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The Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays faced off Tuesday night at Fenway Park. The Red Sox were coming off a series in San Francisco in which they won two of three games, but suffered several key injuries along the way. The stories of the night would be whether those injuries would hamper their offense now that they were back in the power-oriented American League, as well as whether they could contain Tampa’s dangerous running game. On the hill for the Red Sox was John Lackey (8-3), who was coming off a no-decision outing against Colorado. The Rays countered with James Shields, who lost his last decision in San Diego and historically had always struggled against the Red Sox and at Fenway Park in particular (1-6 since 2007).
It was a pitcher’s duel for the first four innings of the game. Both teams were able to put runners on the bases, but neither could cash in with runs. The scoring began in the fifth inning. The Red Sox put two men on base with a single followed by a double. But, Daniel Nava struck out to make it two outs and it looked like the Red Sox were going to squander another scoring opportunity. On came David Ortiz. On the first pitch he saw, Ortiz cranked a home run to right field, scoring three runs. The Red Sox put up two more runs in the sixth through a series of walks and singles, then put up three more in the seventh, capped off by a two-run home run over the Green Monster by Bill Hall.
The Rays would not go away, however. In the seventh inning, they scored on an Evan Longoria single and would have had a chance for more had Carl Crawford (4-5, stolen base, run scored) not gotten himself caught in a rundown between second and third and been tagged for the third out. They put up four more runs in the eighth and ninth inning as the Red Sox bullpen made a real mess of things. None of the relief pitchers Boston used were able to get the job done in the later innings, as they walked people and gave up extra base hits, including a two-run pinch-hit home run from Willie Aybar in the eighth inning. Finally, with two down in the ninth and a man on first, manager Terry Francona reluctantly went to his closer, Jonathan Papelbon, who promptly struck out Aybar to end the game. The final score: Boston 8, Tampa Bay 5. Lackey picked up the win, Shields suffered the loss, and Papelbon’s one out of work was good enough for his 18th save of the season.
The two obvious stars of the night were David Ortiz and Bill Hall, both of whom homered. Ortiz’s homer started the scoring, and Hall’s gave the Sox some breathing room. Adrian Beltre also had a very strong game, going 4-4 with two runs scored. Jason Varitek also had a two-RBI night, driving in one with a single and one with a sacrifice fly. The Red Sox might be hurting, but their stars are stepping up to the challenge of carrying this team through the injuries.
Despite just one 1-2-3 inning, John Lackey pitched an incredibly strong game. In seven innings of work, he gave up just the one run in the seventh, striking out three while walking two. While he was pitching out of jams all night, he never gave in and got out of all but one of them. He also did a great job of starting innings, not allowing any Tampa Bay leadoff hitter to get on base. This gave the Rays far fewer outs to work with, and it made it easier to pitch out of the situations he got himself into.
The bullpen was another story. When the starter goes seven innings, there really should only need to be two or maybe three relief pitchers used to close the game (especially when the team builds up a large lead). The Red Sox used five relief pitchers Tuesday night, and only two of them (Daniel Bard and Papelbon, 0.1 innings of work each) were effective. Lackey gave the bullpen a chance to rest, and the bullpen could not capitalize. The lack of relief depth continues to be the glaring problem with this Red Sox team. Thankfully they’d built a lead big enough to survive the minor bullpen meltdown. However, you can only skate on thin ice for so long before it cracks. If the bullpen can’t finish off games without relying on Bard (near the top of the AL for appearances) and Papelbon, they will lose games.
With the Yankees losing on Tuesday, the Red Sox are just a game back in the AL East. They have more than half a season left to make up that one game. Right now, they are a nearly-complete team. They can hit and score runs, even when some of their biggest hitters are injured. Their starters can keep them in games or dominate, even with the injuries that THEY’VE suffered. And their defense has solidified, especially in the infield, not giving up extra outs (the outfield however, is still slower than it will be when the starters return).
The only question that remains is whether or not they can shore up their bullpen. It should be their main goal before the trading deadline. If they can find one or two reliable arms to pitch when Bard and Papelbon can’t, there’s no reason why they can’t win the division and go deep in the playoffs (and if Interleague Play is at all indicative, they could win the World Series). But if the bullpen stays as it currently is, the Red Sox might find their arms too tired to be reliable anymore come the season’s end. On Tuesday, the Red Sox put some distance between themselves and the Rays in the AL East. Wednesday, they’ll try to do it again.