Forget the 161 games that have come before.
Everything, and we do mean everything, is on the line tonight for the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays, who are thundering down the stretch, tied in their battle for the American League wild card.
For the Red Sox, a very special angst is gripping its jittery Nation. The team is 7-19 in September, the kind of swoon that, with a $161 million payroll, gets managers and general managers fired but is great news for Tums sales. The $43 million Rays, behind a three-run home run by Matt Joyce off the Yankees’ $10 million middle reliever Rafael Soriano, are loose — turning a triple play will also help do that for a team.
Boston pulled out an 8-7 victory Tuesday night with a vintage Sawx performance. There were four home runs — Yalie Ryan Lavarnway hit the first two homers of his career — and Erik Bedard, who has been pitching so poorly that his headlines are reserved for things like being served with legal papers by a guy in a Yankees shirt. He did about as well as you’d expect of a guy who’s won once since July. His line: three runs, five hits, three walks, 3 1/3 innings.
Because it always does with Boston, the game came down to the ninth. A four-run lead had shrunk and Jonathan Papelbon came on to get the final three outs. With the tying run on second, Adam Jones fouled off pitch after pitch before Papelbon retired him on his 10th offering. It took Papelbon 28 pitches to retire three hitters.
“This wears you out,’’ David Ortiz, the designated hitter, admitted (via Dan Shaughnessy). “This feels like the playoffs already.’’
Oddly, the tension may be even greater in Tampa. Hours before Tuesday night’s game, first baseman Casey Kotchman was taken to a hospital because of tightness in his chest. (Red Sox fans are thinking, “You don’t know from chest tightness...”) Kotchman’s tests were negative and he was released, but it was, well, weird. “It’s just another twist to the saga that we’ve got going on over here,” third baseman Evan Longoria said.
Some saga. The Rays’ 5-3 victory over the Yankees, the AL East winners, featured a Longoria-to-Zobrist-to-Rodriguez triple play. Russell Martin hit a hard grounder to Longoria, who stepped on third base, then threw to Ben Zobrist, who stepped on second and threw to first baseman Sean Rodriguez, who beat Martin’s head-first slide.
“Are you kidding me? It was momentum, it was everything, it changed everything,” said Rodriguez, who moved from shortstop to first when Kotchman became ill.
The finales tonight — with the National League wild card coming down to two games involving the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves — should make for great theater, great TV, great sports. And if the Rays and Red Sox are tied after tonight’s games? There’d be a tiebreaker game at 4:07 p.m. Thursday in Tampa.
“I think this is really good for baseball,” Boston Manager Terry Francona said, “but it’s not good for my stomach.”
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