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Or, really, Monday morning.
That fans were in for a pitchers’ duel was apparent from the early going. Josh Beckett, who had authored a one-hitter against the Rays just one month before, was in similar form Sunday—right down to the one hit being an infield single, this one bouncing off Beckett’s foot in the first inning.
After that, the Rays just could not reach base against the Sox. They would hit a number of long fly balls, but as would happen so often as the game went on, the balls simply died on the track. Beckett would leave the game after eight innings, having retired 22 straight batters.
Amazingly, though, Jeff Niemann was ready to match him nearly pitch-for-pitch. While the Tampa Bay starter would allow two hits—a ground ball single through the shift for Adrian Gonzalez, and a line drive to Dustin Pedroia—to go with two walks, he kept the Sox batters baffled all night, picking up a career-high ten strikeouts along the way.
With only a few incidents of note in the first eight innings (a pair of terrific plays from Dustin Pedroia and a broken light from a Tampa Bay foul ball that prompted a delay filled with the music from The Natural come to mind) The game entered the ninth as a tie, and it was there that the Sox would blow their first real chance. With Dustin Pedroia hitting a gapper for a leadoff double, the Sox seemed in excellent shape to take the lead in the late-going. But it was not to be. Adrian Gonzalez failed to play to the situation, flying out to left on the first pitch without moving Dustin Pedroia along. The Sox would increase the threat with Kevin Youkilis and J.D. Drew drawing walks, but Josh Reddick flew out to right-center to end the inning.
Daniel Bard worked around a couple of baserunners to send it to the tenth, where the Sox left another pair of baserunners on (Adrian Gonzalez nearly broke things open when, with two men on, he hit a long fly ball to left that bounced off the wall a few inches left of the foul line). It was the eleventh, though, which proved truly painful. J.P. Howell and Jake McGee both proved entirely incapable of throwing strikes as the inning began, walking the bases loaded without recording an out to set up a situation where it seemed the Sox could not help but score. Somehow, though, they found a way. Josh Reddick worked the count full, but struck out after a nine pitch battle, and Jason Varitek went down swinging right behind him. Marco Scutaro fared little better, popping out to the catcher in foul ground to end the threat.
The next few innings passed relatively uneventfully, sending the Sox and Rays to the sixteenth. Once again, the Sox threatened early, with Josh Reddick drawing a leadoff walk. But this time they actually made good. Jason Varitek bunted Reddick over to second, and the Rays couldn’t come up with Marco Scutaro’s high chopper, allowing the left fielder to move to third with just one out.
For a minute, it looked as though the Sox were ready to squander yet another opportunity, with Jacoby Ellsbury flying out weakly to left, leaving Reddick stuck at third. But up stepped the only man who didn’t seem to have a problem swinging the bat that night: Dustin Pedroia. He didn’t wait long, taking ball one, and then taking a good swing at the second pitch, lining it into right field and finally, finally bringing home a run.
For all that it had taken to get to that point, the end of the game came quickly and painlessly. Jonathan Papelbon, held in reserve all this time, struck out the first batter, induced an easy ground ball to third, and then covered the bag at first as Adrian Gonzalez made a diving stop and tossed it to him for the final out.
The bad news is that neither man came around to score, with a stolen base for Pedroia being the only movement from either of them.
The long fly balls have continued some for Beckett, but the strikeouts have also been notching up, with Beckett now holding five to his name. Perhaps more importantly, given the nature of this game, he only took 28 pitches to get through the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings, bringing his pitch count under control.
Meanwhile, Dustin Pedroia is getting some highlights ready for an eventual Gold Glove candidacy. He’s robbed both Casey Kotchman and Reid Brignac in the last couple innings, while Brignac did the same to him in the top of the sixth.
The Red Sox and Rays are locked in a pitcher's duel, with Josh Beckett and Jeff NIemann having given up just two hits total through the first three innings.
For Beckett, everything looks sound physically. His knee hasn't shown any signs of the injury that kept him off the mound in the All-Star game, and the results are certainly there so far. The lone hit against beckett came in the first, when for the second straight at bat a ground ball deflected off his foot. The first time he was able to recover for the out, but the second time the ball found its way much too far away for any play to be made.
Otherwise, the main concern has to be the few long fly balls he's allowed. None have caught any wall or left the park, but he'll want to stop giving them the chance to.
