ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Red Sox manager Alex Cora answered nine questions after Tuesday night’s 5-4 victory against the Tampa Bay Rays, choosing his words carefully after barely avoiding what would have been a disastrous loss in the bottom of the ninth inning.
When the television cameras were turned off and reporters started to file out of the visiting manager’s office at Tropicana Field, Cora turned and rubbed his face.
“Ooof,” he said.
That summed it up better than anything else.
The Sox allowed two runs in the ninth and didn’t exhale until first baseman Christian Vazquez, who is usually a catcher, made a play on a groundball to leave the bases loaded after a botched double play, three walks, and two singles.
But they did survive. Now, at 56-46, the Sox are 10 games over .500 for the first time this season and have overtaken the 57-47 Rays by .001 percentage points for second place in the American League East.
“Those guys were way ahead of us. It’s something that we’ve learned, that we can catch up with people,” Cora said.
The Sox, who have won five of seven, can complete a three-game sweep Wednesday afternoon with David Price on the mound against Charlie Morton. The Sox are 5-0 at Tropicana Field this season.
The Rays have lost seven of their last eight games.
The victory, however unusual the ending, also was typical in that it exposed how flawed the Red Sox roster is.
After Chris Sale worked six strong innings and left with a 3-2 lead, Matt Barnes pitched a perfect seventh inning. The Sox then turned to a well-rested Brandon Workman for what they hoped would be a six-out save.
Workman had a quick eighth inning before Matt Duffy led off the ninth with a single. Joey Wendle then grounded to second for what should have been a double play.
But Michael Chavis, an inexperienced second baseman, threw low to shortstop Xander Bogaerts and the Sox got only one out.
“We couldn’t turn a double play and we put ourselves in a bad position,” Cora said. “We have to play better defense.”
Workman struck out Nate Lowe for the second out. But Willy Adames walked and Ji-Man Choi singled to drive in a run.
Workman then walked Travis d’Arnaud to load the bases. The Sox had Nate Eovaldi available after a shaky 24-pitch outing on Monday, but Cora turned to Marcus Walden.
“I felt it was a good matchup for him,” Cora said.
But Walden walked Tommy Pham on four pitches to force in another run. As tension peaked, Austin Meadows grounded to first and Vazquez flipped to Walden.
Workman gave clipped responses to questions about the ninth inning, still angry about how the game almost got away.
“We’re not where we need to be,” he said. “We have to play good ball and get where we need to be. It’s that time of year. We’ve got to win.”
Sale allowed two runs on four hits and struck out 10, his second solid start in a row. With a runner on first and two outs in the sixth inning, he talked Cora into letting him face one more hitter.
Sale told Cora he had three more pitches left. How did he arrive at that number?
“That’s how many pitches are in a punch-out,” Sale said. “He owes me one.”
Sale was rewarded for his determination when Vazquez led off the top of the seventh and hammered a fastball over the fence in left field for his 16th home run.
Red Sox pinch hitters are 21 of 57 (.368) this season with five home runs and 15 RBIs. Vazquez is 3 of 8 with two of the homers.
The lead grew to 5-2 in the eighth inning as the Rays handed the Sox two runs.
With the bases loaded, Andrew Benintendi grounded to second with the infield in. But Mike Brosseau fumbled the ball and settled for an out at first as a run scored.
With two outs, the Rays intentionally walked Vazquez to get to Jackie Bradley Jr. and Adam Kolarek hit him with a first-pitch fastball to force in a run.
The Red Sox took a 2-0 lead five batters into the game against Tampa Bay starter Yonny Chirinos.
Rafael Devers singled with out then took third on a two-out single to center by J.D. Martinez. Devers scored on a wild pitch and Martinez on a single by Benintendi.
Chirinos did not allow another run over 5⅔ innings.
Sale retired the first eight Rays in order on 34 pitches. He then got ahead of Mike Zunino with two called strikes but couldn’t put away the .176 hitter.
Zunino worked the count even then fouled off three pitches before Sale missed wide with two sliders.
Sale also got up 0 and 2 on the next hitter, d’Arnaud. His third pitch was a slider on the inside corner, but d’Arnaud was able to keep his hands inside the ball and drive it over the fence in left field for his 11th home run.
But he held from there and ended up with a victory.
“We still have some work to do,” Sale said. “We need to keep our foot on the gas.”