ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Were you watching New England? Were you paying attention when your baseball team showed a pulse? Most folks back home were probably more plugged into the playoff plights of the Bruins and Celtics.
You can’t blame them, but the Sox showed some vital signs in a vital 6-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on Friday night.
All that was missing was a flux capacitor as the Red Sox travelled back in time in a stadium that’s well past its time to be the team they were in 2018. They grinded out at-bats and a win after being no-hit for four innings, then blowing a 4-2 lead. You can’t overreact to one win, especially with this bunch.
But the Red Sox needed some good fortune, and a reversal of fortune. To quote the late, great baseball philosopher Yogi Berra, it’s getting late early for the Sox, who at 6-13 were off to their worst start since 1996.
For all the no-panic palaver that has been disseminated by the Sox during their woeful start, at some point, professions of belief have turn into, you know, actual results. Talk is cheap, even if it comes from the mouths of World Series winners. Actions speak louder than words in sports. This game said the Sox still can tap into their 2018 selves as long as they stop basking in last year’s accomplishments and start making a list of this season’s.
As manager Alex Cora pointed out after his team snapped its three-game skid, for the first time all year, the Sox now have two swings at winning a series, a feat they haven’t accomplished yet. It’s baby steps for Boston’s bewildering baseball team.
Opening this series against the pace-setting Rays with a victory was a baby step towards the giant leap forward Boston must make in the standings. You don’t want to engage in hyperbole, but this felt more significant than a run-of-the-mill victory on April 19. It felt like the Sox taking a stand.
Of course, that sentiment is only as good as the next starter who takes the mound. We’re looking at you, Rick Porcello. It’s time to trim that 11.12 earned run average.
The Sox have taken up unexpected residence in the American League East basement with bad starting pitching, bad defense, bad baserunning, and lukewarm offense. The most encouraging aspect of the evening was the Sox overcame some of those ills — an offense stuck in neutral early on, and an ill-timed error by third baseman Rafael Devers that paved the way for Tampa Bay to tie the game in the sixth.
Boston rolled into town eight games back. Before the game, Cora was asked whether the Rays could hang with the big boys, the Yankees and Red Sox, and break their oligarchy. Nice story line.
The real question is whether the Sox can keep the Rays, who won 90 games last season, within hailing distance while they try to sort out their issues.
“You don’t want to get too far behind, especially in a division like ours,” said Mookie Betts, who slugged the go-ahead homer in the eighth, the first half of back-to-back long-balls, fist-pumping his way around the bases.
These teams are on opposite ends of the AL East standings and opposite ends of the payroll spectrum. No team punches above its weight as well as the resourceful Rays and their $60.6 million expenditure, according to the Associated Press. They’re the real Moneyball paragon of MLB. They lead the league in return on investment.
“It’s not that nobody knows what’s going on here,” said Cora. “They did an outstanding job in the second part of the season. They did an outstanding job in the offseason. They’re very athletic. They can pitch. They can play defense. They do everything right. Right now, they’re the best team in the big leagues.”
The innovative Rays ran another one of their “openers” out on Friday night, Ryne Stanek, who made his fifth start of the season. Stanek has still yet to allow a run in any game he opened. Stanek lasted two innings and was relieved by Ryan Yarbrough, who threw two more perfect innings before the Sox put the defibrillator paddles to their offense.
Devers delivered the Sox first hit and run of the game, lacing an RBI double to right. Christian Vazquez gave the Sox a 3-2 lead, slugging a two-run homer to center.
Betts snapped an 0 for 12 skein with a leadoff double down the left field line off Rays reliever Wilmer Font an inning late. MLB.com data said the pitch before should have been strike three, but Betts caught a break, then cashed in on it.
“I’ve been struggling all year, being able to hit a double in a spot like that definitely felt like a weight came off my shoulders,” said Betts, who finished 2 for 4.
Devers’ sixth error and a two-run Daniel Robertson double tied the game and was more self-immolation from the Sox, undoing a strong start from Eduardo Rodriguez. (Three of the seven hits he allowed were infield hits, including a Yandy Diaz single that ricocheted off him.) Betts and Mitch Moreland’s solo shots off the latest of the Tampa’s cavalcade of relievers, Diego Castillo, gave the bevy of Boston loyalists in the crowd of 21,343 something to rejoice about.
“We grind out at-bats. We were relentless,” said Cora. “What we did last year.”
Last year is over for the Sox. This year will be too if they can’t find some traction soon.
The Sox might have been in the Boston sports background on Friday night, but they rose to the occasion.
We’ll see if Friday night’s feel-good win was a false start, or the real start of their season.