Red Sox - 010 311 011 - 8 12 1The calendar has turned over to September, the ball games are getting more important, and Terry Francona is getting into Playoff Assassin mode.
Rays - 100 100 020 - 4 11 3
Boston led 7-2 as Hideki Okajima began the bottom of the eighth inning. He had a rough time, however. Evan Longoria dropped a first pitch bunt single towards third. Carlos Pena worked a nine-pitch walk. Pat Burrell singled to left and Willy Aybar and Dioner Navarro followed with identical bloop singles into short right field. The lead was cut to 7-4, the bases were loaded, and there was no one out.
Francona went to Jonathan Papelbon. It was the correct move. With the game on the line in the late innings, you don't give a damn about "the book" or "saves", you go with your best pitcher. And despite Daniel Bard's success, the top gun in the pen is still Bot.
Papelbon struck out B.J. Upton. Jason Bartlett lined a ball to short center, but Jacoby Ellsbury (who made an astounding diving catch in left center off Pat Burrell in the fourth) came sprinting in and snared this sinking liner with a sliding catch. Burrell was stutter-stepping off third like Jeff Suppan circa 2004 and could not advance. Bot got ahead of Carl Crawford 0-2, but the count went full and Crawford fouled off the 6th, 7th and 8th pitches of the at-bat before finally lofting a fly ball down the left field line that Jason Bay caught in foul territory. Three batters, three outs (on 18 pitches) and no runs scored! That was the save!
With two outs in the top of the ninth, Alex Gonzalez singled and Ellsbury tripled him in. Boston led 8-4 and Takashi Saito got up. However, after Dustin Pedroia made the final out, Papelbon came back out for the ninth, with Manny Delcarmen and Daniel Bard getting ready to back him up.
Papelbon snuffed the side in order. Ben Zobrist lined out to first, Longoria struck out looking, and Pena struck out swinging. In total, Papelbon threw 28 pitches for a six-out save -- the first one by a Boston reliever since Mike Timlin on September 5, 2006.
Lester (6-7-2-2-9, 97) had only one perfect inning, but it never seemed like he was in any trouble. After the first inning, he allowed only one Tampa runner past second (Pena's solo home run in the fourth). Lester struck out the side in the second and fanned two in each of the fourth and fifth.
Dong Watch: J.D. Drew hit a two-run homer in the fourth, Jason Bay began the fifth with his 30th home run of the season, and Kevin Youkilis homered in the eighth.
The Yankees beat the Orioles 9-6 so the Red Sox are still 6.5 GB in the East. Texas swept a doubleheader from the Blue Jays 5-2 and 5-2, so Texas is now 3.5 GB Boston in the wild card. With tonight's loss, Tampa drops 6 GB in the WC.
Jon Lester (3.60, 132 ERA+) / Andy Sonnanstine (6.61, 69 ERA+)
MLB calls this three-game series "crucial" for the Red Sox in knocking the Rays out of the wild card race, but since I still have an eye on the AL East, every game from now until October 4 is crucial.
Boston leads the wild card race by 4 games over the Rangers and are 6.5 GB the Yankees. They have won 10 of their last 13 games -- hitting .302 with a .921 OPS and a staff ERA of 5.23 (though subtracting the gruesome 20-11 loss to New York drops that ERA all the way down to 4.08) -- yet they have gained only one game in the standings.
Lester has allowed three earned runs or fewer in 15 of his last 16 starts, dating back to May 31. ... Sonnanstine -- 4.40 ERA in nine starts for AAA Durham -- is being recalled to take Scott Kazmir's spot in the rotation.
And: Yankees/Orioles at 7 and Blue Jays/Rangers at 5 and 8.