Rays 5, Red Sox 4

State of denial

In stunning turn, Rays refuse to let Red Sox grab first

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / September 10, 2008
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He is supposed to be the invincible one, the one for whom these situations are created. Moments after Jason Bay had electrified the Fenway Park crowd of 37,573 last night with a laser two-run home run off Dan Wheeler, smashing it into the front row of the Monster seats to seemingly put the Red Sox over the Wall and into first place, Jonathan Papelbon stepped to the mound.

And six pitches later, it was Dan Johnson rounding the bases.

Fastball after fastball, the first three of them out of the strike zone, had hardly fooled Johnson, and they wouldn't fool Fernando Perez or Dioner Navarro, either. Johnson's home run, and doubles by Perez and Navarro left the Sox trailing by a run in the bottom of the ninth after they had led by one in the top.

That was where it would end, with the Sox losing a heartbreaker, 5-4, to their newest bitter rivals, the Tampa Bay Rays. There will be chances, of course, to regain first place in the American League East, the spot the Sox could have taken with a win. But this was so tantalizingly close.

"Ball three, strike one, strike two, home run," Papelbon said of the Johnson at-bat. "Pretty simple. You fall behind, 3 and 0, that's not obviously what you want to do. You throw a ball middle belt-high over the plate, 3 and 2, when a hitter's sitting probably fastball, what are you going to do?

"It's part of the game. It's not going to be my first blown save, and it won't be my last. That's going to happen. There's a human factor involved in this thing. We are humans, and we are going to make mistakes. I'm human. I didn't throw the pitch where I wanted tonight."

With a fastball that he said wasn't crisp and didn't have enough life, Papelbon couldn't replicate the success of the night before, as he worked in his third straight game. Not only did the loss prevent the Sox from taking the top spot in the division for the first time since the All-Star break, it gave new life to a team for which confidence might just have been slipping.

It was a game the Rays simply had to win. Heading into last night, they had lost all seven of their games in Boston this season.

They also had lost six of their last seven overall and four straight. The Red Sox, on the other hand, had won six of seven. But they wouldn't win this one.

Not that they didn't try. With Daisuke Matsuzaka (five innings plus one batter) leaving too much to the bullpen, the Sox pulled into the bottom of the eighth down by a run. It was 3-2, and there were already two outs. Kevin Youkilis drew a walk, bringing up the new guy, the guy for whom the playoff chase was just a concept until six weeks ago.

But Bay smashed that ball off Wheeler, against whom he had been 1 for 18 with eight strikeouts, and no sooner did he reach the dugout than the crowd was calling for him to emerge again.

"I was just thinking, 'It's only the eighth inning, the game's not over yet,' " Bay said. "Lo and behold, look what happened."

Pinch hitter Johnson - who arrived too late from Scranton to be put in the starting lineup - homered. Perez doubled. Navarro doubled. And that was it.

"It shows that they're a very good team," said Mike Lowell, who closed the gap with his 200th career home run in the fourth inning. "They don't back down. This was a nice win for them.

"We had such a nice emotional lift after Jason's home run. You feel like you have all the confidence in the world with Pap. But Pap's a human being, and that's going to happen."

Human. Like the Sox' starter, he of the 16-2 record. As manager Terry Francona said of Matsuzaka, "It was a fight all night. Fighting to establish his fastball, and really was never able to."

As he has done all season, Matsuzaka spent his 15 outs weaving in and out of trouble. Yes, he kept his streak intact - opponents are still 0 for 14 against him with the bases loaded - but no, the Rays were not kept off the board in such situations.

With the Sox leading, 1-0, in the third, the Rays loaded the bases when Akinori Iwamura singled on a bunt to third, then Ben Zobrist and Carlos Pena drew walks.

Bases loaded, no outs. Someone was bound to get a hit, right?

Well, not quite. Cliff Floyd was hit in the left knee by a pitch, scoring Iwamura. Then Willy Aybar hit a sacrifice fly to right field, scoring Zobrist.

So there it was, the game teed up for the Rays. Then for the Sox. Then for the Rays. And though the Rays ultimately broke serve, it doesn't mean the Sox won't come out ready to return the deficit to a half-game with Josh Beckett on the mound tonight.

"We're going to fight and grind," Papelbon said. "Especially here at home, it's obviously tough to lose. But we've still got a long season left, we've got a lot of games left, and this one game is not going to determine whether we're going to make the playoffs or whether we're going to be a good playoff team."

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