortiz] would hit a three-run homer, or we’d get in their bullpen. I don’t want to say have our way, that’s not fair, but we’d win.

“Now you’ve got to come down and you’ve got to play clean baseball - or you lose.’’

Early on, it appeared that might be the case. With Buchholz shaky for that first inning, an inning in which he acknowledged there might have been some nerves involved, this could have gone the other way. But Buchholz righted himself, the offense righted itself, and the Sox were on their way to a series win in a place that hasn’t seen a lot of wins by visitors, period.

Handed a 2-0 lead, Buchholz promptly gave it back in the bottom of the first.

“Pretty big game,’’ he said. “Everybody knows that we needed to win it to set the pace for the next month. After they got their first couple hits, I just told myself make pitches and you’ll get outs.

“That’s obviously not what you’re thinking when you get two in the top of the first,’’ he said. “You want to go out there and put up a zero. But [they have a] tough lineup. That’s what they do is hit, and they’ve done it all year to any team that comes into this place. They’re good at what they do. Had to minimize that first inning. Could have been worse. After the first inning was over, felt like the game slowed down to the speed that I needed it to be at.’’

By the end, Buchholz had made a statement: he does not have to be facing the Blue Jays to get a win. His victory over the Rays yesterday marked the first win for him this season against a team other than Toronto, after each of his first three wins came against the Blue Jays.

“That was the first thing that went through my head whenever [Jonathan Papelbon] got that last out was I got a win in the States now,’’ Buchholz said.

“I feel good. I feel like I can help this team if I pitch the way that I have even in Triple A,’’ he said. “It’s been a process all year. It’s been some things I’ve had to go through, struggles and bad outings, and going to the next outing and forgetting about the outing before. It’s a key to success and maturing a little bit in the process. Everything I’m doing right now is how I have it mapped out in my head.’’

Buchholz allowed a leadoff single by Jason Bartlett in the first, followed by a Ben Zobrist single, a Carlos Pena fielder’s choice, a Pat Burrell walk, and a - who else? - Evan Longoria double. That scored two. But once that inning was in the books, once the nerves had settled, so too did Buchholz.

He did allow the Rays to tie the score again in the fourth, on back-to-back doubles by Longoria and Gregg Zaun with no outs. But he shut off that threat and finished his outing with nine straight outs.

The Sox had done their damage early, taking a 2-0 lead in the first on two-out hits by Victor Martinez, Kevin Youkilis, and Jason Bay. They got another in the second, when Rocco Baldelli hit what he estimated to be the hardest-hit homer of his season. That put the Sox back on top. And then, after the Rays tied it in the fourth, the Sox went back ahead in the sixth (sacrifice fly by Mike Lowell), and added two more in the seventh (three straight singles and a run-scoring groundout by Youkilis).

That was enough for a Sox bullpen that didn’t allow a hit over three innings. Enough to get the Sox out of St. Petersburg with two wins in three games in their final trip to the Trop.

“I think it’s a great series for us,’’ Baldelli said. “It’s not an easy place to play. Nobody likes coming in here. The Rays play really well in this building. So to be able to come in here at any point and win a series is very big.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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