ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Josh Beckett took up to 45 seconds between pitches in the first inning of Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays, the pauses becoming so lengthy at one point that the fans at Tropicana Field started to boo him.
By the time the inning was over, the Red Sox righthander had allowed three runs on four hits.
It has happened before this season, Beckett starting games poorly and pitching at an aggravatingly slow pace. You can usually pin it on him being stubborn or on some kind of misguided gamesmanship.
But Beckett had a valid excuse this time. A bout with flu-like symptoms left him feeling weaker than normal and he was dizzy from taking antibiotics to fight the illness.
“I think it zapped me. It took me a long time to gather myself between pitches,” Beckett said. “In between pitches, it was borderline blackout periods.”
But Beckett persevered, going six innings and not allowing another run as the Red Sox rallied to beat the Rays, 7-3.
The Sox took two of three from Tampa Bay. After losing the two series leading into the All-Star break, even such a modest accomplishment was welcomed.
“You’ve got to win series now,” Beckett said. “We didn’t put ourselves in a situation where you can just go out and play .500 baseball from here on out. We’ve got to figure out a way to win some series.”
It has to start with the starting pitchers. The Red Sox were 5-9 with Beckett on the mound and he had not recorded a win since May 20. But Beckett (5-7) shut the Rays out on four hits in his final five innings, giving the offense a chance.
Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, among the many who would like to see Beckett speed up on the mound, accepted the methodical approach on Sunday. He knew Beckett wasn’t feeling normal.
“I think he just had to get his feet on the ground a little,” Valentine said. “He was struggling with it, battled the whole time. All I saw is a great competitor out there who wasn’t going to let that game get away from him. Three runs in the first inning, no doubt, is an uphill battle. But he figured it out.”
It helped that it was Tampa. Beckett is 4-0 with a 1.64 earned run average in six starts against the Rays since the start of last season. He allowed eight hits on Sunday, but also struck out seven, with only two walks.
Rays starter James Shields (8-6) gave up six runs on 11 hits over five innings. He has allowed at least 10 hits in four consecutive starts. That last happened in 2008 to Joel Piniero, then of the Cardinals.
With the Sox trailing, 3-1, in the second inning, Mike Aviles sent a hanging slider over the wall in center for a two-run home run.
Aviles has 10 homers, matching his career high. He has a modest .266 batting average and a .290 on-base percentage. But Aviles leads AL shortstops with 33 extra-base hits and has 46 RBIs.
He also has been better than expected defensively. In the seventh inning, Ben Zobrist singled for the Rays, driving a runner to third. Aviles intercepted the throw to third base, spun, and threw out Zobrist going back to first.
“Mike’s played at a very high level this year,” Valentine said. “His offense has been terrific and his defense — his arm has gotten us five outs that other arms just never get.”
Daniel Nava, who could get bumped out of the lineup by Carl Crawford Monday, homered in the fifth inning. Will Middlebrooks added a two-run single in the frame, taking a slider up the middle.
Middlebrooks is 4 for 8 with two extra-base hits and four RBIs in the last two games, his timing back after missing seven games with a hamstring strain. He also showed better patience at the plate, staying back on the offspeed pitches that were getting him out in June.
“I had a feeling that’s how they’re going to attack me and that’s what they did the last couple of days,” Middlebrooks said. “I had to make some adjustments. Just realize how they’re going to attack me, and attack them the same way.”
Cody Ross chipped in with a sacrifice fly off Jake McGee in the sixth. Jacoby Ellsbury, who scored on the play, was 3 for 5. He is 6 for 14 since returning from a three-month stint on the disabled list.
“Looks like he’s in midseason form. Since it’s midseason, that’s a good thing,” Valentine said.
The Sox also got a lift from Adrian Gonzalez. After missing two games with a bad back, he was 2 for 4 with an RBI. Sunday marked the first time that Ellsbury, Gonzalez, and David Ortiz were in the same lineup since April 13.
Mark Melancon left a runner stranded at third in the seventh inning and pitched a scoreless eighth. Alfredo Aceves inexplicably walked the bases loaded with two outs in the ninth, but got Hideki Matsui to fly to right to end the game.
Now the Red Sox return to Fenway Park for four games with the Chicago White Sox and Kevin Youkilis. The lineup will get another boost with the season debut of Crawford.
The Sox are in a crowded group of teams within a few games of a wild-card spot. Given all that has happened, at least there’s that.
“Two out of three is good,” Valentine said. “I like the way we’re coming together.”