Looking for the knockout punch in the ninth, Red Sox go down swinging
It was starting to feel like old times at Fenway Park. Not only were the Red Sox playing a rare weekday afternoon game, but the hallmark of the team over the last few seasons -- late-inning comebacks -- had returned to vogue in Boston. Three, in fact, in the previous four days.
Even if the first two didn't involve the Red Sox -- the Lowell Spinners and Portland Sea Dogs fashioned walkoff victories as part of the "Futures at Fenway" doubleheader Saturday -- Fenway was rocking again late in games.
So it was yesterday, too. After starting in an inexplicable offensive slumber against a pitcher without a victory in two months, the Red Sox found the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings more to their liking, closing in on another come-from-behind victory.
But instead of a rollicking celebration at home plate, the Sox found themselves yelling and cursing and smashing bats against their helmets (Kevin Youkilis), unable to advance Julio Lugo from second base despite his arrival there with no outs in the ninth. So, with more frustration than exultation, they fell, 6-5, to the Devil Rays, consoled only by a comeback in the Bronx that fell short, too, the Yankees losing to the Orioles, 6-3, in 10 innings after staging a ninth-inning revival. So Boston's American League East lead remained at five games.
"The interminable ninth inning at Fenway . . . it's always like that," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. "If you have the lead, you are never comfortable."
He experienced that when the Sox rallied for a 2-1 victory in the ninth Tuesday. And more of the same seemed in the offing yesterday. With the Red Sox down, 6-4, Coco Crisp began the ninth with a bunt single, placing the ball perfectly up the third base line. Lugo followed with an 11-pitch at-bat that ended with a run-scoring double to center field that brought the 36,413 to their feet.
But he would get no farther. Dustin Pe droia, who bunted foul on the first pitch from Al Reyes (Tuesday's losing pitcher) before the sign was taken off, struck out swinging. So did Youkilis. And after David Ortiz walked on a 3-and-2 pitch, Manny Ramírez finished the game with yet another strikeout swinging.
"You've got plenty of confidence in those three guys coming up, in Pedroia and Youkilis and David and Manny, all those guys," Lugo said. "Man, you've got to take your chances with those guys all the time."
But confidence is not the same as producing. And the Sox couldn't yesterday. With Daisuke Matsuzaka failing to continue the recent stretch of dominance by Sox starting pitchers, allowing six runs in six innings, the Boston offense found itself in an early deficit. Matsuzaka allowed one run in the first inning, and the Devil Rays poured it on in the third.
Matsuzaka allowed two singles to open the inning, followed by a walk to B.J. Upton and a two-run double to Carlos Peña. Delmon Young singled home Upton, and Peña scored on a safety squeeze by Brendan Harris. The Devil Rays added another run on a Harris triple and a sacrifice fly in the sixth, pushing the lead to 6-0.
All Matsuzaka could do afterward was express his disappointment, apologizing for ending the fun following Tuesday's walkoff win.
"Early, we made some mistakes," said catcher Jason Varitek. "[Matsuzaka] had some misfortunes also. They put some balls in play. He really settled in, but [they] had that one real big inning. That was the difference."
Devil Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine -- with his 1-8 record and 6.35 ERA coming in -- stifled the Sox for six innings, allowing just two hits, which was mostly attributable to his ability to throw strike one. But the Red Sox began their awakening against him in the seventh, scoring three runs. Varitek sent a pitch just to the fair side of the Pesky Pole for a two-run homer after Mike Lowell singled. Then Crisp walked, chasing Sonnanstine in favor of Gary Glover, and came around on Lugo's first double of the afternoon.
Ortiz (walk) and Ramírez (double) closed the deficit to 6-4 in the eighth. But in the seventh and eighth, the runner on second was stranded. That left only the ninth.
After Tuesday's comeback, it was a scenario that imbued the players with a bit of hope and swagger. Short-lived.
"Frustrating," Lowell said. "I wish we would have done a better job in the first six innings. It seems like we came out a little flat. And they were playing for each run.
"We got one run in and a guy on second with no outs, we feel pretty confident that we're going to at least be able to score that run. But hey, that's the game."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.