Caught up in it
Martinez belts 2 HRs as Sox achieve their goal in opener
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The person inside the doorway of the Red Sox clubhouse was a little short to be a major leaguer. He stood there, fist pounding the Sox as they walked in from the field, with Jon Lester beside him, towering over. And when Victor Martinez walked up, there was a special high five waiting for him.
Martinez accepted the greeting from son Victor Jose, hours from his sixth birthday, then got a hug from Lester. It could have been construed in some ways as a congratulations — for Martinez’s two home runs, for catching an excellent game. It also might have been a thank you.
Because while last night’s 3-1 win over the Rays was a monster game for Martinez, it was a strange one for Lester, who was wild (five walks, three wild pitches, one hit batter) and dominant (10 strikeouts, two hits allowed) by turn. But he was saved, sometimes from himself, by Martinez.
“I thought Victor caught the game of his life,’’ manager Terry Francona said after the Sox moved to within 4 1/2 games of the American League East and wild-card races. “He was all over the place tonight. He did a great job. There was a lot of good things that happened tonight.’’
Martinez, the only member of the Sox to have hit a home run off David Price entering last night’s game, hit two more — solo homers in the first and seventh — to provide the difference. Martinez went 3 for 4 against Price to raise his career mark against the Cy Young contender to .417 (5 for 12). Before last night, Martinez had hit just one home run in 118 at-bats since coming off the disabled list July 26.
Perhaps his performance shouldn’t have been surprising, as Martinez has a .371 average against the Rays and .407 average at Tropicana Field, the best among players with at least 100 at-bats.
But it wasn’t only that. Martinez called the right pitches at the right times, as Lester dominated with men on base. The Rays went 1 for 10 with men in scoring position against Lester (14-8), Daniel Bard, and Jonathan Papelbon (save No. 33), and stranded seven runners.
As David Ortiz said, “[Lester] did it all.’’
“Victor does a great job of controlling the game, controlling the tempo and giving you breaks when he thinks you need them,’’ Lester said. “He had his work cut out for him tonight. I bounced some balls, trying to bury pitches. He did a great job blocking balls and keeping them in front.
“A lot of times things get overlooked on how good a catcher he is because he doesn’t throw a lot of guys out. But that’s more a stat for us pitchers than catchers. I think as good a defensive catcher he is gets overlooked.’’
Oh, and that one hit with runners in scoring position? Didn’t quite work, thanks to the combination of Martinez and Darnell McDonald.
With the Sox leading, 2-1, Lester walked B.J. Upton to start the sixth inning. After Upton stole second, Jason Bartlett singled up the middle, a hit that seemed likely to tie the game. McDonald scooped up the ball, and threw a one-bounce strike to Martinez, who had the plate blocked. Upton slid to the back of the plate, which he never touched, as Martinez tagged him. It was McDonald’s seventh assist this season.
It was an excellent play from every standpoint, from the strength and accuracy of McDonald’s throw to the positioning of Martinez. And its importance in the game couldn’t be overlooked.
As McDonald modestly said, “I was just trying to get it in, and see what happens after that.’’
“That was a great throw,’’ Lester said. “That changed the momentum of that inning. These guys play off momentum and that helped get it back onto our side.’’
The Rays threatened once more, in the ninth, after Papelbon walked two, putting the winning run up in the person of pinch hitter John Jaso. He couldn’t come through, striking out looking. Papelbon struck out the side.
The Sox scored their second run in the fourth, when Ortiz led off with a double and came home on Jed Lowrie’s single.
The insurance run came in the seventh, courtesy of Martinez’s second homer (and 12th of the season). It was his fifth multihomer game and second this year.
Tampa Bay scored with a bit of help from Lester. Bartlett reached on an error, then Carlos Pena singled for one of the two hits off Lester. With Willy Aybar at the plate, Lester threw a wild pitch to move the runners up, then another, with Bartlett coming around to score.
But they didn’t get anything else.
“Once they got base runners on, he made some unbelievable pitches,’’ Francona said. “How many times have we seen [Evan] Longoria come up in those same situations? And he just continued to make [pitches], especially against him, but got some double plays, got some strikeouts. Pitching out of the stretch a lot. But he really made some good pitches.’’
With the win over the Rays and the Yankees’ 9-4 loss to Chicago, the Sox are just five games back in the loss column. They could certainly return to the thick of the race with at least one more win this weekend, and certainly with two. With their best starter, Clay Buchholz, on the mound tonight, they have a good shot to keep it going.
As Mike Lowell said, “It’s obviously a big series, and this could be a significant turning point for us.’’
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.