ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — With the game knotted at two apiece, Jarren Duran stepped to the plate for the Red Sox in the top of the ninth inning of an important games against the AL East-leading Tampa Bay Rays Wednesday night at Tropicana Field.
Duran had struggled against Rays pitching the entire evening, striking out twice in his three previous at-bats. Runners occupied first and second for the Sox, and with two outs in the frame, Duran propelled the Red Sox to a 3-2 win with his RBI single off Rays’ Pete Fairbanks that scored Rafael Devers from second base with the go-ahead run.
“Just him staying on that breaking ball and putting it in play, it was awesome,” manager Alex Cora said of Duran’s fourth at-bat. “You got to have a short-term memory. I know he’s probably upset that he struck out before, but he put the ball in play there and gave us a chance to win and we did.”
Adam Ottavino cemented the victory for the Sox by retiring the three batters he faced in the bottom of the ninth, including pinch-hitter Brandon Lowe on a game-ending strikeout. Coupled with Detroit’s 8-6 win over Oakland, the Red Sox expanded their lead over the A’s to two games in the AL wild card race.
The Red Sox, who entered the night looking to snap their three-game slide, took control in the top of the first inning when Alex Verdugo laced a triple that got past Manuel Margot in center. Christian Vázquez’s RBI single scored Verdugo, giving the Sox an early 1-0 lead.
Chris Sale was the Sox’ great equalizer in a contest that had the feeling of a must-win for the club. It marked Sale’s biggest test of the season, too, since his return from Tommy John surgery.
In Sale’s first three starts, the team handed him some soft landing spots, starting him against the Orioles, Rangers, and Twins. This was the Rays, though, a team that had won the last seven games against the Red Sox at Tropicana Field by a combined margin of 42-18.
Yet on the other side was Sale, a starter who has seven All-Star appearances under his belt, coupled with six top five finishes in the Cy Young race during his 11-year career.
Sale, in some replication of his old self, gave the Rays trouble.
Sale delivered six innings for the Sox, allowing two runs behind six hits. He registered a season-low three strikeouts, but induced three crucial twin killings and held the Rays to 0 for 6 with men in scoring position (0 for 11 overall).
Sale knows how hard it’s been for his team during this stretch, so pulling this win out almost allowed the team to breathe before Thursday’s series finale.
“We’ve had some gut punches over the last week and a half,” Sale said. “No one in here has given up. Our attitude and our effort is staying the same, no matter who’s in this clubhouse or who’s not. That’s the most important thing. We are still in a position that most other guys would love to be in.”
In the bottom of the third inning, the Rays got to Sale following a two-run homer by Wander Franco, extending Franco’s on-base streak to 32 straight games. It is the fifth-longest ever by a player under 21. Sale spotted a fastball high on the outer-edge, but the 20-year-old phenom, somehow, got to it.
“Those are the ones you don’t lose sleep over,” Sale said. “Honestly, that’s not a home run pitch. He’s not supposed to get that ball. That was me versus him, and he won.”
The Sox would ultimately leave victorious, though. Vázquez belted a game-tying homer in the seventh to left. The Sox were backed by some great defensive play, too, something they have struggled with all season.
Garrett Whitlock entered the game for Sale in the bottom of the seventh. He immediately relinquished a leadoff double that made its way over the head of center fielder Duran. Wendle advanced on a sacrifice fly. With one out, a runner on third, and the game tied, 2-2, Randy Arozarena chopped a grounder toward Devers.
With the infield in, Devers veered to his left and made a one-hop throw to Vázquez to cut down Wendle at the plate. The Sox then cut down another go-ahead run in the eighth on a grounder to Jonathan Arauz at shortstop.
“I think we had a clean game today,” Vázquez said. “The first couple of games we made some errors. But that’s part of the game. I think we learned from them and we keep working. It was a great win for us.”