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Red Sox 4, Rays 3

Relief from the heat

Beckett and bullpen give Sox needed lift

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By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / September 17, 2011

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It’s OK to exhale now. Isn’t it?

With Josh Beckett back on the mound for the first time since he sprained his right ankle Sept. 5 in Toronto, the Red Sox were given a reprieve from a September swoon that saw their once-robust lead in the American League wild-card race dwindle to three games.

Set against a playoff-type atmosphere before a Fenway Park crowd of 38,019, this series against the Rays took a turn in Boston’s favor last night when Beckett overcame a shaky start and delivered a dominant performance that led the Red Sox to a 4-3 victory.

“Beckett was huge, unbelievable,’’ said Mike Aviles, who delivered the decisive blow with his solo home run off James Shields in the fourth. “He did exactly what a staff ace does. He battled, kept us in the ballgame, and gave us a chance to win.’’

Beckett (13-5, 2.50 ERA) helped the Sox expand their wild-card lead to four games over the Rays with 12 games remaining.

“I pitched six innings, but there were a lot of people that did a lot more than I did,’’ said Beckett, who allowed three runs (two earned) on seven hits, including a two-run homer by Evan Longoria that spotted the Rays a 2-0 lead in the first inning.

He also struck out seven, giving him 1,001 as a Red Sox as he bested Shields (15-10, 2.75 ERA), who leads the majors with 11 complete games.

The righthander lasted only seven-plus innings, giving up four runs on seven hits and four walks and fanning three.

“I just made pitches when I needed to,’’ said Beckett, who improved to 9-5 against the Rays, 7-1 at Fenway. “Our offense and defense really picked me up. They did a good job.’’

But there was no understating the importance of having Beckett back on the mound for such an important game.

“We need him to be Beckett,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “We don’t want him to be Beckett in name only.’’

After throwing 17 consecutive scoreless innings in two starts vs. the Rays, Beckett got off to a rocky start.

The Rays tested Beckett’s ability to field his position when leadoff hitter Desmond Jennings laid down a bunt. Jennings beat Beckett’s errant underhand toss to first baseman Adrian Gonzalez for a base hit and scampered to second on Beckett’s throwing error.

After B.J. Upton hit a foul pop to Gonzalez, Longoria snapped Beckett’s streak of dominance vs. Tampa with a towering two-run blast that hit the top of the wall in left. A video review confirmed the home run.

Casey Kotchman reached on a single to right, but wound up getting stranded as Beckett got Johnny Damon and Ben Zobrist to ground out.

The Sox responded with a pair in the bottom of the frame.

After Jacoby Ellsbury hit a lead-off double to left, Dustin Pedroia followed with a scorched single down the third base line, scoring Ellsbury.

Shields struck out Gonzalez, but surrendered an RBI single to left by David Ortiz that plated Pedroia from second after he advanced on a wild pitch.

The Rays scored a go-ahead run in the third when Jennings reached on an base hit, stole second, and went to third on Jason Varitek’s errant throw. The Sox captain allowed Tampa base runners to steal six of seven bases, three by Johnny Damon.

After Upton struck out looking, Longoria gave the Rays a 3-2 lead with a single to right, pushing across Jennings.

Beckett got out of the inning when Kotchman grounded into an inning-ending double play.

The Sox tied it in the third when Pedroia led off with a sharp single to center, stole second, and scored on Ortiz’s double to center.

Aviles put the Sox ahead to stay with his solo shot, his sixth of the season but first in a Boston uniform since his midseason acquisition from Kansas City.

“It just felt good to contribute in a game like this,’’ Aviles said.

Beckett, who entered the game needing six strikeouts to reach 1,000 with the Sox, achieved the milestone by fanning Ben Zobrist with an 81 mile-per-hour cutter for the first out of the sixth inning.

After he induced Matt Joyce to fly to center, Beckett struck out catcher John Jaso for the third time in as many at-bats, catching Jaso looking at an 81-m.p.h. cutter on a 3-and-2 count.

Tampa manager Joe Maddon, apparently upset over the Jaso call, went out to air his grievances and wound up getting ejected by plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt.

The bullpen took over with Alfredo Aceves (1 inning, 2 walks, 2 strikeouts), Daniel Bard (1 inning, 1 walk, 3 strikeouts), and Jonathan Papelbon (1 inning, 3 strikeouts) combining to pitch three scoreless innings. Papelbon earned his 30th save, his first in 29 days.

“I think they’re all big,’’ Francona said of the victory. “You try not to make them any bigger. I’m thrilled we won. We’ve had a really tough 10 days. Now it makes tomorrow just as important.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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