It was uglier than a Muddy River bullfrog, but with the Yankees playing actual baseball again and another Battle of the Bronx beginning tomorrow, the Red Sox didn't care about style points last night.
"A win is a win and we had to fight for this one," manager Terry Francona acknowledged, after his raffish ballclub had survived an unsightly 8-6 wrangle with Tampa Bay before 35,105 at Fenway Park to stay within four games of revived New York.
Boston did it by grinding for 3 1/2 hours, by using 15 field players and six pitchers, by getting two-run homers from Mark Bellhorn and Kevin Millar (his 100th career) and by hanging in and hanging in until they got what they needed.
"It wasn't pretty," said center fielder Johnny Damon, after the bullpen (victor Mike Myers, Ramiro Mendoza, Mike Timlin, Keith Foulke) had held the Devil Rays hitless for the final 3 2/3 innings. "But the final outcome definitely was. We played just good enough to win."
Though the idea of a "must" game against Tampa Bay seemed silly, the Red Sox couldn't afford to lose a third straight after the Yankees blanked Kansas City yesterday. Yet after Pedro Martinez took a loss on Tuesday when his mates were baffled by a rookie southpaw, anything seemed possible.
Still, the pitching matchup shaped up as ideal. Tim Wakefield, who was 10-1 lifetime against the Devil Rays, against Dewon Brazelton, who'd never won a road game (0-11) in his career, the only active major league pitcher with at least 12 starts who hadn't. "Coming out of the bullpen [catcher Doug] Mirabelli said [Wakefield's] ball was all over the place, which is good," said Francona.
But Wakefield, who now has two losses and a no-decision after winning six of seven, was gone after five innings after giving up four runs and six hits. "Little things happen," shrugged Wakefield, who faced eight batters in the fifth after setting down seven straight, six on grounders. "I just need a little bit of luck to fall my way once in a while."
Even though the Sox knocked around Brazelton for six runs and nine hits in his four-plus innings, they found themselves dead even in the sixth after Curtis "The Mechanic" Leskanic took a sledgehammer to the game. Leskanic gave up a Wall double to Toby Hall (who smacked two) and a crushed first-pitch homer to Jorge Cantu that thumped off the Sports Authority sign in left that made it 6-6.
In came Myers, who hadn't had a win since he beat the Red Sox for the Mariners in Seattle July 19. He struck out Carl Crawford looking and Julio Lugo swinging and the evening began to turn.
By the time the inning was over, Tampa Bay had gone through four pitchers (Franklin Nunez, Bobby Seay, Chad Gaudin, and Trever Miller), the Sox had walked the bases full, and Manny Ramirez had knocked in pinch runner Adam Hyzdu with the winning run on a sacrifice fly to right.
After losing two of four at Seattle and the series opener here, the Red Sox are taking nothing for granted when playing losing teams. "These teams are dangerous," said Millar, whose homer over the Monster seats on a 1-and-2 pitch with David Ortiz aboard put Boston up, 6-4, in the fifth. "They have nothing to lose. We have to come out and bear down. You want the W, and you don't care how pretty or ugly it is."
This was a night when Francona went up and down his bench, using everyone from Hyzdu to Doug Mientkiewicz to Pokey Reese to Dave Roberts. But the game came down to the bullpen. To Mendoza, who struck out cleanup hitter Rocco Baldelli with the leadoff man on, then retired Tino Martinez and Jose Cruz. To Timlin, who got the side in order in the eighth. And, finally to Foulke, who did the same in the ninth to nail down his 29th save.
"Mendoza, Timlin, and Foulke were tremendous," said Francona. "It's nice to be able to go to different guys on different nights and have success. You need that."
What the Sox need most is to keep within tailgating distance of the pinstriped Bronxmobile, which had begun pulling away again after running off the road for nearly a month. If they'd been swept here by the Devil Rays, the remaining six games with the Yankees would have been all but irrelevant in the divisional race. Which is, after all, the objective.
Last year, winning the wild card was cause for champagne and celebratory T-shirts. This year, it'll be a letdown and everybody on Yawkey Way knows it. So the Sox are determined to grab as many victories as possible by whatever means necessary. "We showed up to win tonight," Francona declared, "and we did."