ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Red Sox had blown a five-run lead and were facing Tampa Bay’s Jose Alvarado, one of the most fearsome relief pitchers in the game, with the bottom of the order coming up in the ninth inning on Saturday night.
That the result was a 6-5 victory could well have the Sox looking back months from now and saying this was where the season started to turn.
“That was a good one,” manager Alex Cora said. “We’re getting close. We’re getting real close.”
If they get there, the Sox will remember that Michael Chavis made his major league debut with a double to the base of the wall in center field off Alvarado to set up the go-ahead run.
And they’ll smile recalling the look of complete joy on the face of catcher Christian Vazquez when he picked Tommy Pham off first base to end the game as the Rays were threatening.
Not since Chris Sale forced Manny Machado to bend the knee flailing at a slider to end the World Series had the Sox felt such collective satisfaction.
“Once we hit our stride, it’ll be a lot more fun. I’m sure everybody else will be happy, too,” said Andrew Benintendi, who drove in five runs, including the game-winner. “Right now we’re just trying to go a game at a time.”
It was the first series win of the season for the Sox, who now have David Price on the mound Sunday with an opportunity for a statement sweep.
The Sox had a 5-2 lead through six innings. Benintendi’s grand slam in the second inning off Charlie Morton allowed Rick Porcello to challenge hitters and he worked a solid 5⅔ innings, giving up two runs on six hits.
Porcello walked one and struck out five, his fastball command markedly improved from his first three starts.
Porcello came into the game having allowed 14 earned runs on 22 hits and 12 walks over 11⅓ innings. He was another stinker away from the Sox at least having a conversation about whether he should say in the rotation.
Instead he took his first step forward of the season.
“Just had more life on everything,” said Porcello, who corrected a mechanical flaw that had his right hand trailing too far behind his body.
Porcello adjusted his hands at the start of his delivery and that enabled him to get better speed and movement on his pitches.
“Felt a lot better with what I was doing out there,” Porcello said. “It’s a good step in the right direction.”
But the 5-2 lead was given away. Cora tried to get through the bottom of the Tampa Bay order in the seventh inning with Heath Hembree. It didn’t work.
Kevin Kiermaier led off with a triple. With one out, newly recalled Bobby Poyner came on to pitch and walked pinch hitter Guillermo Heredia.
Austin Meadows followed with a triple to the gap in right field and two runs scored.
The Rays had four triples in all, a team record. The Sox had not allowed four since June 9, 1983, against the Tigers at Fenway Park.
Marcus Walden replaced Poyner. He struck out Pham looking at a slider and Willy Adames swinging at a fastball to maintain the 5-4 lead.
Yandy Diaz led off the bottom of the eighth inning with a home run off Matt Barnes. The righthanded hitter went the other way with a high 96-m.p.h. fastball.
Barnes struck out the next three hitters. Then the Rays turned to Alvarado, who had not allowed a run over 9⅓ innings and stuck out 16.
Jackie Bradley Jr., mired in three-week slump, led off with a single. With one out, Chavis fell behind 1 and 2. He fouled off a cutter than hammered a 99-m.p.h. low fastball.
Kiermaier, a Gold Glove center fielder, got turned around chasing the ball and it landed on the warning track 404 feet away.
Chavis popped up out of his slide and pumped his fist as his new teammates saluted him from the dugout. Benintendi’s sacrifice fly to right field gave the Sox the lead.
Chavis had a large group of family and friends at the game, making the moment all the more special.
“I’m going to turn off professional mode. That was awesome,” the 23-year-old said. “I need to celebrate. It was really cool.”
Chavis faced Alvarado in 2014 in the Gulf Coast League. He told himself to be prepared for high velocity.
“Being in that’s situation and off of that quality of a pitcher, it was very special,” Chavis said.
Chavis, a former first-round pick, is a good hitter looking for a defensive position. Hits like that will find him a place to play in the field.
“There’s no lack of confidence,” Cora said. “You see him walking around; he belongs. We saw that in spring training as far as the offensive upside, the way he controls the strike zone.”
How the game ended was nearly as improbable as how the Sox took the lead. With runners on first and second and two outs, Ryan Brasier threw a fastball to Adames.
Vazquez whirled and fired to first base and Steve Pearce tagged Pham to end the game.
“I saw he had a big lead and we had a chance there,” said Vazquez, who had been told to watch Pham and signaled Pearce the throw was coming.