For once, Sox fans can go to sleep with a little bit of faith restored. Because tonight's game, while a close fight to the end, finally went according to plan.
Step 1: A good start from a returning Josh Beckett.
While it started off terribly, with Evan Longoria knocking a two-run shot in the first, Beckett pulled things together in a hurry, only allowing an unearned run in the third thanks to some of the baserunning fun the Rays were having all night long. Aside from his bad first, Beckett threw five innings, allowing just the aforementioned unearned run on four hits and a walk, striking out seven men in the process. After having to watch terrible start after terrible start, the Sox may finally have at least an element of quality in their rotation once again.
Step 2: A hold from Daniel Bard
What could have been a terrible night was saved in part by a questionable call . A 1-2 slider ran in and caught Johnny Damon on the foot, but after an appeal to third base he was ruled to have gone around, sending him back to the bench. While the next batter would receive his free pass, Bard finally seemed to wake up afterwards, striking out the next two batters to end the threat and earn his hold.
Step 3: A save from Jonathan Papelbon
But this one hasn't been in so much doubt. Papelbon is simply amazing this year, and blowing away Desmond Jennings and Evan Longoria (along with former thorn-in-side Dan Johnson) just helps to solidify the reputation he has earned back.
Of course, it wouldn't have been possible without some big hits from Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, as well as the solo shot from Mike Aviles that made up for a botched bunt attempt in the second that cost the Sox a promising inning. But really, the pitching has been the story for the Sox more than anything else of late.
The upshot of all this is that the Rays can't be in any better position than needing to recover two games in ten tries. Not nearly so safe a lead as four would be, but the fact of the matter is that the Sox were facing a real possibility of having the race tied come Monday.
Hopefully, with Jon Lester on the mound tomorrow, they won't even have to deal with the two-game lead scenario. On the other hand, Jeff Niemann has made the Sox look absolutely foolish time and again this season. Perhaps that anomaly will correct itself.