But for a feverish Manny Ramirez, the stars could not have been aligned more favorably for a flying start to this 10-game homestand for the Red Sox. Curt Schilling on the mound on which he hadn't lost this season, the improved-but-still-a-soft-touch Devil Rays in the other dugout, a full house at Fenway Park ready to make the new names on the roster feel lucky they'd landed in Boston.
But that was before baseballs began leaving the premises at a rate that may not have been Wakefieldesque but was still a shock for Sox fans who never had seen Schilling abused in this fashion. The Devil Rays took Schilling deep three times in a span of six batters over the fifth and sixth innings, knocking the ace out of the game before he'd retired a batter in the sixth.
Julio Lugo later hit a fourth home run off Terry Adams, one that turned the Pesky Pole into a giant tuning fork, and the Devil Rays coasted to an 8-3 win that left no one convinced that the Sox are about to win with the kind of regularity required of teams planning to play in October. The team's 52d sellout of the season, 35,172, watched the Sox fall a game behind Anaheim in the wild-card race in a game in which neither David Ortiz, who was present, and Ramirez, who was sent home by manager Terry Francona, collected a hit.
That's happened just eight times this season. The Sox are 2-6 in those games.
"It was disappointing," Schilling said in a voice only slightly above a whisper. "It was bad. Starting a homestand coming off a road trip the way we did, the starting pitcher has a chance to create or maintain momentum. I wasn't able to do that."
An especially deflating defeat, given that the Sox had come home having won the last two games of a seemingly endless trip in Detroit?
"Not really," said Gabe Kapler, who was the most energized Sox player all night with three hits, including a third-inning home run off lefty John Halama, and some aggressive base-running. "And the reason it is not is because we know that we can win two out of the next three.
"Obviously, it becomes deflating if it becomes a trend, but I don't see it becoming a trend. In my mind, I see us winning two out of our last three."
Sox fans with a more pessimistic bent -- informed estimates place their number at roughly 98.9 percent of the Nation -- might view this entire season as one troubling trend.
Until last night, Schilling has been the exception. He was 7-0 in 11 starts at Fenway and 3-0 with a 1.16 ERA in three starts against the D-Rays, including a complete-game six-hitter just six days earlier in the Florida dome.
But Schilling suddenly unraveled in the fifth, with a 1-0 lead and the revamped Sox defense performing exactly as general manager Theo Epstein had envisioned. Shortstop Orlando Cabrera was upended by Rocco Baldelli's slide but still turned a double play that enabled Schilling to escape a bases-loaded jam in the first; first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz made a sprawling stop of Aubrey Huff's smash in the third; and there was the added bonus of a diving catch by Kevin Millar, Ramirez's stand-in in left.
Schilling had not allowed three home runs in a game in 23 starts dating back to Sept. 21, 2003, in Milwaukee, when he was still pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He'd allowed as many as two home runs only twice this season.
But the damage in the fifth began with two outs and nobody on. Devil Rays sprinter Carl Crawford grounded a double into the right-field corner and scored on Lugo's Wall-ball double. Huff, who had doubled in the first, hit an 0-and-1 hanging splitter over the visitors' bullpen to give Tampa Bay a 3-1 lead.
The Sox answered in the bottom of the fifth when Kapler singled and took third on Johnny Damon's infield out when first baseman Tino Martinez's throw hit him in the back. Kevin Youkilis flared a single just over the head of shortstop B.J. Upton to score Kapler, and it was 3-2.
Out for the sixth came Schilling. But past superiority meant nothing, as Martinez greeted Schilling with his 17th home run to open the inning. Geoff Blum lined a single, and Toby Hall, whose grand slam last week had stunned Bronson Arroyo, hit his eighth home run, into the Monster seats.
It was 6-2 Devil Rays, the second time in his last four starts that Schilling had been touched for six or more runs, and Francona, who had granted NESN an in-game interview from the dugout, wordlessly took the ball from Schilling as Adams was summoned from the bullpen.
"I thought he made more mistakes, certainly, than usual," Francona said.
Adams struck out the first two batters he faced, but Lugo then lined one off the Pesky Pole for the fourth Devil Ray home run of the night, and the lead was 7-2. Sox pitchers now have allowed 11 home runs in two games.
Schilling acknowledged his mistakes, but said the days of the Sox beating the Devil Rays just by throwing their gloves on the field are long ended.
"There are no patsies in this league," he said. "If you don't go out and execute, you're going to get in trouble, and tonight was all about execution."
Kapler singled to open the seventh and hustled to third on Damon's blooper to right. Righthanded reliever Travis Harper entered, and induced Youkilis to ground into a run-scoring force play, Damon nearly beating the play at second with a hard slide. But Jason Varitek, batting in the third spot in Ramirez's absence, struck out, and Ortiz, dropped from third to fourth, fouled to third baseman Blum to end the inning.
It was the continuation of a frustrating evening for Ortiz, who failed to get the ball out of the infield in four at-bats.
"I'm excited about this week," Ortiz had said before the game. "This is a chance for us to do some damage. This is a chance to show what kind of team we have."
Instead, there were the Devil Rays, banging the ball all over the ancient yard -- eight extra-base hits on a night when the breeze was negligible -- and Cabrera and Mientkiewicz hearing scattered boos in the eighth, when Cabrera popped out and Mientkiewicz bounced into an inning-ending double play.
"Every game is important to us right now," Varitek said. "We have to win a lot of games."