A huge ninth-inning double from Will Middlebrooks helped change a disappointing return to losing into an energizing series win for the Red Sox Thursday night.
It would not be difficult to draw parallels between the first eight innings of tonight's game and Tuesday's 5-3 defeat. The Red Sox came up two runs short of the Rays in each span, yes, but more significantly what seemed to separate the teams was sheer dumb luck on balls in play.
The similarities became apparent in the third. While Alex Cobb had legitimately shut the Red Sox down for the first two frames, in the third the Red Sox took the sort of swings against him that should have resulted in hits. Instead, Cobb got three straight outs, maintaining a perfect game through the first nine outs despite hard, hard contact.
Felix Doubront, meanwhile, was anything but perfect in the first three. Where the Red Sox had made hard contact and gotten nothing, the Rays had Luke Scott hit a one-out chopper that barely got past the mound and find his way onto third base. A pair of walks would serve to load the bases before Doubront struck out James Loney to end the inning.
Doubront would not escape unharmed in the second, however, allowing a two-out solo shot to Ryan Roberts. Still, while he allowed another single and walk in the third, he would get out of it again, and eventually survive another two walks in the fifth to send the game into the sixth with the Rays stuck at just one run. Given his ongoing mechanical problems (his velocity remains diminished), Doubront did all the Sox could ask of him: he survived.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, had finally gotten some hits to land in the fourth, with Shane Victorino and David Ortiz combining for a run (despite another line out from Jacoby Ellsbury). They would go right back to their hard luck ways in the fifth, however, and be stuck on the same one run with the game headed to the bottom of the sixth.
There, Felix Doubront returned to walk the leadoff batter, and then was pulled for Clayton Mortensen, who proceded to give the Rays the lead. A walk to Jose Lobaton put two on with one out, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia made a mess of routine receiving duty to allow both men to move up. The go-ahead hit, however, would be pitch perfect for the game, with Desmond Jennings breaking his bat on a soft flare that just barely got by a diving Stephen Drew for an RBI single. Luke Scott followed it up with a single to right field off of Andrew Miller, and the Sox quickly found themselves in a 3-1 hole.
On a normal night, a 3-1 hole might not have been deep enough to bury the Sox. But with them running the way they have in May, it seemed practically insurmountable. More hard contact went for naught in the seventh, and the Sox did little in the eighth, leaving the Rays just three outs away from securing the series.
Then came the ninth, Fernando Rodney. and renewed hope. Lacking the control to deal with what had been a stingy zone all night long from Joe West (who is still pretty sure baseball games last too long), Rodney would walk Dustin Pedroia on six pitches, and then David Ortiz on just four to give the Sox new life.
Mike Napoli would help Rodney out by swinging at a very low changeup for strike three (despite West's zone being especially stingy at the bottom), and while Daniel Nava worked a strong at bat to get the Sox their third free pass of the frame and load the bases, Stephen Drew went down much in the same way Napoli did for out number two. And, after the first two pitches to Will Middlebrooks resulted in strikes, it seemed like it was going to be more disappointment.
It wasn't over just yet, however. Rodney's third pitch to the third baseman was triple-digit heat which just missed the corner up and outside, and his fourth was a changeup that came in just under waist-high, right over the middle of the plate. Will Middlebrooks put it on a line, and this time there was no glove waiting for it. The ball would make it all the way to the wall in left field, clearing the bases and putting the Sox ahead 4-3. With Junichi Tazawa able to work around a pair of baserunners in the bottom of the ninth, the Red Sox put the Rays away and finally picked up a series win in May.
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