Another fall in Tampa drops the Sox 2 1/2 back
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Forgive the Red Sox if they were tempted to board their charter last night still wearing their uniforms, while the cowbells still rang in their ears and the fluorescent lights still stung their eyes. Forgive them if they ran from this place screaming. Forgive them for doing anything to leave behind Tropicana Field as fast as they could.
The Red Sox planned on arriving in New York today at about 4 a.m., but they may have never welcomed a trip there as much as they did this one. At least they could flee The Trop, the scene of another loss, where the score changes - it was 6-4 last night, thanks mostly to four Tampa Bay Rays home runs, three off starter Brad Penny - but the result seldom does.
Since the start of 2008, the Red Sox are 2-13 in the regular season at Tropicana Field, the place where that season met its end.
It is a baseball diamond trapped inside a demented theme park, where catwalks hang and cowbells clang. Playing here feels weird for invaders. It feels like home for the Rays.
“We always played a lot better in this building, and they’re still doing it,’’ said Sox outfielder Rocco Baldelli, who spent the first seven years of his career here. “I haven’t talked to too many guys in the league that say, ‘Oh, I love coming to Tropicana Field.’ No one says that. They all say they don’t like it.’’
The Red Sox’ latest nightmarish visit - before a four-game series at Yankee Stadium begins tonight - shifted the race for the American League East. On Tuesday, the Sox sauntered into the Juice Box having won four straight, a half-game out of first place and five games clear of the Rays.
They limped out having made the divison a three-team scramble, trailing the Yankees by 2 1/2 games and just three games ahead of the Rays. They exited with a pitching staff so worn that they came to an agreement on a minor league contract late last night with Paul Byrd, who entered semi-retirement af ter pitching for the Sox down the stretch last season.
Of course, the team Tropicana Field houses has something to do with the Sox’ struggles. The Rays run like the wind, but they hit like a hurricane. Penny, who has one win in his last eight starts, allowed a pair of two-run homers before the third inning ended.
Last week, Penny began tinkering with a slider. He unveiled it last night, throwing about a dozen. Some were effective. His undoing had nothing to do with his new pitch. It had to do with the home runs he surrendered to Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, and Pat Burrell.
“Three swings, you know?’’ Penny said. “That goes back to me not wanting to walk someone, giving in a little bit when I should have stayed focused on not only throwing a strike, but a quality strike.’’
Once the Rays grabbed the lead, their ear-splitting crowd provided an extra opponent, as if fireballing starter David Price was not difficult enough. For years, Tropicana Field acted as a haven for Red Sox fans. The seats last night were filled with purple and sky blue.
“It used to be all red,’’ Baldelli said. “The streets would be flooded with Red Sox people. It would be three-quarters Red Sox people, and the other people wouldn’t even have Rays or Devil Rays stuff on. They would just be dressed like normal people. It didn’t seem like there were as many Red Sox fans out there tonight. I guess when you win, that happens.’’
Jason Bay gave the Red Sox the game’s first lead with a 432-foot home run in the second inning, but Penny gave it right back. The Sox expected the Rays would run on Penny, because the Rays run on everyone and Penny entered having allowed 18 stolen bases, third in the major leagues, while only base stealer running on him had been caught.
By the fourth inning, Penny had allowed more steals than any pitcher in the majors. But the Rays didn’t just beat Penny with their legs. You don’t need speed to jog home.
In the second, after Ben Zobrist singled and stole second, Pena crunched a no-doubt-about-it home run to right field. In the third, Michel Hernandez led off with a sharp single to right. A batter later, Crawford - who victimized Penny for four stolen bases earlier in the season - blasted an opposite-field homer to left-center, putting the Rays ahead, 4-1.
The Sox tried to creep back, Victor Martinez providing another solo home run, his first as a Red Sox. But each time the Sox scored, the Rays answered and preserved their breathing room.
“That’s what good teams do,’’ manager Terry Francona said.
They’ll see another good team tonight, the one currently looking down on them in the standings. The Sox are 8-0 against the Yankees this season, and this weekend will test their supremacy in the rivalry. After Sunday, the Red Sox will be anywhere from 1 1/2 games up to 6 1/2 games back.
“I’m excited,’’ third baseman Mike Lowell said. “It’s a great measuring stick. It’s a great way to catch up to those that are in front of you. I don’t think the games are going to be boring. So it should be a fun series.’’
It promises to be a challenging series, too; the Yankees have won 14 of 18 games. Things may only get harder. But then, the Red Sox are leaving behind Tropicana Field.
“I don’t know,’’ Francona said. “Maybe they’ll get easier.’’