Once, in high school, as the tale goes, Joey Gathright was hanging around the parking lot waiting for a lift home and jumped over his football coach's car, just because he could. Another time, showing off for his Tampa Bay teammates, the Tae Kwon Do blackbelt pulled off a roundhouse kick over the head of a man teammate Jonny Gomes estimated to be 6 feet 7 inches.
And yet, with about 40 feet of base line to decide what to do with two outs in the ninth inning yesterday, his team behind, 5-4, and the baseball in Doug Mirabelli's grasp, Gathright didn't do much of anything. He didn't slide and didn't catapult, instead throwing a weak shoulder at Mirabelli.
``I don't know what I was doing at the plate -- a half-[effort] attempt at running him over," Gathright said. ``But I was out."
He was undoubtedly out, putting an end to what for eight innings was a clean and efficient body of work submitted by Tim Wakefield (8 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 4 K's) and his defense and what for one inning was an absolute horror show. Wakefield had delivered eight shutout innings on a day the team needed exactly that out of him (Keith Foulke and Jonathan Papelbon were unavailable because of recent workloads, and Mike Timlin was on the disabled list). But, with 108 pitches in the books, and manager Terry Francona willing to let Wakefield finish what he began, Wakefield declined.
``I had 108 pitches," he said, ``and I didn't really feel like pushing it any further."
The one inning he did not pitch was a clear and alarming study in how difficult life could be for the next two weeks without Timlin, who said after the game that an MRI showed no structural damage in his 40-year-old shoulder. The Sox entered the ninth ahead, 5-0, with Rudy Seanez entrusted to close things out. He lasted two-thirds of an inning, giving way to Julian Tavarez. Together, they combined to throw 54 pitches (29 of them balls) and walk five (tying a Tampa Bay record for walks in an inning). They gave up just one hit. The one hit, though, was a lined single to left off the bat of Carl Crawford, with the bases loaded and Tampa Bay within 5-3 (two bases-loaded walks and a bases-loaded strikeout with a passed ball accounted for the runs).
Crawford had stung the ball to left, where Willie Harris started in place of Manny Ramírez (right knee tendinitis). Crawford knocked in one, with Gathright, on second, motoring home. He was several steps shy of third base when Harris scooped the ball, and, even as one of the fastest men in baseball -- most of the Tampa Bay clubhouse believes Gathright has better pure speed than Crawford -- Gathright was dead at home.
``We'll challenge Harris's arm with Gathright's speed," explained third base coach Tom Foley, who told Gathright before the at-bat to attempt to score on a hit and yelled the same thing as he rounded third. ``It was hit like a BB. But we'd do it again in that situation."
The final out preserved a 5-4 win, improving Wakefield to 4-6 with a 4.07 ERA while giving the Sox a four-game sweep of the Devil Rays, whom the Sox have beaten in 24 of the last 28 meetings at Fenway. The Sox, who own baseball's third-best record in May (16-7), improved to 30-18, though that includes a combined 15-4 mark against Baltimore and Tampa Bay, against whom the Sox play 17 more games.
``That's too much computer," Kevin Youkilis said, when apprised of these numbers. ``I don't know what to say to that."
However, the road -- literally and figuratively -- now becomes more difficult. The Sox embarked last night on an 11-day, 10-game road trip through Toronto, Detroit, and New York, three teams with a combined record of 90-57. A tough road show, no?
``It will be, it will be," Mark Loretta acknowledged. ``But we're playing pretty well, our confidence is high. We'll take our chances."
Few players on the Sox have the confidence level of Loretta's. After batting .218 (22 for 101) in April, he's leading the American League in May at .410 (41 for 100) after cranking out two hits and knocking in three of the Sox' five runs yesterday in support of Wakefield, who began the day with a staff-low 3.9 runs per game in support.
Trot Nixon accounted for the first RBI of the day when he came to bat in the fourth with the bases loaded against 6-10 lefthander Mark Hendrickson (5 2/3 IP, 8 H, 5 R) and walked. The song that announces Nixon's plate appearances these days at Fenway is Johnny Cash's ``Walk the Line," and it's become a remarkably apropos choice. Nixon has walked 26 times and fanned just 15 times.
Harris (2 for 3, single, double, hit by pitch, 2 runs), doubled to left leading off the fifth and scored when Loretta delivered a one-out double to left. The Sox then tacked on three in the sixth, when they sent eight men to the plate, even though the first two batters made outs.
But, with two outs, Alex Gonzalez singled. Harris managed a full-count single to center. Coco Crisp, back atop the lineup after seven weeks on the disabled list, laced a ball back up the middle that appeared to catch a piece of Hendrickson's glove.
The lanky lefthander went scrambling for the ball but couldn't make a play on Crisp, throwing it into the stands and hurting his hamstring in the process. Crisp advanced to second, with Gonzalez scoring and Harris holding at third. Righthander Shawn Camp entered but immediately gave up a two-run single to Loretta.
``I just feel like I'm hitting the ball consistently hard and the majority of the balls are falling in this month," said Loretta, who has 20 multihit games in just 48 games. ``I stick to the process and try to take as much emotion as I can out of it."
In the field, Loretta helped contribute to a clinical showing by the Sox infield. In the first, Crawford had singled and stolen second (giving him a major league-leading 20 steals) and was poised to swipe third, too.
``He was going to steal for sure," Loretta said.
But Wakefield put the pickoff play on and nabbed Crawford. In the second, Travis Lee struck a ball destined for the wall in deep right, but Nixon hauled it in on the track. Leading off the fifth Josh Paul hit a ball into the hole that shortstop Gonzalez ran down, gloved while sliding, and converted into an out.
Mike Lowell made two outstanding plays himself, a charging barehanded play on a slow bouncer and a diving stop on a smash down the line.
Which was the toughest?
``Gonzalez by far," Loretta said. ``Just to get the ball, slide, and pop up and stretch. I'll say that's one of the plays of the year."