Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was given five days off this month because of inflammation in his lower back that affected everything about his game.
Saltalamacchia had a hitless streak going and the soreness made it difficult for him to get off quick throws to the bases.
“It was bothering me for a good month,” Saltalamacchia said. “That last game, I felt like I wasn’t helping the team.”
When Saltalamacchia announced that he felt better and wanted to play, manager John Farrell kept him out of the lineup an extra day just to make sure.
The time off helped. Saltalamacchia threw out three runners in the series against Tampa Bay this week and now the thunder is back in his bat. His grand slam in the seventh inning on Friday night lifted the Sox to an 8-4 victory against the Yankees before a sold-out crowd of 37,542 at Fenway Park.
The Sox have won eight of their last 10 games and reduced their magic number for winning the American League East to 7. They lead the Tampa Bay Rays by 8½ games with only 13 to play.
The home run for Saltalamacchia was his second in as many nights. He has seven RBIs in the last four games.
“He’s doing a hell of a job with a little extra rest right now,” Farrell said.
The desperate Yankees, now two games out in the wild-card race, tied the game with two runs in the top of the seventh against the increasingly worrisome Red Sox bullpen.
But New York’s battered bullpen is in even worse shape. Yankees starter Hiroki Kuroda gave up four runs in the first inning and threw 33 pitches but was still able to come back out for the seventh.
When Shane Victorino singled to lead off, Kuroda was replaced by rookie lefthander Cesar Cabral.
Cabral hit David Ortiz with a pitch. When righthanded-hitting Jonny Gomes hit for Mike Carp, the Yankees went to righthander Preston Claiborne, another rookie.
Gomes walked to load the bases. Daniel Nava struck out, but Saltalamacchia sent a fastball into the right-field bleachers. It was his 13th home run (on Friday the 13th no less) and third career grand slam, his first for the Sox.
“I saw how he pitched Nava. I knew he had good stuff, but I had only faced him once,” Saltalamacchia said. “I didn’t have a lot of experience with him, but I just needed to get a strike up in the zone I could do something with.”
It was the eighth grand slam of the season for the Red Sox, the fourth in nine games. The team record for a season is 11.
Rookie Brandon Workman, who got the final out of the seventh inning, was the winner. Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara retired the final six Yankees in order.
It was not a save situation for Uehara but he extended his streak to 30⅓ scoreless innings, the longest run in the majors this season. He has retired 37 batters in a row and been perfect in his last 11 outings.
It looked like an easy night for the Sox when they scored four runs in the first inning off Kuroda.
Dustin Pedroia singled and went to third on a double to left field by Ortiz. A run scored when Carp grounded to first base. The second run came in on Nava’s single to left.
Saltalamacchia walked to extend the inning and came around when Stephen Drew drove a two-run double off the wall in left.
Sox starter John Lackey took a 4-0 lead into the second inning and pitched into the seventh inning, but a victory eluded him.
Brendan Ryan, a light-hitting shortstop acquired to replace the injured Derek Jeter, homered into the Monster seats in the third inning.
The Yankees scored again in the sixth inning and, if not for Victorino, it might have been more.
Robinson Cano doubled to right field with one out. He took third when Alfonso Soriano singled to left field. Lyle Overbay followed with a line shot to the gap in right.
Victorino ran the ball down, turning a potential two-run double into a sacrifice fly.
Lackey got the first out of the seventh inning before Ryan singled to left field and Chris Stewart, the No. 9 hitter, singled to left.
Lackey was only at 82 pitches but Farrell called in lefthander Craig Breslow.
Lackey wanted to stay in the game, something he made clear at the time and again after the game.
Breslow struck out Curtis Granderson on a check swing for the second out.
Breslow then pitched around Alex Rodriguez, walking him on five pitches, four well outside, Rodriguez was 2 for 6 with two home runs against Breslow.
The strategy backfired badly. Breslow fell behind Cano and he ripped a hanging slider to the gap in right to score two runs. A less infirm player would have scored from first with two outs but Rodriguez stopped at third. That kept the game tied.
Lackey felt better about how the situation played out when Saltalamacchia rescued the Sox.
“Salty’s such a good dude. He’s been great for us all year,” Lackey said. “He’s played a lot and really stepped up big for us. He’s been great for us as pitchers and obviously swung the bat great, too.”Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.