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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Sometimes, a game serves as little more than backdrop for the real theater, a McGuffin for a plot that is more captivating — or at least vexing.

The Red Sox lost to the Rays, 3-2, in the finale of a three-game set at Tropicana Field, a well-pitched contest in which Connecticut native Charlie Morton (7 innings, 2 runs, 11 strikeouts) outdueled Sox counterpart David Price (6 innings, 3 runs, 8 strikeouts). Yet after the game, attention turned not to the details of the contest, but an unusual strategic decision by the Rays that introduced confusion and resulted in a Red Sox protest after both starters had departed from the game.

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“It was a mess,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “I’m rattled right now. I kind of don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In the top of the eighth inning, Rays manager Kevin Cash was ready to employ his bullpen to match up. He summoned sidearm lefty Adam Kolarek into the game with the No. 9 hitter, lefty Jackie Bradley Jr., due up. Manager Alex Cora countered by sending pinch-hitter Sam Travis to the plate, but Travis popped up.

Rather than remove Kolarek from the game, however, Cash asked his pitcher to move to first base while bringing in righthander Chaz Roe to face Mookie Betts. In doing so, Cash sacrificed the designated hitter spot — being occupied in the third position of the order by Austin Meadows — while also having first baseman Ji-Man Choi leave the ballgame.

What lineup spots did Cash tell home plate ump and crew chief Angel Hernandez that Kolarek and Roe would occupy?

“He didn’t tell me,” Hernandez told a pool reporter after the game.

Cora took note, inquiring with Hernandez where Kolarek and Roe would hit.

“When [Cash] put [Kolarek at] first, I asked Angel about it, and he gave me an answer. I’m like, ‘OK, this is about to get interesting,’ ” Cora recounted. “And it did.”

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Roe, a righthander, retired Betts on a flyball to left for the second out. With two outs, Roe exited the game, with Kolarek returning to the mound to face fellow lefty Rafael Devers. Nate Lowe came off the bench to play first base.

Cora again approached Hernandez, setting in motion multiple summits between the umpiring crew and both managers. Minutes dripped as if fallen from the paintings at the nearby Salvador Dali Museum. Kolarek periodically threw some pitches towards the plate. Devers tried to remain in a meditative trance by the plate.

“I had no idea what was really going on. I’m not familiar as to the rules of what was going on,” Devers said through translator Bryan Almonte. “In the moment, I just tried to stay together mentally and tried to be prepared so that when I did get my at-bat in, I would be as aggressive as I can.”

Yet it is difficult to slam down the gas while navigating a nine-car pileup. Cora talked to Hernandez, who talked to Cash, followed by more conversations between Cora and Hernandez, and Hernandez and the league office, and Hernandez and Cash, and Hernandez and Cora.

The substance of the conversation between Cora and Hernandez?

“I’m not going to get into detail,” said Cora. “They brought in the lefty for [Morton] and then they brought in Roe for Choi. They kept the DH at that moment. So they had a pitcher, a first baseman, they had a pitcher on the mound and they still had a DH. It’s kind of hard to explain. I’m sorry I can’t go over it because there’s a lot. It’s an illegal substitution.”

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Hernandez disagreed. He cited different parts of Rule 5.11(a) — one (5.11(a)(8)) that says that a team loses the designated hitter when the pitcher moves to a defensive position, and another (5.11(a)(5)) that stipulates that if a DH spot is sacrificed for defensive purposes, his spot in the batting order remains unchanged while the pitcher “must then bat in the place of the substituted defensive player, unless more than one substitution is made, and the manager then must designate their spots in the batting order.”

Hernandez then said that Rule 5.10(b), which says that it’s up to the manager to notify the crew chief of the new batting order, also authorized him to decide on the batting order when Cash did not do so. Rule 5.10(b) features an explanatory comment that says, “If [the lineup order] is not immediately given to the umpire-in-chief, the umpire-in-chief shall have authority to designate the substitutes’ place in the batting order.”

In essence, Hernandez determined that since Cash didn’t specify his new batting order when Kolarek entered the game, so it was up to the umpire to do so. By implication, Hernandez suggested that he’d decided to slot Kolarek in the third spot and Roe (and subsequently his replacement, Lowe) in the nine-hole.

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“The umpire’s decision,” Hernandez said to the pool reporter, “is final.”

But Cora expressed discomfort and dissatisfaction with what he was being told by Hernandez, even after Hernandez conferred not just with his umpiring crew, but also with MLB officials in New York. Cora felt that once Kolarek replaced Choi (who’d been in the game in the ninth spot), he should hit ninth, while Roe would replace the designated hitter (Meadows in the third spot) — a spot that was due up to lead off the eighth.

“I wasn’t able to keep up with Angel,” Cora said with a smirk.

Drip. Drip. Drip. Everyone seemed vexed. In the Rays dugout, Cash fidgeted.

“I’m not sure exactly what they were saying,” said Cash. “My big concern was whatever is taking place, can we speed it up? I’ve got a guy on the mound that’s just kind of standing there, which is a little uncharacteristic in a game, in any game, and it was tight at that point.”

Devers spent 14 minutes waiting to face Kolarek. At the conclusion of that time, Cora lodged a protest, suggesting that the umpires misapplied the rules.

If MLB upholds a protest, then it’s possible that a game can be replayed from the point of that misapplication. In this case, the misapplication occurred with the Rays leading, 3-2, in the top of the eighth inning, no one on, two outs, and Devers at the plate against Kolarek.

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Sideshow concluded and protest lodged, Devers promptly grounded out to first on the first pitch from Kolarek and slammed his helmet to the turf.

“It’s tough,” Devers said. “Mentally, I was already prepared to go into my at-bat. To have to wait that long, it’s not an excuse as to the result of that at-bat, but it is tough to turn it back on after waiting as long as I did.”

Lefthander Josh Taylor then took the mound for the bottom of the eighth to face Willy Adames, who was pinch-hitting for Kolarek in the third spot of the batting order. Drip, drip, drip.

“It kind of messes up your routine getting ready for the game,” said Taylor. “It’s kind of a difficult situation to come into.”

But Taylor pitched a clean eighth, and the Rays closed out their win with a scoreless ninth from Emilio Pagan. Given that MLB must determine that a misapplication of rules affected the outcome in order to uphold a protest, the fact that neither team scored in all likelihood will result in a denial of the Red Sox’ objection.

The protest marked the first by the Red Sox since a game against the Yankees on July 15, 2017, in which the Red Sox protested a New York advance on the bases. That protest was denied.

Indeed, since 1986, only one protest has been upheld by MLB (and previously the American League and National League offices), and that was due to a tarp malfunction at a game between the Giants and Cubs at Wrigley Field. That said, it was noteworthy that the Sox protest came on the 36th anniversary of George Brett’s famed “Pine Tar Incident,” when he hit a homer off Goose Gossage of the Yankees that was disallowed due to pine tar that ran too high on his bat. The American League office later allowed Brett’s homer to stand.

So, Cora figured he might as well hold out hope for an outcome that occurs once every few decades.

“We protested the game,” said Cora. “Let’s see where it goes.”

The Sox, meanwhile, were off to Boston, disappointed with a loss, but satisfied with taking two of three on the road against a team immediately in front of them in the standings.


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.