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Dan Shaughnessy

Memories beginning to fade

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / September 17, 2011

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Feel better now?

Josh Beckett came back to the rotation last night and pitched six strong innings. Daniel Bard got back on the horse and struck out the side in the eighth. Mike Aviles tore a hole in the Sports Authority sign with a game-winning homer and the Red Sox stopped the bleeding with a 4-3 victory over the surging Rays.

In the race for the American League wild card, the Sox hold a four-game lead with 12 to play - seven against the Baltimore Zer-O’s.

So there. Terry Francona is not Don Zimmer. Kevin Youkilis is not Butch Hobson. Jacoby Ellsbury is not Fred Lynn, and Don Orsillo is not Ned Martin.

We are not in the Way Back Machine. It is not 1978.

“It’s gonna happen,’’ said Beckett, who had not pitched since Sept. 5 because of right ankle sprain. “We’re in a bad stretch at a bad time, but one thing that’s not lacking is effort. We’re a good team.’’

Reassuring words, for sure. Beckett talked in spring training about this team being capable of winning 100 games. The Sox led the Rays by 11 games in August and by seven games in early September, but saw that lead whittled to three games entering last night.

Today’s game had a chance to be a complete circus. But now there is calm in the Nation. Even among the veterans of the crash of ’78.

“I still think they’re going to make the playoffs,’’ Jerry Remy said. “I didn’t think it would come to this. I think it would be stunning if they didn’t especially after the way they played all summer.’’

Another member of the boys of ’78 concurred.

“It ain’t gonna happen to them,’’ said hard-luck reliever Bob Stanley, who was also stalking the grounds last night. “They’ll be all right.’’

No team in baseball history ever failed to make the playoffs after holding a nine-game lead in September.

“There’s a weight,’’ said Tampa manager Joe Maddon, who has an honorary doctorate from Lafayette. “That’s the best way to describe it. It’s weighty. You walk into the clubhouse and it just feels heavy. I’ve lived it.’’ Maddon was a coach on the ’95 Angels who folded in famous fashion.

The weight was on Maddon last night. He was ejected for arguing balls and strikes with plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt, who had a terrible night.

“It was an egregiously bad strike zone,’’ said Maddon. “One-sided. I hope somebody takes a look at it.’’

No carping on the Sox side. It was all balloons and flowers, except for Beckett spitting an occasional nail as he labored through his mandatory media session.

“This is a pressure-cooker town,’’ acknowledged Tampa’s Johnny Damon, who knows a thing or two about playing in Boston. “Only tough players can play here. I know they have a lot of tough guys. This game [last night] is huge for them.’’

It was a huge game. And Beckett and Bard came up big. Beckett fanned seven and walked only one in his six innings. He threw 109 pitches, 67 for strikes.

Bard rewarded the confidence of his manager. The tall set-up man was a local piñata after recent horrible performances against the Rays and Blue Jays. But he knew he was going to keep getting the ball.

“I don’t think we can win without Bard being Bard,’’ Francona said before the start of this series. “Certain players . . . we better figure it out, as opposed to running from guys.’’

The Sox trailed, 2-0, and 3-2 before taking a lead on Aviles’s solo shot off James Shields in the fourth. Then it was up to Beckett, Alfredo Aceves, Bard, and Jonathan Papelbon to keep the Rays off the board and dash Tampa’s hopes for a four-game sweep.

“Nobody said it was gonna be easy,’’ said Dustin Pedroia. “All I know is we’ve come a long way from 2-10. We can’t stop now.’’

It certainly would be stunning if they didn’t make the playoffs after a winter in which general manager Theo Epstein got Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. Theo likes to remind us that his team was the best in baseball for four months. But a 2-10 start has been book-ended by a 3-9 stretch that made everybody nervous before last night’s win.

They look pretty solid now. Twelve games remain. Jon Lester is pitching this afternoon. The Rays don’t look like they can hit enough to run the table.

Was last night the most critical win of the year for the Red Sox?

“I think they’re all big,’’ said Francona. “I’m thrilled we won. We’ve had a really tough 10 days . . . It’s a good night, yeah. We beat a team that’s given us fits.’’

No sweep for the Rays. At best they leave Boston trailing the Sox by two games with 10 to play.

We may not think much of the way the Sox are playing at the end of the year, but they are going to the playoffs. This is not 1978.

Beckett’s right: It’s gonna happen.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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