ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Justin Masterson let the ball fly, hoping it would stay down, watching for the anticipated ground out. The ball didn't cooperate. Dioner Navarro didn't either, lifting the wayward sinker to center field, over Coco Crisp's head. Long before the ball hit the Tropicana Field turf, Navarro raised his arms above his head as Jason Bartlett rushed home.
The winning single - Navarro couldn't have gotten to second base if he'd wanted, the crush of his teammates preventing him from moving much past first - lifted the Rays over the Red Sox, 2-1, last night, their third last-at-bat win in the last four meetings. The decision was deflating for the Sox, uplifting for the Rays, who regained sole possession of first place in the American League East, a game up on Boston.
With Josh Beckett tossing eight innings on 95 pitches, allowing just three hits (one a homer), the game was reminiscent of last Wednesday's 14-inning Tampa Bay victory in which the same two starters dueled to a 1-1 standoff. Andy Sonnanstine was just as good last night as he was a week ago. Beckett was even better, an excellent sign for a team that will need its ace at ace level in the postseason.
"It's actually exciting," said Sox manager Terry Francona, praising specifically Beckett's breaking ball. "Tonight we're not jumping around because we lost, but he looks very healthy."
That seemed an understatement. But the dominant performance by Beckett notwithstanding - he might have lasted longer had he not experienced the recent elbow problems - the Rays found their groove (and the support of 32,079 in attendance) in the bottom of the ninth. With Masterson on the mound, the Rays loaded the bases with one out on an 0-and-2 pitch that found more of Cliff Floyd's leg than it did of home plate.
It had already been an odd inning, with Bartlett blooping one into right field and Carlos Pena being given an ex tra strike on his eventual walk.
After Evan Longoria struck out looking, up came Floyd, then Navarro, while Masterson was looking for his trademark sinker to get the inning-ending double play. But the most bizarre moment had to be when Hideki Okajima's wild pitch eluded his catcher in the bullpen in foul territory, the ball finding its way to the infield and nullifying a swinging strike by Pena on a 1-and-1 count.
"I was hoping they didn't [see it] after he missed," Francona said. No luck there.
It was Masterson's job to get out of the jam, even with Okajima as an option. Francona said Okajima was not going to come into the game in that situation.
"We had guys up because it didn't seem like a reason not to," he said, "but I think Justin is our best chance to get the ball on the ground, and in a very limited sample, he had handled Floyd [0 for 3, two strikeouts]."
It had seemed things wouldn't get to that point. Just when Beckett looked as if he was settling into a blemish-free performance, Pena's bat met a curveball as he led off the seventh. The ball flashed off the bat, heading back farther and farther from where Jacoby Ellsbury stood ready for it on the warning track in left.
It didn't clear the fence by much, but it did all it needed to do. The home run, on the first pitch of the inning, tied the score. With two hits and no runs in six innings, the Rays had been trending toward a defeat that would have put them in second place for the first time since the All-Star break. Not so fast.
"It's amazing how one pitch can change the complexion of the game," Beckett said. "It was just a poorly executed pitch.
"When you leave a ball up like that, [Pena] doesn't even have to hit it good. I didn't think he hit that ball that good. Ninety-eight
percent of the guys in the big leagues fly out to left field on that, but he's strong, and you can't leave a pitch up to him like that."
That came after Beckett had been nearly unhittable. In fact, he was perfect for 13 batters. Then Floyd, on a 1-and-2 count, lashed a clean single between Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis off a 92-mile-per-hour fastball. It was the first base runner of the game for the Rays.
Before the hit - and after it as well - Beckett was masterful, using the movement on his fastball and a wicked curve to blow through the Rays.
He wasn't alone. Sonnanstine was slashing through the Red Sox as well, allowing just one hit beyond the infield in six innings.
Even when the Sox finally broke through in the sixth, the ball didn't hit the outfield turf. Ellsbury recorded an infield hit, then Pedroia reached on an error by Longoria. David Ortiz's grounder to first pushed the runners to second and third, and Youkilis lofted a sacrifice fly to left for the first run of the game.
But there was no more. Except by the Rays. "Honestly, that's the kind of game we've won all year, especially in this ballpark," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Real tight games late. There's a sense that we can win a game late if we keep it close."