From the time the Red Sox truly started to settle into first place in the AL East a month ago, the Tampa Bay Rays never let them get too comfortable. The Sox’ biggest cushion all season was a 4½-game lead on July 5. But since then, they have looked over their shoulder as Tampa Bay gradually ate away at that lead.
The Sox could feel the Rays breathing down their necks after dropping the first game of their three-game series.
With a 9-5 win Saturday night, the Rays emphatically snatched the top spot back, throwing the Sox into second place in the division for the first time since June 26.
The Rays picked up their fourth straight win over the Sox on the strength of an overpowering lineup that’s scored 30 runs in its past three games.
Francisco Mejia went 2 for 4 with a homer and four RBIs. Ji-Man Choi went 2 for 5 with a home run and two RBIs. Wander Franco went 2 for 4 with two RBIs.
The Sox have dropped four of their last five and Xander Bogaerts had the exasperation in his voice of a man who couldn’t wait for the calendar to flip.
“There’s still two months of baseball left but for us this is huge,” Bogaerts said. “We’re playing the guys that that are neck and neck with us in the division. These guys, they’re swinging the bat pretty good.”
The Sox wrap up their series with the Rays on Sunday before a much-needed off-day on Monday.
“I know it’s two months left but we need a win tomorrow,” Bogaerts said.
Not even a fast start by the Sox could keep the Rays at bay.
An RBI single by J.D. Martinez gave the Sox a quick boost in the first inning. Bogaerts provided a jolt in the next at-bat with a two-run homer to center, his 16th of the season.
But the 3-0 lead didn’t last long.
The Rays got two of the runs back in the bottom of the inning when Brandon Lowe led off with a double and Choi swatted a 1-0 cutter from Nathan Eovaldi deep to right field for his eighth homer of the season.
“It’s very frustrating to me,” Eovaldi said. “Especially how big this game was for us tonight.”
Eovaldi worked a 1-2-3 second inning, but an ugly third inning gave the Rays a chance to even things up.
After Meija flew out to left to start the inning, Sox second baseman Jonathan Arauz mishandled a ground ball from Lowe and Lowe reached on the error.
Errors have had a way of following Arauz wherever he goes. He played 55 games for Triple A Worcester this season at three different positions, not counting DH. He made 19 errors at second base, six at shortstop, and three at third.
After a line-drive single to right by Choi made it first-and-third with one out, Nelson Cruz shot a ground ball to Arauz that looked like it would start an inning-ending double play, but Arauz bobbled it. He couldn’t gather it in time to get the out at second and Cruz hustled down the line to get to first. Meanwhile, Lowe crossed the plate for the tying run.
“We didn’t play good defense behind [Eovaldi] at one point,” Sox manager Alex Cora said. “When you give the opposition more than 27 outs, you keep the line moving, moving, moving and bad things happen. And they kept putting pressure on us all night.”
The Rays kept capitalizing in the fourth. Joey Wendle led off the inning with a single. Two batters later, Mejia lifted a 1-and-2 fastball from Eovaldi to center for a two-run homer that gave the Rays a 5-3 lead.
The Sox battled back in the fifth. A two-run homer by Bobby Dalbec knotted it at 5. But Eovaldi continued to struggle with the Rays lineup.
Eovaldi made it through 5⅓ innings, but the Sox were in a 6-5 hole after he gave up a triple on a full-count splitter to Franco with one out in the sixth. Franco laced it down the first-base line and while Hunter Renfroe chased the ball down by the bullpen in foul territory, Wendle raced around to score the go-ahead run.
For the second time this month, Eovaldi was tagged for five-plus runs. He gave up five runs on nine hits two weeks again in Anaheim. The Rays stung him for six runs (five earned) on six hits with six strikeouts and a walk.
“I felt like I didn’t have very good command of my fastball,” Eovaldi said. “I didn’t really feel like I could step on it as well as I usually can, so I was relying more on my off-speed pitches.”
Cora turned to Josh Taylor to deal with a one-out, runner-on-third situation he had only been in two other times this season, giving up a double in one instance and notching a strikeout in the other. This time, Taylor struck out Kevin Kiermaier, then got Meija to ground out to short to keep the damage to a minimum.
The Rays padded their lead in the eighth with an RBI single by Franco and a two-run single from Meija.
“We’re a good team,” Bogaerts said. “We’re really good, we’re just going through a rough stretch right now. Personally, on a team level, it’s been tough. I know tomorrow’s a huge game for us although it’s in August.
“I think a lot of guys are going to be happy for it to be August, to be honest, including me. Can’t wait to see what that month has in store.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.