ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Good thing the witnesses received free Devil Rays visors last night as they approached the scene. All the better to shield their view of two pitchers turning a perfectly good evening for baseball into something out of the darkest recesses of horrormeister Stephen King's imagination.
Pick your scary sight: Derek Lowe or Victor Zambrano.
Lowe, a mere two years removed from his historic no-hitter against Tampa Bay at Fenway Park, survived only 2 1/3 innings against the next generation of batting-challenged Rays before he departed to a cacophony of boos. In his second-shortest outing in 76 starts since he joined the rotation in 2001, Lowe suddenly snapped in the third inning, surrendering seven straight hits as the Rays routed him and stuck the Sox in a 7-0 quagmire.
But if Lowe looked like something out of King's "Creepshow," Zambrano rolled out of "Creepshow II."
In one of the ugliest displays of control in recent memory, Zambrano walked nine batters (the most by a starter in Tampa Bay history) and plunked another to allow the Sox to crawl back into contention, 7-6. Zambrano, who was left by manager Lou Piniella to stew in his own mediocrity, wound up firing 132 pitches (only 68 for strikes) before he mercifully was lifted with two outs in the fifth.
With both teams reeling at the hands of their own bedeviled starters, the Rays ultimately outlasted the Sox, 9-6, before 12,401 at Tropicana Field on a night to forget, if possible. Lowe and his mates had little choice but to try as they prepared for a long flight home.
"You can keep playing or retire," Lowe said. "That's basically the only ways you can go. You've got to keep finding ways to get better."
The Sox lost for the first time in six games against the Rays this season as they finished their weeklong swing through Toronto and Tampa Bay with a record of 4-3.
"We didn't play that great, but we were in every single ballgame," Johnny Damon said. "We're definitely happy about that. We're in good shape right now."
If only Lowe could say the same. His disaster unfolded in strange fashion, since he met his pregame goal of throwing first-pitch strikes and avoiding the walks that have plagued him much of the season. He threw his first pitch for a strike to the first 11 batters and 13 of 15 overall. And he walked none. But once the Rays began rolling, he was unable to recover as his ERA rose to a horrific 6.02.
"Seven hits in a row, that's not real conducive to having a good inning, obviously," manager Terry Francona said. "I think, at times, he's searching, like a hitter that's been in a slump a little bit and tries to get too many hits."
One of the ironies of Lowe's crisis was that he plowed so easily through the first two innings, allowing only Carl Crawford to ground a single up the middle leading off the first. The speedy Crawford manufactured a run by advancing to second on Rocco Baldelli's ground out, stealing third, and scoring on Aubrey Huff's ground out.
Still, a 1-0 deficit seemed like no big deal for the Sox, especially with Zambrano handing out walks as if they were party favors. But after the Sox failed to capitalize on Zambrano walking the bases loaded in the first inning, they stranded Kevin Millar after he doubled leading off the second inning. Then Lowe unraveled in the third, managing to retire only one batter (Jonny Gomes on a ground out) before the Rays began treating him as if he were pitching batting practice.
"That inning, it just spun away from him a little bit," catcher Jason Varitek said, "and he couldn't quite get back there."
To Lowe, the problem was that he struggled pitching out of the stretch and threw too many strikes in the wrong places.
"You could lob the ball over the plate and say that was a success," he said of not walking anyone. "You could put a circle around where all the pitches were, right up over the plate. You can't pitch there consistently."
Seven hits later, Lowe needed Lenny DiNardo to extricate the Sox from the mess. Yet Zambrano's philanthropy nearly compensated for Lowe's woes.
With Zambrano still flinging wildly in the fourth inning, the Sox loaded the bases when Brian Daubach walked, Varitek singled, and Millar was hit by a pitch. Kevin Youkilis got the Sox on the board with a sacrifice fly to right before Zambrano handed over two more runs by walking Mark Bellhorn and David Ortiz with the bases loaded.
Trailing, 7-3, the Sox made it even more interesting in the fifth when Varitek deposited a towering home run on a catwalk 70 feet above right field. A batter later, Youkilis singled and advanced on Pokey Reese's walk before Damon doubled to left-center, knocking in both runners to narrow the deficit to 7-6.
"All I can say is that I'll find a way to control all this," said Zambrano, who has walked 44 batters, tops in the majors, in 55 1/3 innings. "The best thing is that we won the game."
After both starters departed, the Rays prevailed because their bullpen held the Sox scoreless over the last 4 1/3 innings. Along the way, the Rays scored one insurance run against DiNardo in the fifth inning and another against Jamie Brown in the seventh. It was Brown's major league debut.
"I was just a little nervous and a little tense out there," Brown said. "I was anxious to get in there and get the first one out of the way."
The Sox had their best shot to catch the Rays in the fifth when Ortiz launched a potential go-ahead shot.
"I thought it was a home run," Francona said.
But Baldelli, in a symbol of the futility the Sox endured, chased it down on the warning track in right-center.
"It was a long game," Damon said. "I know we can't wait to get home."