Up on the scoreboard in center field, the reasons rolled on. The Red Sox pushed through reason after reason for thanking the fans, reason after reason they valued those who came and filled the park for 456 consecutive games. They thanked the fans for coming, for staying, and for always making April feel like October.
April, of course, is over.
But last night? Last night began to feel a bit like October.
With a chill breaking through the afternoon sunlight, the Red Sox - or, really, Jon Lester - took on the Rays, who have never experienced a playoff atmosphere. Those days, though, are clearly over. No matter that the Rays had lost all six games in Boston this season, and that they came into town carting a three-game losing streak - these Rays still hold the top spot in the AL East.
That hold is now in jeopardy.
With the Red Sox taking the first game of the three-game series, 3-0, the Rays’ once-solid lead is down to a half-game - a single game in the loss column. For that, the Sox and all those fans can thank Lester, who outdueled Edwin Jackson with 119 scintillating pitches that left the Rays shut out and hurting.
“It’s exciting to get in a situation where the games are so meaningful,” said manager Terry Francona before the game. “They’ve turned themselves into a bona fide contender. What they’ve done for baseball is exciting. It’s made our job a little tougher, but just makes these games more exciting.”
Having lost five of their last six games, and lost four games off their East lead since Sept. 1, the Rays arrived in Boston and promptly held a team meeting. It didn’t do enough, apparently. Though it is likely that their inability to get anything started against Lester was more a factor of the pitcher himself.
Allowing just six hits in 7 2/3 innings, Lester squashed any hope the Rays had of coming into Fenway Park and getting back on track (and one of those hits, off the bat of Jason Bartlett, could easily have been ruled an error on Dustin Pedroia.) As calm and cool on the mound as he has been all season, Lester was helped by two double plays. He struck out nine and walked three.
Even luck was with him. When Ben Zobrist smashed a ball with two outs in the eighth inning, it hit at the top of the Wall in left field and wound up a single. That was followed by a double to right by Carlos Pena that should have scored Zobrist but bounced into the stands, keeping the runner at third.
That was it for Lester, who received an extended standing ovation as he walked off, tipping his cap to the raucous record-breaking crowd of 37,662. They stayed on their feet as Jonathan Papelbon ran in from the bullpen, clapping along to his signature “I’m shipping up to Boston.” He would face Rocco Baldelli in the form of the tying run.
Working mostly on the inside of the plate, Papelbon rifled a 97-mile-per-hour fastball past a whipsaw swing and into the waiting grasp of catcher Jason Varitek. Cue the strikeout, and it was nearly over for the Rays. For one night, at least.
It didn’t hurt that the Sox came out swinging. By the time Lester took the mound in the second inning, having survived a five-pitch walk to Akinori Iwamura to lead off the game, the Red Sox had scored three runs behind him. Mark Kotsay took his own walk to open for the Sox, then David Ortiz rocketed a double off the Wall left of center field, scoring Kotsay.
Kevin Youkilis singled up the middle, bringing Ortiz around to score, but the first baseman was cut down trying to move to second on the throw. That left the bases empty and two outs for Jason Bay, who answered with his sixth home run in Boston and 28th overall, hitting the ball off the light tower by the flag pole in center field.
The ownership group of John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino became responsible for the Red Sox in 2001, and the warnings immediately followed. Nothing could prepare them, they heard ad nauseum, for the fervor that surrounds the franchise.
They understand that first-hand now. Last night, the group achieved another milestone, selling out Fenway Park for a record-breaking 456th consecutive game. The Cleveland Indians, who sold out Jacobs Field for 455 consecutive games from June 12, 1995, to April 2, 2001, now are in second place. Since May 15, 2003, the Sox have sold 16,298,530 tickets without tearing up a single one.
“I never could have imagined anything like this,” Henry said. “Everyone said at the begin