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Thinking big, Sox get back in the swing

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Think of the options available to Theo Epstein had he chosen to stay home this weekend. He could have popped into the Patriots' draft room in Foxborough and observed counterpart Scott Pioli in action. He could have helped mom Ilene push Christopher Blue jeans at The Studio in Brookline. He could have taken his girlfriend to Johnny D's in Somerville to watch a sax player for the Funky White Honkies perform a solo while hanging upside down.

Or he could have convened a summit meeting of Bill James, Eric Van, Jed Hoyer, and some of his other laptop warriors to see if it was possible to devise a new software program for the Red Sox' offense.

For five innings last night at Tropicana Field, with the Sox scoreless and trailing by four, all of those alternatives, especially the last one, loomed as preferable to Epstein's decision to come here. But by night's end, the Sox general manager was able to bear witness not to one, but two four-run uprisings, Boston's biggest innings in eight games on this trip, the second coming in the ninth, when the Sox overcame a one-run deficit and won going away against Tampa Bay, 9-6.

''We battled back, especially to get back in the game, lose it, get back in the game, lose it -- we had to," said catcher Jason Varitek, who delivered the bases-loaded single that broke a 6-all tie created when new closer-by-default Tyler Walker walked Trot Nixon with the bases loaded after whiffing Manny Ramírez, Boston's best hitter with the bases juiced and a guy who already had homered and tripled. ''It was a good job."

Kevin Youkilis, whose two-run double had keyed the Sox' comeback from a 4-0 deficit in the sixth, singled to open the rally in the ninth, fueled by three walks by Walker, who had pitched much better the night before when he was jet-lagged.

Walker last night pitched like a guy dumped by his previous team, the Giants, walking pinch hitter Mark Loretta and David Ortiz, before issuing pass No. 3 to Nixon. With Dan Miceli warming in the pen, Varitek lined a single to make it 7-6, before Miceli belatedly entered and Mike Lowell (sacrifice fly) and Wily Mo Peña (single) brought home two more runs.

Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon struck out the side in the ninth for his 10th save, tying Mike MacDougal's record for saves by a rookie through April (MacDougal had one in March, nine in April for Kansas City in 2003). Keith Foulke, despite giving up the go-ahead run in the eighth, was credited with the win, one earned by the Sox overcoming three Devil Rays leads: 4-0, 5-4, and 6-5.

''It didn't start out as a real fun night," said Sox manager Terry Francona, who had made one lineup change, benching the slumping Loretta (4 for 32 on the trip) for Alex Cora at second base. ''I think to see the bats come to life, it's great. I think what was more gratifying was the attitude: OK, let's keep playing, try hard to keep playing. And we did a great job of that."

Ramírez, the scourge of Tropicana Field, hit one into the left-field seats with one out in the sixth, and the Sox tacked on three more runs to wipe out the 4-0 deficit, the Sox having been held to one hit by Doug Waechter, while the Devil Rays were hitting two home runs off Boston starter Lenny DiNardo.

And that rarest of Sox commodities, a hit with runners in scoring position, arrived just in time to make this one rousing entertainment not only for Epstein, but for a crowd of 27,415, including some overexcited patrons in the expensive seats behind home plate who were escorted out in the seventh inning for brawling (Need we tell you that one of the alleged combatants was wearing a Red Sox jersey?).

The Sox, who had been batting .159 with runners in scoring position on the trip, went 5 for 10 last night. After Ramírez's home run, his 21st at the Trop, most among visiting players and fourth among all players, which is testament not only to Ramírez's comfort zone here but the lack of boppers employed over the years by the home team, Nixon doubled to right and Varitek walked. That was all for Waechter, though he showed considerably more staying power than he had 10 days earlier in Boston, when he gave up a home run to leadoff man Youkilis and was gone after a yield of seven runs in 2 2/3 innings.

Lowell greeted reliever Travis Harper with a base hit, loading the bases, bringing up Peña, Epstein's chosen price for Bronson Arroyo. In his previous half-dozen at-bats, Pena had come to the plate with a total of eight base runners ripe to be driven home, and had come up empty. This time, Peña came through, with a lined single to left that brought home Nixon to make it 4-2.

Alex Gonzalez, who went 0 for 5, dropping his average to .179, took a questionable third strike for the second out, but Youkilis, the Sox' best hitter this season with runners in scoring position (.409, 9 for 22) delivered again, this time slicing a double to right to score Varitek and Lowell.

The tie lasted just two pitches into the bottom of the sixth, as Toby Hall banged the second serving from Julian Tavarez, newly announced into the game, into the left-field seats for Tampa Bay's third home run of the night.

The Sox answered in the seventh, though Ramírez lost a great shot at an inside-the-park home run by stopping to watch his fly ball down the right-field line. He was jogging toward first when the ball struck the contoured wall in the corner and scooted past right fielder Damon Hollins toward center. Ramírez still wound up with a standup triple, and scored on Nixon's sacrifice fly.

Foulke breezed through a 1-2-3 seventh, striking out two, but Gomes opened the eighth with a double to the left-center-field gap, his fourth hit of the night. Foulke retired Ty Wigginton on a shallow fly to center, but Hall followed with a fly ball down the line that Ramírez caught a step into foul territory, then threw home, the ball appearing to hit Gomes just before he crossed the plate standing up.

DiNardo, making his third start and intent on persuading the Sox to give him another, appeared bent on returning to Pawtucket when he gave up singles to the first three batters, loading the bases. But DiNardo escaped with a yield of just one run when Wigginton grounded into a double play and, after a walk to Hall, Hollins filed to right.

Greg Norton homered to start the second, and after Carl Crawford was hit by a pitch in the backside in the third, Gomes unloaded with his 11th home run of the season.

Because Waechter had hit Cora in the top half of the third, plate umpire Mike Winters warned both sides after Crawford was plunked, which brought Francona out of the dugout for some conversation. Winters evidently was taking action to prevent some of the beanball spectacles that have marred Sox-Devil Rays games in the past.

''That was a 68-mile-an-hour curveball," said Francona. ''I wasn't mad at them, and I don't think they were upset with us. That wouldn't have hurt me."

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