ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Mookie Betts was a study in blunt accountability earlier this week, saying his performance for the Red Sox this season had been unacceptable.
Two hitless games against the Yankees followed. Betts then grounded out in his first two at-bats against the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday night, one for a double play.
To that point, the reigning American League Most Valuable Player had not had an extra-base hit or run batted in since April 9.
Betts then started the process of turning his season around. He doubled and scored a run in the sixth inning then hit a long go-ahead home run in the eighth as the Sox came back to beat the first-place Rays, 6-4.
Betts and Mitch Moreland had back-to-back home runs. That drew such a roar from the Sox-centric crowd of 21,324 at Tropicana Field that it sounded like Fenway Park.
As he rounded first base after a 424-foot shot to center, Betts pumped his fist. He needed that moment.
“We fought to stay in the game. Just excited,” Betts said. “A lot of emotions going through my head there.”
Betts has slumped only occasionally in his career. But when he does, he wears it like a suit of armor as the frustration weighs on him.
J.D. Martinez can accept a bad week because he knows the results will come if he sticks to his routine. But Betts beats himself up. You can tell his OPS from his expression.
“I think everybody in here, maybe except for him, knows it’s coming. Nobody in here is as worried about him as he is,” Moreland said. “He’s the best player in the game in our eyes.
“You watch this guy night in and night out the way he affects the game and changes the game, whether it’s on the base paths, defensive side, at the plate. It’s only a matter of time before he gets it rolling.”
If there can be such a thing as a must-win series in April, this is it for the Sox, who came in eight games behind the Rays. They started the three-game set with one of their best efforts of this fractured season.
“We have two shots to win the series. This is the first time I can say that this whole season,” manager Alex Cora said.
The offense produced 10 hits, five for extra bases. Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier shut the Rays out over the final three innings, not allowing a hit.
The defense also turned three double plays, newly promoted second baseman Tzu-Wei Lin in the middle of each of them.
When Brasier stranded a runner on second in the ninth inning for his fourth save, the Sox (7-13) snapped a three-game losing streak.
“Sometimes you can get going in this game with one swing. Mookie had that swing,” Martinez said. “That was big for us. We needed to look at the scoreboard and see results.”
As a result of Blake Snell landing on the injured list with a fractured toe, the Rays used a series of relievers against the Sox. They were almost perfect over the first four innings as Ryan Stanek and Ryan Yarbrough threw 43 pitches and didn’t allow a hit.
The Rays had a 2-0 lead on Eduardo Rodriguez by that point. Brandon Lowe hit a 334-foot home run into right field corner in the second inning. Avisail Garcia’s triple drove in a run in the third inning.
The Sox ended a scoreless streak of 11 innings in the fifth when they took a 3-2 lead.
Martinez drew a leadoff walk and scored from first when Rafael Devers drove a double to the gap in right field. Christian Vazquez followed with a home run to center field.
He has four homers on the season, one more than all of 2018 and one shy of his career high set in 2017.
The Sox took a 4-2 lead in the sixth inning against the third Tampa Bay pitcher, righthander Wilmer Font.
Betts snapped an 0-for-12 streak with a double down the line in left. After Moreland singled, Martinez singled to center and Betts scored.
The Sox were set up for a big inning but Font struck out Xander Bogaerts, Devers and Vazquez.
The Rays tied the game in the bottom of the inning. Austin Meadows singled to center before Garcia reached on an error by Devers. He has six already this season.
Daniel Robertson’s double down the line in left scored two runs. With one out, Workman replaced Rodriguez and got Willy Adames to ground into a double play.
Rodriguez was charged with three earned runs over 5⅓ innings. His last two starts (five earned runs over 12 innings) were a vast improvement over the first two (11 earned runs over eight innings).
Rodriguez was watching from the clubhouse when Betts gave the Sox the lead back.
“We know who he is,” Rodriguez said. “He’s not hitting the ball pretty good right now. But when he gets hot, it’s going to be hot. You’re going to see that show every day.”