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Red Sox 11, Rays 3

Sox make it a clean sweep on Tampa Bay’s carpet

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / May 27, 2010

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — As he walked into the clubhouse after last night’s game, the first thing Red Sox manager Terry Francona said to director of baseball operations Brian O’Halloran was, “We leave here a lot of times not feeling too good about ourselves.’’ That wasn’t last night.

Tropicana Field, Boston’s final stop on a tough road trip, was that house of horrors Francona was referring to. But after a three-game sweep of the Rays was capped by last night’s 11-3 blowout, the unfriendliness had dissipated in favor of satisfaction. And perhaps a statement by the Sox.

“It was huge, because we remember that they did the same to us at home,’’ said Adrian Beltre, who collected two home runs, a triple, and six RBIs in the win. “They swept us at home. We came in here and thought that we could at least get the series.

“We played pretty good, especially our pitching staff. [They were the ones] that kept us in the game and gave us the opportunity to win.’’

Yes, the Sox remember Tampa’s dispiriting four-game sweep at Fenway Park five weeks ago when the team was struggling through a horrendous start. They didn’t all admit it, saying they try to play everyone the same way, but there is added motivation in facing a team that bloodied you earlier in the season.

“You never want to start out the way we did,’’ Dustin Pedroia said. “Everyone was frustrated. You could see it. We went through a period where guys were trying so hard just to do something. Now, we seem like we’re letting the game come to us. Our pitching staff’s giving us quality start after quality start. We need it.

“We know we’re good. We just have to sustain it over 162 games. We started out real slow, and everyone kind of panicked. We have confidence that we’re going to win a lot of games, and hopefully the way we’ve been playing continues for a long time.’’

So the Sox headed back to Boston coming off an exhausting stretch that included 11 of 13 games on the road against some of the best teams in baseball. That they posted in 9-4 mark over that stretch is impressive. They traveled to Detroit and New York, spent a whirlwind two-game series in Boston, then journeyed to Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. The end result? Third place in the American League East for the first time since April 29.

Now, after playing well against some of their stiffest competition, Pedroia said the Sox let the rest of the league know that “we’re not going anywhere.’’

They not only survived, they finished the tough stretch playing better baseball than virtually anyone in the AL. In fact, the Sox are on a AL-best 16-7 run since May 3.

“If we play the way we’re supposed to, or we think we can play, we’ll be OK,’’ Francona said. “We’ve certainly done a much better job. Defensively, we’ve made a lot of plays. Our pitching, I think it goes hand-in-hand. All of a sudden, guys are getting the ball. They’re working quicker. They’re making pitches.

“We beat a really good team. That third game’s not easy.’’

And while Beltre’s exceptional bat made it easier, John Lackey’s night didn’t. Though he still picked up a quality start with just two runs allowed over 6 1/3 innings, he had to work for every out. The Rays went 1 for 14 with runners in scoring position, meaning they had far too many base runners for Lackey to ever get comfortable.

He allowed eight hits and walked four in the game, striking out just one. That continued a stretch in which he has allowed at least four walks in each of his last three starts, as his WHIP has jumped to 1.60.

Asked about all the base runners, Lackey said, “You guys are pretty negative after a sweep.’’

Lackey did escape every jam he created. He had two on with one out in the first. No runs. He had two on with no outs in the second. One run. He gave up a leadoff double in the third. No runs. He allowed another leadoff double in the fourth, plus a single and a walk. One run. He had two on with one out in the fifth. No runs. It wasn’t smooth, but it was a win, as the Rays scored just four runs in the three-game series.

“Honestly, that’s probably the best I’ve thrown the ball,’’ Lackey said. “I made a lot of big pitches in some tough spots against a pretty good team.’’

With his performance last night, the Sox rotation is now 7-1 with a 1.60 ERA over the last eight games, a stretch that made Lackey’s struggles look worse by comparison. Not that he was entirely bad, just shaky, as the Sox jumped on Tampa starter Matt Garza.

“The one thing I think that’s consistent every time he pitches is the way he battles,’’ Francona said.

He did enough, mostly because of Beltre. Not only did the third baseman contribute otherworldly defense, but he tied his career high in RBIs. He homered in his first two at-bats, flew to center in his third, reached on an infield single, then belted a two-run triple on which Kevin Youkilis almost passed David Ortiz in the race to the plate.

Asked about the offense, Francona said, “I’m going to start with Beltre and end with Beltre. He was hitting balls all over the field.’’

Ortiz, too, contributed another home run. It was his ninth in May, which has coincided with Boston’s surge. But Big Papi had to take a backseat to Big Beltre last night.

He was everywhere, in part of everything, even though the third baseman wouldn’t say he felt locked in last night. So Lackey succinctly summed up Beltre’s performance: “That was pretty sick,’’ he said.

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