Meanwhile, Jeff Neimann seems to be doing his best Cy Young impression. The Red Sox have been chasing lots of pitches out of the zone the first time through the order, resulting in five early strikeouts for the Tampa Bay starter. The only hit off Niemann was the definition of a seeing-eye single, as Adrian Gonzalez' ground ball found its way past two diving "infielders" to make its way through the shift.
The Red Sox are gunning for a series win on a rival's home field Sunday night, as Josh Beckett takes the mound for the first time in the second half, looking to shut down the Rays.
There's no questioning that the Red Sox' offense is back from the break. While Adrian Gonzalez hasn't quite gotten things going just yet--please don't go blaming the home run derby just yet--the rest of the team has been on something of a tear, scoring 15 runs in the first two games on the backs of seven home runs. And, in many ways, they're coming from where you'd least expect them.
Typically the 1-2 combination of Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia are designed to give guys like Gonzalez, Youkilis, and Ortiz men to drive in, maybe creating some havoc and dividing the pitcher's attention with some stolen bases. Of late, though, they've just been getting the scoring done themselves. Both Ellsbury and Pedroia have homered in each of the last two games. That makes six homers in eight games for Pedroia, and four in the last seven for Ellsbury.
Now imagine if the middle of the order can get going one day before Carl Crawford is due back?
Boston Red Sox (56-36)
The Tampa Bay Rays will make some minor changes to their lineup again. Seven of the nine, though, are players who were present for Beckett's last start against the Rays, when things went quite well for him.
Tampa Bay Rays (50-42)
Pitching Matchup: Josh Beckett (8-3, 2.27 ERA) vs Jeff Niemann (4-4, 4.53 ERA)
The last time Josh Beckett took the mound at Tropicana Field, the results fell just shy of history. In eight of the nine innings he threw that night, Beckett was perfect. He allowed no hits, no runs, and no walks. The only blemish on his night came in the third, when Kevin Youkilis could not save a weak grounder from going for an infield single.
While Beckett's near-perfection will not live on in the annals of history, it's a clear indication that this is not only a lineup he can beat, but one that he can dominate. The question is, will he be at 100%? Beckett last pitched nine days ago in a game where he tweaked his knee--an injury that forced him to pull himself out of the All-Star Game when he felt sore warming up. Even if the knee is completely fine, the last time we saw Beckett on such extended rest was when he made his return from an illness against the Phillies after missing a start. He allowed five earned runs in six innings that night--the worst he's done in any outing this season.
Hopefully Beckett won't have to be perfect, though. After all, the Sox have done well enough against the rest of the Ray's pitching staff, so why not Jeff Niemann? The righty is not nearly as impressive a pitcher as James Shields or David Price. His weakness in the strikeout department is, of course, the Rays' specialty--their defense makes anything other than a line drive or home run and undesirable outcome--but so far that hasn't served to keep Niemann's ERA any lower than a middling 4.53. He's been good since his return to the Tampa rotation a few weeks back, even shutting down the Yankees last week, but he's got a tougher test on his hands Sunday.
The game started in messy fashion for the Red Sox, or Marco Scutaro to be more specific. The first four balls put in play by the Rays were hit in his direction, and he made the play on exactly none of them. The first one, a routine grounder, he threw wide of Adrian Gonzalez at first, resulting in an error. The second went up the middle without being touched. The third one Scutaro managed to get to on a perhaps unneeded slide, but the ball booted off his glove and instead of a possible double play, the Sox were left with no outs, a run in, and two men on. An out finally came on the fourth, but even then it was a bad play, with Scutaro sending the short toss to Pedroia well wide of the bag at second. A sprawling play from Pedroia kept the out, but it absolutely cost the Sox a second.
From there, another couple of singles put the Sox up 3-0 before Lackey could escape the first. The Sox went immediately to work backing him up in the second, with a one-out walk to Jarrod Saltalamacchia setting up Josh Reddick. With a full count, Reddick hit a foul tip that bounced out of Shoppach’s glove. The next pitch he got a lot more of, crushing a long home run to right field to bring the Sox within one run.
Lackey would create his own trouble in the second, but escaped from a bases loaded situation unharmed to keep the score at 3-2, which was an easy enough deficit to overcome. Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis both reached base to lead off the third inning, and then scored on a double off the bat of David Ortiz, who came around himself on J.D. Drew’s double. One inning later, and it was Jacoby Ellsbury launching a long ball to make it 6-3.
