The potential for disaster was palpable. The Red Sox had locked the division up early and sat idle for five days while the Tampa Bay Rays fought through a Wild Card tie-breaker and the Wild Card play-in game, turning themselves into a battle-hardened contender. They had played 29 games in 31 days and were looking a lot better than the team that went 7-12 against the Red Sox in the regular season.
Red Sox fans accustomed to monumental collapses went silent during the lull, not wanting to anger the baseball gods and fearing the staleness that a lay off can induce. When the Rays went up 2-0 early on two solo home runs against Jon Lester and the Sox in game one Friday afternoon it started to feel as though The Nations’ worst fears might be realized. The Sox had come out flat and Tampa Bay was surging. Then the Red Sox turned into the bearded, B-Strong hustlers they’d been all season long.
When the dust settled the Rays had a bloody nose and worse yet had been stripped of their playoff invulnerability veneer. Boston was back to being the neighborhood bully and Fenway was rollicking.
The Sox came out in the fourth and fifth rounds, ah, innings and quite simply knocked Tampa flat, scoring five and three runs in successive frames. These Boston mashers posted 12 runs without the aid of a homer. Everyone in the lineup had at least one hit and seven Boston batters had at least one RBI. Jarrod Saltalamacchia terrorized Rays pitching with a two-hit three RBI day while Shane Victorino chipped with a three-hit two RBI afternoon.
They stole bases and played hit and run. They stretched singles into doubles and took advantage of every Rays mistake – and there were plenty of those – both of commission and omission. When Mike Napoli, perhaps one of the slowest men on the planet, scraped what should have been a single off the Monster and turned it into a double on a spectacular, heady slide into second base, everyone in the park including the Rays knew that Boston was about to apply the big hurt.
The throw from Rays left fielder Sean Rodriguez, who was clearly befuddled by the Monster on a number of occasions during Friday’s game, was there in plenty of time to nail Napoli. As second baseman Ben Zobrist whirled to put the tag on, Napoli – still five feet away from second base – dove to the center field side of the bag and just got his left hand on the base before Zobrist tagged him on the elbow.
While Boston kept the pressure on the Rays wilted and looked bad doing it. In the fourth inning rookie right fielder Wil Myers looked every bit the part, called for a David Ortiz deep fly ball and then inexplicably pulled up at the last second thinking that teammate Desmond Jennings was going to catch it. The blunder triggered a five-run offensive explosion that included:
- A Jonny Gomes two RBI double
- A Stephen Drew dribbler to first base that he barely beat out that plated a hustling Gomes who scored from second while Rays starter Matt Moore lost his focus making the play at first just long enough to allow Gomes to score.
- A Will Middlebrooks RBI double
- A Jacoby Ellsbury strike out and passed ball by Ray catcher Jose Lobaton that allowed Ellsbury to take first base and Middlebrooks to scamper all the way to third base
- A Shane Victorino single that plated Middlebrooks
In short, the Rays completely fell apart and Boston, as opportunistic as they’ve been all year, took advantage of a team in a mental and physical funk. Apart from the two solo homers Lester was stout, allowing just three hits over 7.2 innings while striking out seven and lowering his ERA to 2.35. Tampa Bay on the other hand chewed through five different pitcher once Moore could get out of the fifth inning, a move that could hurt them further in this short five game series.