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Dan Shaughnessy

In a time of desperation, Red Sox turn their lonely eyes to Chris Sale, and he delivers

In his fourth start of the season, Chris Sale threw 95 pitches against the Rays.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

It felt like the Red Sox were on the verge of mathematical elimination . . . even though they were still perched in a playoff spot.

It felt like a must win . . . even with 27 more to play and a one-game lead for the second wild-card spot.

All night long the Sox teetered on the edge of defeat. And more dismay. More scorn and discouragement.

But Chris Sale came to the emotional rescue and the reeling Red Sox finally beat the Tampa Bay Rays, 3-2, in the Trop Dome on Wednesday night.

So, the season is not over. There is more baseball to be played.

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Sale delivered six strong innings, throwing a season-high 95 pitches and keeping the Sox close against a raging Tampa team that had won nine in a row. Sale turned a 2-2 tie over to Garrett Whitlock and Adam Ottavino, and the Sox won it on the strength of rookie Jarren Duran’s RBI single in the top of the ninth.

“That was big,” said Sale. “There’s no doubt we’ve had some gut punches over the last week and a half. But no one here is giving up . . . We were scratching and clawing. This was by no means an easy win. We did what we had to do.”

“That was a great win,” added weary Boston manager Alex Cora. “Everybody was into it.”

Chris Sale allowed two runs in six innings of work against the Rays Wednesday.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

The 2021 Boston Red Sox were in first place for 71 days. They had a 4½-game lead over the entire division in the first week of July. They were 63-40 on July 28.

Then came reality. Overachievement yielded to market correction. The Sox lost 19 of 31 games and Wednesday took the field trailing Tampa by 10 games in the American League East. The Sox were still in possession of a wild-card playoff spot, holding a one-game lead over the Oakland A’s, but it felt like they were in last place. Like in 2020.

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Longtime Sox watchers remember the awful fold of 1974 (eight-game lead Aug. 30, finished third, seven back), the epic collapse of 1978 (14-game lead over New York July 20, lost to the Yankees in Game 163), and the Chicken-and-Beer swoon (7-20 in September) of 2011.

Now we have the COVID collapse of 2021.

Much to the disappointment of Cora, the 2021 Red Sox have a chunk of anti-vaxxers in their clubhouse. They are one of only seven (of 30) big league teams who failed to clear MLB’s 85 percent vaccination threshold and it has come back to bite them. Half of Boston’s bullpen is on the COVID shelf. Ditto for All-Star shortstop Xander Bogaerts and starting center fielder Kiké Hernández. Rookie Sox infielder Yairo Muñoz Wednesday became the 11th member (eighth player) of the Sox traveling party to go on the COVID list since the team left Boston last Thursday.

Hoping to stop the bleeding, the Sox turned to Sale to put things back on track. Sale gave up a two-run homer to Wander Franco in the third but turned a 2-2 game over to the bullpen in the seventh after Christian Vázquez tied the game with a solo homer in the top of the inning.

Wander Franco celebrates his third-inning homer off Chris Sale Wednesday night in Tampa.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Sale missed two full years due to Tommy John surgery on his left elbow and was allowed to return to the bigs against a troika of cupcakes (Hostess sells them only in pairs). Pitching on six days rest against three last-place teams — teams that have collectively lost 100 games more than they have won — Sale racked up three wins, pitching a total of 15⅓ innings. The Sox beat the Tomato Can Orioles, Rangers, and Twins by an aggregate 34-4. It was all ponies, balloons. and immaculate innings.

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The Sox did not want to play Wednesday’s game. Sox officials were in conversations with the commissioner’s office Wednesday in an effort to have games in St. Petersburg postponed.

“We’ve been communicating with MLB since this started,” Red Sox baseball boss Chaim Bloom texted. “ . . . We all know that all scheduling decisions are complex, and that they’re MLB’s to make.”

No dice. The shorthanded Sox got no forgiveness from the powers in the league office. Game on.

Sale gave up six hits, hit two batters, and had traffic on the bases all night, but got help from three double-play grounders. He wanted to come out for the seventh but was called back to the dugout after loping toward the mound to start the inning.

“He was amazing,” said Cora. “They put the ball in play, but he made pitches when he had to. And we were really good defensively tonight.”

The Red Sox lead the A’s by two games in the race for the final wild-card spot.

“We’ve got some kick,” said Sale. “Our attitude is staying the same. We’re still in a position that a lot of guys would love to be in.”

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Best of all: No Sox player was pulled off the field due to a positive COVID test in mid-game.


Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at daniel.shaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him @dan_shaughnessy.