ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - From the phenomenally perfect, to the frustratingly flawed.
With Jonathan Papelbon allotted just 1 1/3 innings (18 pitches) last night and the Red Sox and Rays headed to the bottom of the 11th inning, it was time for Mike Timlin. The same Timlin who was not on the Division Series roster, the same Timlin who has struggled monumentally this season, his 18th in the big leagues.
But it was to him the Sox turned, their bullpen nearly wiped out, as the game drew long past its fifth hour.
Timlin walked the first batter, Dioner Navarro, then went to 3 and 0 against Ben Zobrist (the third pitch drawing an ejection from pitching coach John Farrell, who argued the call). Zobrist, like Farrell, walked. Soon, Timlin was pitching to B.J. Upton with one out and the bases loaded.
And Upton delivered, the celebration of 34,904 at Tropicana Field erupting, after he lofted a sacrifice fly to right fielder J.D. Drew along the foul line, Drew's throw up the third-base line as pinch runner Fernando Perez scored to give the Rays a 9-8 victory.
"I'm the one that messed it up," said Timlin, who said he was "nervous" not having pitched in 13 days. "We should have won that game, I believe, a few times. They probably believe the same thing. It came down to the last hitter, last pitcher."
For Drew, the throw on the shallow fly ball was not easy, especially for a player who has a sore shoulder from being hit by a pitch there the night before. "More than anything, the grip I had on the ball wasn't the best, I was trying to get rid of it so fast," he said.
With a horrendous start from Josh Beckett and a poor finish from Timlin, the Sox head north with a split in the first two games of the American League Championship Series, back to Boston now even, having wrested home-field advantage from the Rays.
"We're not frustrated," Timlin said. "You come down to somebody else's place and you split, we're still looking pretty good."
Even so, it was astonishing to have gone from 14 runs in the first five innings to two runs over the next five, both by the Sox. Seven home runs mashed turned to a whisper as stretched-thin bullpens worked overtime. Not that the Sox didn't have their chances, stranding 13 runners.
Both teams had their chances because neither starter was particularly effective. Neither was effective at all.
For Beckett, it was the second straight start in which that has happened. And as the home runs flew over the fence, 15 rows deep in left, or by the foul pole in left, or over the wall to straightaway center, the game began to have a 2006 feel to it, the year Beckett allowed 36 homers. But the key appears likely to be what happened at the end of the regular season. That was when Beckett had the side session that threw his postseason infallibility out of whack.
He received an injection after that side session to help ease his strained right oblique. He was pushed back to the Game 3 start in the Division Series. He had an uncharacteristic performance in that game, giving up four runs on nine hits and four walks in five innings to the Angels. That was blown away by the eight runs on nine hits he gave up in 4 1/3 innings last night.
Beckett had claimed he was "fine," as had manager Terry Francona. But judging from his start last night, and his skyrocketing postseason ERA, he is not fine.
"I look at every start like it's probably going to go well," Beckett said. "I wasn't going into this start thinking my team was going to score eight and we were going to lose the game."
Asked if there was a chance he was going to miss his next start, Beckett affirmed that he was "fine."
Fine for the Rays hitter, at least. As was Scott Kazmir for the Sox. That's why it was a good day for souvenir hunting at Tropicana Field, a good day to bring a glove. Because by the time Jason Bay had hit the home run to give the Sox a 6-5 lead, the Sox and Rays had already hit seven homers combined, two by Dustin Pedroia. The home runs broke the ALCS record for a game, and tied the LCS mark. So much for that pitching matchup.
The Sox lead was obliterated moments later, as Beckett gave back the three runs in the bottom half of the fifth. He left after 4 1/3 innings, yielding to lefthander Javier Lopez, who gave up a single to right to the first (and only) batter he faced, Carl Crawford, closing the book on Beckett (8 ER, 9 H, 1 BB, 5K, 93 pitches). Neither Beckett nor Kazmir (4 1/3 IP, 5 ER, 6 H) made it through the fifth. Delcarmen relieved Lopez.
"His location wasn't where he wanted it," Jason Varitek said. "But they did a good job hitting, so I'm not going to take that away from them."
But it might not have gone to the 11th at all had it not been for Dan Wheeler's wild pitch.
The Sox put two runners on with no outs in the eighth inning. Wheeler entered, six likely outs facing him with the Rays bullpen stripped of its most valuable arms, and in two pitches he got two outs. That came on a double play off the bat of Kevin Youkilis (3 for 6) that moved Pedroia to third.
Wheeler, though, pitched around Bay and he uncorked a pitch that grazed the top of catcher Dioner Navarro's glove on the way to the backstop, allowing Pedroia to come home with the tying run. It was 8-8, and the clock was ticking toward midnight.
It would get far later, as Upton scored the winning run with the center-field clock at 1:35 a.m. That left the Sox with the loss, but they did what they had come to do. They won one game in enemy territory, their one in Tropicana Field. And, even with the disappointment, it wasn't all negativity for the Sox.
"We did a lot of good things," Varitek said. "We were one hit away from winning that game."
Or, as Timlin said, "I like it. We're still looking pretty good."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.