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The Boston Red Sox faced off against the Tampa Bay Rays Tuesday night at Tropicana Field. On the mound for the Red Sox was Jon Lester, who was coming off of a complete game, one earned run victory against the Minnesota Twins. Opposing him was Tampa Bay right-hander James Shields, who was coming off an impressive outing as well, giving up just three earned runs while pitching into the eighth inning against the New York Yankees.
This game had the makings of a pitcher’s duel, and that’s exactly what it turned out to be. Boston only put up four hits against James Shields’ eight innings of work. Fortunately, the Red Sox were able to sandwich two of those hits around one of Shields’ two walks and drive in the only scoring of the night. In the top of the third inning, J.D. Drew singled with two outs. Kevin Youkilis walked, and then David Ortiz doubled to drive them both in. Those runs would hold up, as Lester and the Red Sox bullpen were able to shut down and shut out the Rays hitters. There was also an interesting incident in the fifth where Tampa Bay’s centerfielder Carl Crawford and manager Joe Maddon were ejected for arguing balls and strikes. The final score: Boston 2, Tampa Bay 0. Jon Lester got the win, Shields the loss, and Jonathan Papelbon picked up his 11th save of the season.
The Red Sox couldn’t do too much with James Shields Tuesday. He pitched exceptionally well, retiring every batter he faced after allowing David Ortiz’s 2-RBI double (a streak of 16 hitters). Aside from Ortiz and Drew, the other two Red Sox with hits Tuesday were Marco Scutaro and Dustin Pedroia, both of whom singled to start the game, but were later stranded. This was part of a bases-loaded first inning situation that was really one of only two innings in which the Sox had the opportunity to score multiple runs. The Sox offense did just enough to win this game for Jon Lester, but you really have to tip your cap to James Shields and the job he did against one of the most potent offenses in the MLB.
Jon Lester, while not quite as dominant as he was against Minnesota, was still equal to the task of dueling with James Shields. He pitched six innings of shut-out baseball, only allowing one hit while striking out nine. What kept him from going deeper into the game was his command, which came in and out throughout the game. He walked five batters in his six innings of work. However, as off as he occasionally was, he never let his command slip for more than a moment. The Rays were unable to combine these walks with any hits, and they never had more than one base runner per inning past the first (when the first two reached on walks but were stranded). Perhaps Lester’s performance could best be described as “effectively wild.”
The bullpen did an excellent job finishing what Lester started. Manny Delcarmen and Daniel Bard both had perfect innings, and Jonathan Papelbon did not allow a hit (he did walk a batter) in recording his 11th save of the season. The bullpen is finally rounding into form, helped out by the string of strong starting pitching performances Boston has seen in the last week. When rested, the bullpen is proving itself to be more reliable than the numbers might otherwise indicate. As Boston inches back into the race for the playoffs (and the division), this will become ever more important.
The Red Sox have done an excellent job of coming into Tropicana Field, a ballpark in which historically they have not played well, and taking at least the series from the division-leading Rays. This road trip has proven to be very successful for the Red Sox. It might be exactly what they need to finally get themselves going and pull themselves out of the mediocrity with which they’ve played for most of the season. Wednesday night the Red Sox will go for the sweep. Doing so will require a strong starting pitching performance from John Lackey, the only Red Sox pitcher not a part of this current streak of strong Boston starts (if you discount the injured Josh Beckett). He will face Matt Garza, who is 5-2 with an ERA under 2.50 (2.37). Lackey will have a tall task ahead of him in trying to out-pitch the Tampa Bay ace. Let’s hope he is up for the challenge.