John Lackey, meanwhile, had done a very good job of reminding Sox fans of what he had done against the Orioles with strikeouts of Longoria, Upton, Fuld, Shoppach, and Zobrist in scoreless third and fourth innings. He would end up allowing a home run to Matt Joyce on a pretty good low curveball in the fifth, but should have left the game with a quality start had the last out of a would-have-been 1-2-3 fifth eating up Adrian Gonzalez at first. Lackey’s next pitch caught Ben Zobrist in the foot, and Terry Francona pulled him from the game.
Randy Williams had a successful Red Sox debut, recording three outs between the sixth and seventh innings before handing the ball over to Daniel Bard, who extended his scoreless streak to 20.2 innings. The Sox pushed across a couple of insurance runs in the ninth, and let Jonathan Papelbon take over for the non-save situation, where he predictably gave up one run en route to closing it out.
After stranding a pair of baserunners in the first, things went quickly south for the Red Sox in the bottom of the inning. Really, though, the fault did not lie with John Lackey as one might expect, but Marco Scutaro.
The issues for the shortstop started quickly, when he ended up with an error on the first play of the game, sending a wide throw to Adrian Gonzalez that pulled him off the bag. The next batter sent a ball up the middle for a hit, as did Casey Kotchman, though this time the ball bounced off the heel of a sliding Scutaro’s glove on a play he really has to make. Three ground balls, two bad plays, one run, and zero outs.
And it wasn’t over.
Evan Longoria provided the first out of the inning on yet another ground ball, but even that one didn’t go off without a hitch. What should have been a double play resulted in just the one out as Scutaro made another ugly play, sending a short flip to Pedroia at second wide of the mark and forcing him to sprawl out for it. From there, a ground ball to right and a flair to left—the only well-hit ball of the inning—put the Sox behind 3-0 early.
The Sox went right to work taking care of that deficit in the second, however. Jarrod Saltalamacchia drew a five pitch walk, and up came one of the hottest hitters in the game: Josh Reddick. After taking the first three pitches for balls, Reddick took a strike, fouled off a pitch, and then just barely made contact for a foul tip. What could have been a strikeout, however, became something else entirely. Shoppach couldn’t hold on to the foul tip, and Reddick did not take waste his second chance, crushing an absolute bomb to right for the Sox’ first two runs in the game.
Lackey escaped a bases loaded situation in the bottom of the second with a timely double play to set the Sox up to take the lead in the third. They did not disappoint. Adrian Gonzalez walked and Kevin Youkilis singled to start the inning before David Ortiz and J.D. Drew hit back-to-back doubles to score three more runs, putting the Sox up 5-3. Jacoby Ellsbury added another in the fourth, leading off the frame with his thirteenth homer of the year to make it 6-3.
Meanwhile, John Lackey has turned it on in a big way, picking up five strikeouts between the third and fourth innings while allowing just a pair of hits. After a really bad second inning that didn’t end up hurting him, Lackey seems to finally be back to doing what he did last time against the Orioles.
The Red Sox will return to a more typical outfield against the Tampa Bay Rays and James Shields on Saturday, giving J.D. Drew and Josh Reddick the start in right and left field respectively.
While the Sox suffered a tough loss Friday night, it was anything but the offense's fault. Scoring six runs on four homers, the lineup did enough to win a typical game, but they just couldn't quite dig themselves out of the hole Andrew Miller had dug for them. What was missing, however, was any sort of contribution from lefty sluggers Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz, who combined to go 0-for-8. Hopefully they'll see some better results against the right-hander on the mound Saturday.
Boston Red Sox (55-36)
The Rays will throw out a lineup with most of the same players as on Friday, but with a lot of shuffling done to the order.
Tampa Bay Rays (50-41)
Pitching Matchup: John Lackey (6-8, 6.84 ERA) vs. James Shields (8-7, 2.33 ERA)
After his best outing of the year, Red Sox fans might be thinking that John Lackey has turned over a new leaf, and is ready to start the second half of his season off right with another big game, this time against the Rays.
Don't bet on it.
After all, it was just two weeks ago that John Lackey gave up seven runs to the Blue Jays in 2.1 innings--a start which came immediately after Lackey threw seven innings of 2-run ball against the Phillies. Tempting though it may be to hope John Lackey could finally start performing like the starting pitcher the Sox paid for, he'll need to establish quite a bit more credibility before it can really be expected of him. Meanwhile, all we have to go on are his repeated failures against the Rays since they rose to relevancy. Since 2008, Lackey has a nice fat 6.62 ERA against Tampa.
