|Scott Kazmir threw in the towel early, giving up nine earned runs in three-plus innings. The Rays ace gave up four of Boston's six home runs in the 13-5 rout. (Mike Carlson/Associated Press)|
Red Sox bash their way to tie for lead in AL East
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - By the time the Red Sox had finally been retired in the fourth inning, hives had broken out among the denizens of Rays Nation. Or would have, if there were such a thing, with Tropicana Field having been taken over as usual by Red Sox fans even in the heat of a playoff chase in Florida.
It was so ugly that the Rays radio announcers were already calling the game a "nightmare," as the Sox were guaranteeing that they would end the evening in a virtual first-place tie in the American League East for the first time since July 24.
The Rays' ace, Scott Kazmir, had seemingly collapsed under the pressure, beginning the game with nine straight balls, and finishing his outing with the Sox battering four home runs and nine runs total off him. In all, the Sox belted a season-high six home runs - the most they've hit in a game since 2003 - with the balls going every which way. One off the bat of Jason Bay ended up stuck in the C-ring catwalk, defying for now that what-goes-up-must-come-down edict.
What was going up last night were the Sox. With just 12 games to go for Boston and 14 for the Rays, there is virtually nothing separating them in the standings - just percentage points - after last night's 13-5 rout before 29,772 fans.
"It means a lot," Mike Timlin said. "We've been working hard to get here. The Rays have been working hard to keep us from here.
"It just shows the perseverance of this team, the personality of this team not to give up. There's times when we could just sit back and say, OK, we've got a chance to just sew up the wild card. But you want to win your division. If you can do that, it means a lot more.
"They're cooler hats, anyway."
It's not so simple, though. The Sox have one more win and one more loss than the Rays. That games-played deficit will change this week, but this will not: Since the Sox were in second place in the East by 5 1/2 games on the morning of Sept. 1, the Rays have not been able to deal a crushing blow, even when they took two of three at Fenway last week.
"I think it was a good statement game for us," said Mike Lowell, who had one of the six homers. "We hadn't won in this park yet this year. We swung the bats real well. We hit the long ball better than we had all year. That's a good sign."
Usually, you don't set out to hit six home runs in a game. Especially not against Kazmir. But the lefty had little, his trouble with command leaving limp offerings in the strike zone for Sox hitters. And they took full advantage.
Starting with David Ortiz's second career home run off Kazmir (against whom he had a .189 average), the Sox bashed Rays pitching. After Ortiz's first-inning homer to right field, scoring Coco Crisp and Dustin Pedroia (on with walks), the Sox added homers by Lowell, Bay, and Jason Varitek off Kazmir.
Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury knocked theirs off reliever Mitch Talbot, who was making his major league debut.
"I think when you come into a game and you're facing [Kazmir], you know you have your hands full," manager Terry Francona said. "We did an exceptional job tonight, 'cause he's one of the, if not the best pitchers, certainly one of the best lefthanders in the league.
"He left some balls over the middle uncharacteristically. It didn't look like in the first inning he had his real good pop. We took advantage of that before he could settle into the game."
"This start just really didn't get it done, plain and simple," Kazmir said.
The drama vanished early, and Daisuke Matsuzaka was able to pitch under the lightest of burdens. Protect a 10-run lead (at the end of the fourth inning)? No problem.
With just one blemish - a home run by Akinori Iwamura - Matsuzaka had one of his vintage performances. He walked two, allowed three hits, and stayed in the game for only five innings, though he still got the win. That brought him to 17-2, the most wins for a Japanese-born pitcher in a season in the major leagues.
But even with the big lead, Matsuzaka threw 101 pitches in his second straight five-inning start, and his third straight against the Rays.
"It's just one of those nights," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "You just have to forget about that one as quick as possible."
Not for the Sox. Just as the Rays had done last week in Boston, the Sox finally took one on the road in this series. After last Monday's game, the Sox had won all seven this season at Fenway Park. Then the Rays took the next two.
Going into last night, the Rays had won all six this season at Tropicana Field. Then the Sox obliterated them, pushing their way into that first-place party.
"We want to finish first," Francona said. "That's what you set out to do."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.