Whatever a furniture company has been paying this season to sponsor the playing of "Sweet Caroline" -- another Fenway tradition reduced to a price tag -- it could not match in value what Tim Wakefield gave the Red Sox last night.
With the Sox reeling from a weekend series in Baltimore bookended by walkoff losses, the 41-year-old knuckleballer held the Tampa Bay Devil Rays hitless for six innings and kept them off the scoreboard for eight in a 3-0 win before a sellout crowd of 36,808.
"I never saw that pitch moving that much," said Sox DH David Ortiz after Wakefield allowed just two singles to record his 14th win, which doubled his total from 2006 and drew him within three of his career high (17-8 in 1998). "That was disgusting."
Except for Julio Lugo, who singled and scored Boston's first run in the first and singled home Doug Mirabelli for the second run in the seventh, the most im pressive demonstration by the Sox offense for much of the night was the impromptu set of pushups Ortiz did after he found himself face-down at the plate when Devil Rays starter James Shields threw a pitch at his ankles in the sixth.
"I wouldn't consider that a set," said third baseman Mike Lowell, who kept Wakefield's bid for a no-no alive with a nice backhanded stab of Brendan Harris's smash with one out in the fifth. "But it was quite comical.
"I actually was hoping he would go deep."
Ortiz came close in the first inning, when his liner hit high off the wall in dead center for a run-scoring double.
"I'm never going to hit 20 home runs," Ortiz moaned. "Every time I swing and miss, my shoulder stings."
But not enough to keep him from knocking off two or three pushups.
"Those were short strokes," he said. "I did it to show it was a slider, that he wasn't throwing at me."
The Sox eased a bit of the pressure on their besieged bullpen by tacking on another run in the eighth, stringing together Manny Ramírez's ground single up the middle, a walk to J.D. Drew, and Lowell's single to center, a ball he hit off his fists, to make it 3-0.
There would be no grilling of Eric Gagné this night. He and the rest of the Sox bullpen got to watch Jonathan Papelbon finish off the Devil Rays for his 28th save, striking out two. The victory kept the Sox four games ahead of the Yankees in the AL East, and stopped the hyperventilating, at least temporarily.
"It was a good win for us," Lowell said, "just to get back on track. You know, I don't like to say games were big because of this or that. It was a nice dominant performance -- a little flair with the no-hitter thing. It was a close game, and we've really been getting good quality starts, especially the last four starts. That's a good sign for us."
In the last four games, the most runs allowed by a Sox starter is two, by Josh Beckett, and he was a strike away from a complete-game shutout Saturday in Baltimore. The night before, Daisuke Matsuzaka allowed a run in seven innings. On Sunday, Curt Schilling gave up an unearned run in six innings.
The odds were high that Wakefield would continue that run. There are few matchups in baseball more one-sided than Wakefield vs. the Devil Rays. No one has beaten them more often, his record now 18-2 with a 2.83 ERA in 35 games, 25 of them starts.
"Is that the best all-time against any team?" Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon wondered. "He's good, but he's very good against us."
Only one pitcher older than Wakefield is has thrown a no-hitter: Nolan Ryan, who did it twice. Ryan was 43 years and 131 days when he threw a no-hitter against the Athletics on June 11, 1990, and less than a year later, Ryan did it again, throwing a no-hitter against Toronto when he was 44 years and 90 days old.
The Rays were primed to have a bad go of it. After playing Sunday night in Texas, where the game-time temperature was 98 degrees, they took a redeye flight to Boston, landing at 5:30 a.m., and it was another 45 minutes before they made it to their hotel rooms.
Tampa Bay did not have a base-runner until Akinori Iwamura drew a walk to open the fourth. The closest the D-Rays came to a hit in the first six innings was the ball by Harris, which took a violent hop just before it reached Lowell, who gloved it backhanded, then threw to first.
"That's just a reaction play," Lowell said. "It's a lot better when it sticks in your glove than when it bounces off."
Carl Crawford, the one D-Ray who has consistently hit Wakefield (22 for 67, .328, coming in) and who was batting .413 since the All-Star break, grounded an 0-and-1 pitch through the right side, breaking up the no-no with no outs in the seventh. Crawford wasted no time in becoming the first D-Ray to reach second by stealing the base, and took third when Carlos Pena flied out to J.D. Drew on the track in center.
With the tying run 90 feet away, Wakefield broke to cover the plate after Delmon Young swung at a 2-and-2 pitch, only to have the ball bounce off the glove of catcher Doug Mirabelli. But plate umpire Adam Dowdy ruled that it was a foul tip, and moments later, Wakefield pumped his right fist in exultation after Young swung and missed.
"One of the biggest [strikeouts] of my career," Wakefield said. "Considering the score, the runner on third, the guy coming up next."
Wakefield is 14-10, keeping intact his streak of receiving a decision in each of his 24 starts. The last Sox starter to have a streak that long was Dave "Boo" Ferriss, who went 18-6 in his first 24 starts in 1945.
When Papelbon whiffed Iwamura to start the ninth, it marked the 16th time in his last 17 appearances that the Sox closer has struck out at least one batter. He also whiffed the next batter, Crawford, giving him at least two K's in 11 of those appearances.
Sox manager Terry Francona singled out Mirabelli for a part of his game that tends to draw sympathy more than praise: his base-running. Francona said Mirabelli's attention to getting a good lead off second paid off in the seventh, when after Mirabelli and Eric Hinske walked, Lugo singled to center, Mirabelli chugging home.
"I feel like if I'm at second base, there's going to be a play at the plate, no matter where the ball's going to be hit," Mirabelli said. "You saw the other day. I'm on third, the ball was hit to the warning track and in my mind, there's a play at the plate. So I know I have to get every single inch, every bit I can with two outs."