Of course, even if he does have a decent game, James Shields may well make that irrelevant. Gone is the Shileds of the second half from last year, replaced by a full-fledged ace who ranks among the best in the league. Sox fans may have blacked out the last game they had against him, but Shields certainly hasn't. It was, after all, the most recent of his three complete game shutouts on the year.
While Miller had brought some excitement to the team after a few strong starts to begin his Red Sox career, in his last couple performances his stock has been falling fast.
Miller’s problems were much the same as they were against the Orioles, but this time he wasn’t about to be let off easily. The Rays worked a pair of one-out walks against Miller, and then made him pay with a first inning run. Then, in the second, it was a single, a walk, and a poor play on a sacrifice bunt by Jarrod Saltalamacchia that left the bases loaded with no outs on the board. Ben Zobrist came up, and all but put the game away, launching a grand slam to left. Miller would leave the game after loading the bases again and letting a run in in the third.
What’s most disappointing is that the Sox did manage to mount a good deal of offense, picking up a homer a piece from Darnell McDonald, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and Marco Scutaro as they tried to claw their way back. Unfortunately, only one of them came with even just one man on, and Dan Wheeler gave up a pair of runs on a shot from Casey Kotchman to keep their efforts from ever really bringing them within easy striking distance.
After Miller’s terrible start, Alfredo Aceves held down the fort for a few innings, keeping Tampa from adding any more in the fourth and fifth innings. Unfortunately, the Sox could not take advantage beyond a solo shot from Dustin Pedroia, with Price keeping the base paths largely empty, leaving the game with six solid innings under his belt.
With the Sox trailing 7-3 through five-and-a-half, it was still close enough to be considered a game. But, with one man on and two away, Wheeler threw a hanging slider to Casey Kotchman, who took him out of the yard for a two-run homer, giving the Rays a commanding 9-3 lead.
Price is out of the game now with the Sox having built up his pitch count well over 100, but they’re down to just three innings left, and the Rays bullpen just isn’t that bad.
The Andrew Miller experiment has hit a rather large bump in the road courtesy of the Tampa Bay Rays, who scored seven runs off the lefty, knocking him out with just two down in the third inning.
The problems for Miller were two-fold: his fastball was sitting in the low 90s instead of the mid 90s, and his command was, as it has often been in the past, spotty at best. Allowing a of one-run first and two-run third, Miller found not even the smallest streak of success; but it was the second inning that really did him in. With the first two men reaching for the Rays, Sam Fuld laid down a sacrifice bunt, but Jarrod Saltalamacchia tried to go to second and couldn't get the out.
With the bases now loaded, Johnny Damon grounded the ball the Dustin Pedroia, who fired home for the out. Ben Zobrist came up, and was clearly waiting to see the changeup that had been shown him so often in his first at bat. Receiving what he wanted with the first pitch, Zobrist took a mighty hack and unloaded the bases with a grand slam.
The Sox have a pair of solo shots of their own from Darnell McDonald and Jacoby Ellsbury, but Miller's implosion may have effectively ended this game very, very early.
The Red Sox are up against a tough test in their first game back from the break as David Price will take the mound against the lefty-heavy Sox.
As has been the case throughout most of the year, Terry Francona will use the outfield to stack the lineup with as many right-handed hitters as possible. With Mike Cameron gone, the young Yamaico Navarro has taken over the left field duties in this situation. He's spent his whole career up until recently as a shortstop, but the Sox foresaw the need for some defensive flexibility and have had him working in the outfield plenty. He's only seen seven innings there in the majors, though, so it could still prove a challenge.
Boston Red Sox (55-35)
It's been five days since the Red Sox finished the first half of the season with a sweep of the Orioles in Fenway Park, establishing themselves as the best team in the League at the All-Star break. The Rays did not finish nearly so strong, going 2-4 in their final six games to fall to six games back in the division and, really, have been pushed to the peripheries of the playoff race even at 49-41.
They'll have their chance to work their way back into things, however, with a three-game series against a half-strength Red Sox rotation.
While the Sox are expecting to start getting healthy soon, the returns won't really start until after the series, with Carl Crawford currently scheduled to come back on July 18--one day after the final game. Jon Lester seems to be coming along fine, but won't be eligible to come off the disabled list until July 22, and Clay Buchholz is only just now going to start a throwing program. So for now, the Sox are going to need to rely on the back-end of the rotation.
Not so for Tampa Bay, who have two of their better pitchers lined up for the series.