ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Red Sox hit .310 with runners in scoring position in April, the third best mark in the majors. It was one of the factors that contributed to their hot start.
Hitting coach Greg Colbrunn made sure to enjoy it at the time because he knew it wouldn’t last. It never does.
“When it’s going right, you get flares over somebody’s head and you score runs. Then suddenly you start hitting line drives right at somebody,” he said. “You wish you could flip the switch back, but you can’t.”
The Sox hit .189 with runners in scoring position in the first 13 games in May. Going into Wednesday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays, they had four hits in their previous 40 at-bats in such situations.
The trend continued for two innings as the Sox stranded runners at second base in each inning.
Then Dustin Pedroia had an RBI single in the third inning and David Ortiz did the same, punching a ball the other way against Rays ace David Price.
The Sox scored eight runs before the inning was over, four coming on Stephen Drew’s grand slam. The result was a 9-2 victory before a crowd of 15,767 at Tropicana Field.
Every Red Sox starter except Shane Victorino scored at least one run and reached base via hit or walk. Will Middlebrooks doubled and homered in support of Jon Lester (6-0).
The Sox finished with 10 hits and were 5 for 11 with runners in scoring position.
“We needed a game like that,” Middlebrooks said. “It feels nice.”
The Sox had lost three straight, six of seven, and nine of their last 11 games. But manager John Farrell didn’t call a team meeting or change the lineup. He kept faith in the idea that a roster he genuinely likes would return to form.
“We had the same lineup that won all those games,” Drew said. “It’s a matter of baseball being a funny game sometimes. When things don’t go your way you keep grinding. It’s a long season and it’s still May.”
Drew walked to start the third before Jacoby Ellsbury singled. Victorino flied to left before Pedroia singled in a run.
It was a little leak that led to the dam bursting. Ortiz followed with a single to left field, scoring Ellsbury. It was the last pitch Price threw. He came off the mound with what the Rays said was tightness in his triceps.
Price is 1-4 with a 5.24 earned run average after winning the Cy Young Award last season.
Jamey Wright replaced Price and a 3-0 game quickly got out of hand.
Mike Napoli’s 18th double, a line drive to the gap in right, scored Pedroia. Jonny Gomes snapped an 0-for-13 skid with an RBI single up the middle.
With two outs, Jarrod Saltalamacchia drew a walk to load the bases. Drew then sent a cutter over the wall in right field for his third home run.
“Put a good swing on it and it’s a good feeling,” Drew said.
It was Drew’s second career grand slam. The first came on April 29, 2011 against current teammate Ryan Dempster.
The Sox sent 11 batters to the plate in the inning and saw 49 pitches. The eight runs were their most in an inning this season.
“Everybody is doing something. Having great ABs and sticking to their approach,” Drew said. “It was bound to turn around. We knew the past couple of games haven’t been too good with runners in scoring position.”
Middlebrooks was hitting .192 before he collided with teammate David Ross and slammed into a wall chasing a foul ball May 7. He is 7 of 24 (.292) since with seven extra-base hits.
Oddly enough, bruised ribs may have helped Middlebrooks at the plate. That forced him to cut down on his swing a little bit.
“I was getting big. I was swinging a little hard and I didn’t realize it. It was trying to do too much,” he said. “That bruise kind of slowed me down a little bit. I think it helped.”
That Middlebrooks went to right field twice was a good sign.
“He’s not pulling off so much. He’s staying through the middle of the field and that’s when his power really shows,” Farrell said.
Might Farrell encourage more collisions the next time Middlebrooks slumps?
“As long as they come out with extra-base hits to follow, sure,” he said.
Lester worked efficiently with the run support, going seven innings and allowing two runs.
Lester’s five strikeouts gave him 1,110 for his career. That passed Josh Beckett for fifth place in team history. Only Roger Clemens (2,590), Tim Wakefield (2,046), Pedro Martinez (1,683), and Cy Young (1,341) have more.
“That’s pretty cool,” Lester said. “It’s not something that you play for. I play to win games and hopefully win a World Series. It just so happens along the way that your name moves up those lists. It’s great.”
Lester threw a one-hit shutout against the Blue Jays in his last start, facing 28 batters. He was not nearly as crisp this time, giving up eight hits. But he went a second straight start without a walk.
It was a satisfying victory considering Lester was 0-4 with a 6.11 ERA in his last five starts against the Rays. The victory was his first against Tampa Bay since Aug. 16, 2011.
Lester is 4-0 with a 1.94 ERA in six starts following a Red Sox loss this season.
“We take that personally as a staff,” he said. “You don’t want to one-up the guy from the day before but try to throw as many innings as you can and save our bullpen.”Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.