The Tampa Bay Rays are a struggling team right now: they have lost 12 of their last 16 games, and have just come off a fairly dismal West Coast road trip. What was merely a 2.5-game Sox lead in the division just two weeks ago had widened into an improbable 7.5-game chasm entering this week's series, the last of the year between the first- and second-place teams in the division. However, anyone guaranteeing a win surely must have winced at the pitching matchup, which featured a returning Clay Buchholz against David Price, unarguably the Rays' ace. This was guaranteed to be one of those games where anything could happen. Tonight's outcome: pitchers' duel.
Given that he hadn't faced major-league hitters in a number of months, anything serviceable would have been good enough, especially given his relatively rocky rehab results. While Buchholz was clearly rusty, with his fastball velocity topping out in the very low 90's, and his command was slightly off tonight. However, his "stuff" was more than sufficient to get the job done for five innings, notching 6 strikeouts in the process. The only time he really was in trouble was in the second inning, when singles by James Loney and Desmond Jennings put runners on first and second—but with two outs. However, a strikeout of Jose Molina would end the inning. The Rays would bail out Buchholz in the third and fourth innings, as both of the two baserunners Buchholz allowed—David DeJesus by a single in the third, Matt Joyce by a walk in the fourth—were erased by Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who had a very good defensive game today. So, with five fine frames in the books, Buchholz was done for the night, and still eligible for a win, but only if the Sox bats could make something happen.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, the Sox were particularly perplexed by the perpetually parsimonious Price. Dustin Pedroia, leading off for the first time in four years, struck out, as did Shane Victorino; David Ortiz would make contact, but could only manage a fly out to right. The next three innings would proceed in much the same way, with Price retiring the first twelve Sox batters in order. The most entertaining thing in this part of the game was having Pedro Martinez in the NESN booth.
Given the offensive struggles, this looked like it was going to be a battle between woolly mammoths in a tar pit—the goal wouldn't be to win so much as merely survive. However, the top of the fifth would be a very different story. Mike Napoli doubled to start off the inning, although you could make the argument that this was almost a two-base error, as the ball wasnot caught only because Jennings screwed up the catch. Then Jonny Gomes, the repented and reformed revenant Raycist, had the critical at-bat of the game. Although Gomes laced a hit into shallow center, Jennings had a very good opportunity to throw out Mike Napoli at home. However, Jennings's lackadaisical throw was badly off-line. Napoli managed to score, but the bad defense continued—Price could have gotten Gomes snared in a rundown, but simply pocketed the ball, allowing Gomes to reach scoring position in the process. Successive sacrifices by Daniel Nava and Saltalamacchia would bring in the second and final run of the game. If this was not "Rays gonna Astro" territory, it was certainly in the realm of "Rays gonna Mariner"—a few moments of sloppy execution that swung the tide of the game inexorably in the Sox' favor. Price's night would end with nine strikeouts after eight innings, as the Rays' manager eschewed his Maddoning tendency to pull a thousand pitchers out of his bullpen every evening, and settled for sending the already overtaxed Joel Peralta out for the ninth.
Armed with a two-run lead, the Sox bullpen got to work. Craig Breslow was the first man out of the pen. Although he allowed a walk to Yunel Escobar, no Ray would get past first base, as Wil Myers would hit a fielder's choice to erase Escobar, and then Ben Zobrist conveniently hit into a double play to wipe out both baserunners and end the inning. Matt Joyce would walk in the seventh, but Breslow retired Loney and Delmon Young to complete two innings of hitless relief. Junichi Tazawa would struggle—if only in comparison to his estimable bullpen colleagues' outstanding performances—surrendering a two-out double to Escobar, and causing John Farrell to summon the Koji an out earlier than expected. However, Koji's gonna Koji, and that meant sending the last four Rays batters into that good night, two by way of the K on an economical thirteen pitches.
With a 2-0 win safely in hand, the Sox extend their division lead to 8.5 games, and reduce their magic number to a svelte John McDonald/formerly Jose Iglesias (sniff). Wednesday night, the Sox look to continue the fight against Raycism and reduce the magic number to Yaz.