At worst, it looked like an infield single, good enough to tie the score yet again and send this messy sprawl of a game even deeper into the night. At best, it scoots through and the Red Sox go home winners.
It came down to Nomar Garciaparra, who already had scored the tying run in the bottom of the ninth while keeping his 15-game hitting streak alive, or Aaron Ledesma, the backup Tampa Bay third baseman with the staples in his knee.
Put it like that, and no one on Yawkey Way was headed for the exits just yet.
But moments later, Garciaparra was giving a two-handed slam to his helmet and Fenway Park was abandoned to the rats and pigeons. With a play as sublime as the rest of the evening was sloppy, Ledesma, a latecomer to this nearly four-hour exercise, short-circuited one last Sox bid for a comeback to salvage an 11-10, 10-inning win for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Ledesma was a ninth-inning defensive replacement for Wade Boggs, the 41-year-old antique who will soon be on display in Cooperstown but last night hit his first home run in 10 months as the Devil Rays built leads of 5-0 and 9-5. With runners on second and third, Ledesma snatched Garciaparra’s smash on a tough hop, then threw across the diamond to end the game.
``It took a great play by Ledesma to close us down,’’ said Sox third baseman Lou Merloni, whose inability to turn a play in the top of the 10th resulted in a throwing error that led to two Devil Ray runs, breaking a 9-9 tie.
``He made a helluva pick, got rid of it quick, and made a strong throw. He threw his hands at the ball, and not only made the catch, he got rid of it quick. A great play.’’
Tampa Bay closer Roberto Hernandez already had blown just his third save of the season in the ninth, when Garciaparra singled, took second when first baseman Fred McGriff bobbled Troy O’Leary’s bouncer, and scored on Mike Stanley’s two-out single, beating Bubba Trammell’s high throw to the plate from short right field.
The 10th took on an even more ominous cast for the Devil Rays when Hernandez walked the bottom two hitters in the order, Merloni and Trot Nixon, and then bungled Darren Lewis’s bunt attempt, loading the bases with none out. Jose Offerman’s sacrifice fly made it 11-10, and when Hernandez bounced a pitch in front of the plate, the runners moved into scoring position for Brian Daubach.
But the Belleville Basher, who had doubled in a run in a three-run seventh, when the Sox closed from 9-5 to 9-8, went down swinging.
``No excuse for striking out like that,’’ Daubach said. ``I’ve got to get the job done there. I take total responsibility.’’
Garciaparra could have taken Daubach off the hook, while also sparing John Wasdin (7-1) his first loss of the season, but Ledesma had other ideas.
``It was an in-between hop and I was just trying to knock it down at first, and it ended up going into the glove,’’ said Ledesma, who last month missed four games with a lacerated left knee, which required staples. ``So I just turned around and made the throw to [Fred] McGriff.’’
Merloni, playing third in place of John Valentin, who yesterday went on the 15-day disabled list with a bruise on the front of his brain, was charged with an error when he pulled Garciaparra off second base on an attempted force play after fielding Winn’s bunt.
``No reason to second-guess the play,’’ said Merloni, who felt TV replays supported his belief that Garciaparra’s foot was still on the bag when he received the throw. ``Right instinct, right play, but it didn’t work out.’’
Miguel Cairo, the next Tampa hitter, singled home the tie-breaking run off Wasdin, and an infield out made it 11-9.
The error was Merloni’s sixth in 12 starts.
``Bang-bang play, and it didn’t go our way,’’ he said.
The Sox came into the game winners of 11 of their last 15 games and three of their last four, but have had their hands full with the Devil Rays, who have beaten the Sox five of eight times this season, including four of five in Fenway Park.
The Sox roared back from a 5-0 deficit by scoring five times in the fourth inning, the third time in the last four games they’ve batted around the order in one at-bat. But after sparing Mark Portugal -- 3 1/3 innings, seven hits, five runs, including home runs by Boggs and Bubba Trammell -- an unseemly defeat, the Sox put themselves again in a 9-5 hole in the sixth, when left fielder Troy O’Leary played Kevin Stocker’s sinking liner into a bad-hop triple and Nixon overran McGriff’s single into a two-base error.
The Sox climbed back into it again with three runs in the bottom of the seventh, on doubles by Lewis, Daubach and O’Leary, who has knocked in a dozen runs during an eight-game hitting streak that has closed out one of the most productive months of his career.
O’Leary, who had two doubles, a single, scored a run and drove in two, represented the tying run after his hit brought home Lewis and Daubach. But reliever Norm Charlton struck out Stanley, whose two-run homer in the fourth had triggered the Sox’ first comeback, and after walking Jason Varitek, Charlton retired Merloni on a ground ball to preserve the one-run advantage.
Asked about Portugal, Sox manager Jimy Williams said: ``That happened a long time ago. In an 11-10 game, things like that happen.’’