Sox are stuck in second
Offense can't get in gear vs. Astros
Red Sox manager Terry Francona talks about Josh Beckett's solid outing and his team's need to stick with reliever Hideki Okajima despite his recent struggles.
HOUSTON - The assumption, from the time the MLB computers spat out the 2008 schedule last summer, was that the Red Sox would be playing a meaningful series this week.
But no one, outside of Joe Maddon's immediate family and closest friends, dreamed it would come at the Trop. That visit to the Bronx over the Fourth? Hey, the fireworks begin tonight in St. Pete, where the Sox try to wrest first place away from the Tampa Bay Rays, young, gifted, and still amped from the last time they played - and fought - the Sox.
With Boston falling, 3-2, to the Astros yesterday afternoon, a tie-breaking pinch single by former Sox second baseman Mark Loretta the latest blow to Hideki Okajima's increasingly fragile psyche, the Sox find themselves a half-game in arrears of the Rays, 4-3 winners in Pittsburgh.
The Rays, of course, never have been in first place this deep into any of their previous 10 seasons. No team in the American League East other than the Yankees or Red Sox have been in first as late as July since the 2000 season, when the Blue Jays still held the top spot on July 14 before fading to third.
Sox third baseman Mike Lowell, mindful that the Rays swept the Sox on their last visit to the Trop in April, professed not to be surprised that the Rays are where they are.
"They've played damn good baseball for three months," said Lowell, who came to the plate against Astros closer Jose Valverde with a chance to duplicate his ninth-inning home run from Saturday night, but instead tapped into a force play, Kevin Youkilis then lining out to leave the Sox with a total of 13 stranded runners yesterday. "I think that's a pretty good track record. This is a big series for us. We want to play well. But I don't think it's a be-all or end-all."
But will it be that for the Rays?
"It's a big series," Lowell reiterated. "The media are going to want to hype it up. It's a series that whoever wins will be in first place at the end of it, and that's important to us."
The Rays have their three best pitchers lined up to face the Sox: James Shields, Matt Garza, and Scott Kazmir, in that order.
Josh Beckett, Boston's best pitcher, could do no better than a no-decision yesterday. Beckett's inability to get down a bunt with runners on the corners with one out in the sixth was more exasperating than anything he did on the mound (a solo home run to Geoff Blum in the second, another run in the fifth after he walked the pitcher, Hunter Pence beat out an infield tapper, and Lance Berkman, whose .364 average is second only to Chipper Jones in the big leagues, whistled a single past Beckett's ear).
Sox pitchers finished the interleague portion of the schedule by going 0 for 25 with 18 strikeouts, two yesterday by Beckett, one of baseball's better-hitting pitchers when he was still in the league that puts a bat in a pitcher's hands.
"I got some down," Beckett said of his bunting ability. "It's different, though, when you haven't done it for three years. And guys don't just let you bunt, either. [Astros pitcher Brian Moehler] threw me all cutters. He wasn't going to lay one in there for me to bunt."
Boston's only two runs came on longballs. Dustin Pedroia, who had two more hits yesterday and finished the weekend with nine, hit his eighth home run to lead off the third, and Manny Ramírez hit No. 16 with one out in the seventh to tie the score at 2. But the Sox left the bases loaded twice and two runners on base in two other innings.
"I think that's as good as we've played all year," said Loretta, who has gone from being an All-Star with the Sox in '06 to part-time status with the Astros but still has a knack, Lowell lamented, of delivering a two-out hit when needed.
The hit came off Okajima, who entered after Miguel Tejada's one-out single off David Aardsma in the eighth. It was the first time Terry Francona had summoned Okajima with a runner on base in almost six weeks, or since he gave up a grand slam to Jay Payton in Baltimore May 14. Manny Delcarmen and Craig Hansen had both appeared in the first two games of the series, so it was Okie or bust.
Try bust, as Okajima has now allowed 12 of 15 inherited runners to score.
Jason Varitek, meanwhile, beat himself up for not keeping Okajima's curveball in the dirt in front of him during Geoff Blum's at-bat. "Ninety-nine times out of 100," he said, "I smother that ball. It just got away from me."
Shields, of course, was the pitcher who plunked Coco Crisp with a pitch June 5 in Fenway Park in retaliation for Crisp's hard slide into Rays second baseman Akinori Iwamura the night before. Crisp charged the mound, the benches emptied, and when the smoke cleared, a total of eight players were suspended, five Rays and three Sox. Crisp, despite having his penalty reduced from seven to five games, will miss the series; Iwamura, serving a three-game suspension, will miss the opener tonight.
Marc Topkin of the St. Petersburg Times calculated the total number of suspensions stemming from dustups between these teams at 22 over the last decade. Hit batsmen are another regular feature. There have been 12 this season in Rays-Sox games, the most, Topkin calculated, between any teams. Seventy-eight Rays batters have been hit by Sox pitchers over the years; it's 97 going the other way.
"I think it's a big series as far as that goes," Shields said. "As far as the fighting and stuff goes, that's behind us. If they want to do something then we'll see what happens. As far as our side goes, we're done with that. We just want to win some games."
Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon threw some high heat days after the brawl, contending there was some unfinished business. Shields said he was "shocked" by Papelbon's comments. Rays outfielder Jonny Gomes, the object of considerable Sox ire for throwing some punches when Crisp was prone, said he doesn't anticipate any carryover.
"I can speak for myself, and I don't think anything is going to happen," Gomes said. "I'm not planning on doing anything. I'm not expecting anything getting done to me. That's just on my end."
Papelbon, meanwhile, had no interest in stirring the pot further. His words were dipped in honey yesterday.
"They've got a good ball club," he said. "They do all the little things. When you have a ball club that has some power in the lineup, that pitches like they do and does the little things like they do, you're going to be successful.
"All the extracurricular activity from June 5 is going to be subdued, because it's a battle for first place. I'm not going to stand here and berate their team. They've got a good team."
Gordon Edes can be reached at email@example.com.