ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It’s not often when winning four of seven games on a road trip can be considered a resounding success, if not one of the emotional high points of the season.
But for a Red Sox team that has been losing players along the trail like a beleaguered baseball version of the Joad family, taking two of three in Cleveland and splitting four games against Tampa Bay at Tropicana Field felt like a real accomplishment.
“September is not a grind anymore. It’s actually fun,” manager Alex Cora said Thursday after a 4-0 victory against the Rays.
The Sox have placed eight players on the COVID-19 injured list since last Friday, All-Stars Matt Barnes and Xander Bogaerts among them.
That Cora was able to open his pregame press session without announcing another positive test made Thursday a success before the first pitch was thrown.
Eduardo Rodriguez and Garrett Richards then made it even better, holding the first-place Rays to five hits, all singles. Tampa Bay never advanced a runner beyond second base.
For the Sox to maintain their hold on a wild-card spot, Cora and pitching coach Dave Bush will have to be creative until Barnes, Hirokazu Sawamura, and Josh Taylor return.
The Sox blew a 4-0 lead in Cleveland on Sunday, a depleted bullpen allowing seven runs in the final three innings. They then allowed 14 runs in the first two games against the Rays as a series of emergency call-ups were hit hard.
But Chris Sale went six innings on Wednesday with Garrett Whitlock and Adam Ottavino following. Ottavino briefly warmed up on Thursday before Cora trusted Richards to go the final three innings for his second save.
“Regardless of the results of the first two games [against Tampa Bay], we were able to reset our bullpen,” Cora said. “We feel we can pitch. We can pitch with anybody in the league.
“But when you’re limping into series, it’s tough.”
Rodriguez held the Rays to four hits, walked one, and struck out six over six-plus innings and said afterward it was his best start of the season. The Rays agreed.
“Rodriguez was really good,” manager Kevin Cash said. “He came out of the gate with a really good changeup, got everybody kind of out front, then he reversed course and went back to the fastball that’s about as much of a power fastball as I’ve seen him have.”
Rodriguez pitched like somebody who understood how important the game was to the Sox, especially after Oakland won earlier in the day.
The Sox haven’t solved their roster issues, that’ll take another week or so. But after being in scramble mode, they moved forward.
“It feels really good. It feels amazing,” Rodriguez said.
The Replacement Red Sox at the bottom of the order — Danny Santana, 28-year-old rookie Jack Lopez, and Jonathan Araúz — were significant contributors.
In his first game since July 21, Santana walked twice and scored a run. Araúz did the same. Lopez had a sacrifice that led to a run in the second inning and played well defensively at second base.
“This is who we are right now with these kids playing,” Cora said. “The bottom of the lineup, it doesn’t look great. But if they can put [up] competitive at-bats and get that pitch count up, we’ll take that.”
The Sox return to Fenway Park on Friday to play Cleveland with a two-game hold on the second wild-card spot. They trail the Yankees by only 1½ games for the first wild card.
Cora said Sale was loud and animated before the game, encouraging his teammates to keep pushing. That the Sox have won all four games Sale has started since he came off the injured list added heft to his words.
“There was a good vibe,” the manager said. “He’s been saying all along nothing’s going to stop us … When you have guys like that who can speak up in the clubhouse but then they go out there and perform, it’s a lot easier.
“There was a lot of energy today. The guys were into it from the get-go. To be able to do that is a testament to them as a group.”