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The Red Sox were hoping to pad their wild card lead even further on a chilly Saturday afternoon at Fenway with another win over the rival Rays, but Tampa escaped with a 4-3 win and instead again shifted the momentum of the suddenly exciting wild card race.
Things started rough for the Red Sox on Saturday with the Rays jumping to a quick lead against ace Jon Lester. Outfielder Desmond Jennings led off the game with a rare four pitch walk, and then came around to score on a two-run home run by Ben Zobrist, a high blast that barely reached the Green Monster in left. The Rays then padded their lead to 3-0 in the third when Jennings came around to score on a wild pitch by Lester, who was wilder than usual, walking four batters in the first four innings.
The Red Sox rallied back in the bottom of the third by getting two runs back off of Jeff Niemann. After a lead off single to center field by Carl Crawford, Mike Aviles doubled high off the Green Monster, scoring Crawford on a very close play at home because of Crawford’s lack of sliding. A bunt by Marco Scutaro and a sacrifice fly by Jacoby Ellsbury advanced Aviles around the bases to score the second Sox run.
Despite walking both Johnny Damon and Sean Rodriguez in the fourth, Lester managed to face just three batters due to a caught stealing and a double play turned by Adrian Gonzalez at first base. Lester’s struggles continued in the fifth, allowing three singles including an RBI hit by Evan Longoria to right field to give the Rays a 4-2 lead. However he regained his composure, retiring the next seven consecutive Rays batters and setting up a potential Red Sox rally in the seventh.
Crawford started things with a leadoff single, his second lined hit to center field of the game. Then a weak ground ball hit to shortstop resulted in an infield single for Aviles, giving the Sox first and second with no outs. A sacrifice bunt and a wild pitch by youngster Matt Moore led to an RBI groundout by Ellsbury before Dustin Pedroia struck out to end the inning, bringing the Sox within one run, trailing 4-3.
A perfect inning of relief by Daniel Bard in the top of the eighth was encouraging, given his highly documented September struggles before the previous night against the Rays. Lester’s night was done, battling through seven innings and allowing four runs on five hits and four walks, while strucking out five. For the Rays, Niemann was effective in his five innings or work, allowing just two runs on four hits and a pair of walks, while striking out six. Manager Joe Madden went to Moore in the sixth to face the middle of the Sox lineup in the sixth, the bottom in the seventh, and kept him in to face the middle lefties in the eighth inning. And he was very successful, going three innings in his second major league appearance while only allowing one run.
In the bottom of the ninth the Rays brought on Joel Peralta to attempt and convert the save. A rough day at the plate for Jarrod Saltalamacchia continued with a strikeout, his second of the game to go along with a double play and pop out. Crawford followed with his own strikeout, looking bad on a change up. An infield single by Mike Aviles and a Dave Roberts-esque pinch running appearance and stolen base by Joey Gathright summoned forth the Fenway hope for a rally, but Marco Scutaro grounded out to end the game with the Sox falling 4-3 in a tough loss.
The win for the Rays pulls them back within three games of the Red Sox in the wild card race, while a Yankees win earlier in the day pushes the Sox to 4.5 games out of the division. On Sunday afternoon the Sox will send Tim Wakefield to the mound to oppose Rays ace David Price, who will attempt to continue this late season surge by Tampa Bay back into contention. A win for Boston tomorrow would effectively negate the four game series with a split, moving the schedule along that much closer to October baseball.