Asked to spell a rotation and a bullpen stretched thin, Tavarez delivered six innings of two-hit ball, allowing two first-inning runs. But the Red Sox lost, 3-1, splitting an up-and-down weekend with the Los Angeles Angels that turned testy on the series' final day.
Tavarez also provided the fireworks on a quiet, breezy afternoon in which the Red Sox managed just six hits and one run against Angels starter Joe Saunders.
In the third inning, Tavarez threw an inside fastball that grazed the jersey of Los Angeles shortstop Orlando Cabrera. That prompted Cabrera to walk angrily to first, yelling and pointing at Tavarez. The benches cleared as Boston catcher Kevin Cash directed Cabrera, a member of the 2004 world champion Red Sox, back on a path toward first.
"If there was bad blood or anything like that, I didn't know about it," Cash said after the game. "Obviously, we're not going to try to hit a guy that's hitting in front of Vladimir Guerrero."
In his postgame press conference, Tavarez recounted a short history that went back only to the first week of August, when the teams faced in Anaheim. Other than a brief exchange then, Tavarez said, "I've never traded one word [with Cabrera].
"I've never said hello to this guy," Tavarez said. "I've never shaken hands with him. I don't know what kind of person he is. Most of the guys who play with him say he's a nice guy."
In Anaheim, Tavarez thought Cabrera was looking into the catcher's crouch to steal signs.
"Stop doing it," Tavarez said he told Cabrera, "because I will hit you if you're doing that. Let's play the game the right way."
When Tavarez hit Cabrera on Sunday, he insisted, it was unintentional, a tailing fastball thrown while trying to pitch inside.
"I'm the kind of guy," Tavarez said, "that I've been here doing whatever the Red Sox want me to do. I've been in the bullpen, [as] the long man, waiting 10, 15 days, 13 days, eight days, without pitching. I'm not going to go down there and put guys on base for Vlady Guerrero.
"I'm not going to go out there and hit guys, you know?" he continued. "Because it's not good for me. I'm a free agent guy. I'm looking to do my job out there. I'm not looking for to give up runs out there."
Tavarez said Cabrera "overreacted."
"You know, he just started saying things to me," Tavarez said. "I didn't know what he said. And I said, 'Instead of walking to first base, why don't you just come right here so we can finish this.' And he just went to first base."
Tavarez walked the next batter, Guerrero, and proceeded to retire 11 Angels in a row.
"That was my plan," Tavarez said. "My plan was to give six innings and give our team a chance to ... keep the team in the game."
Perhaps most important: "We didn't win the game," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said, "but we didn't go through our bullpen."
Los Angeles got on the board early. The first three Angels reached base in the first, with a run scoring on a Guerrero single. Another first-inning run scored on a forceout.
Then, Tavarez established his sinking fastball. He prevented home runs, he kept balls out of the gaps and let infielders like Dustin Pedroia make plays in the holes.
"After we got through that first inning, which was a little rough, [Tavarez] got comfortable with me and then I got ... comfortable with him," Cash said. "So we got the sinker going and that opened up his breaking ball and changeup. And then it became effective for him the last couple of innings when maybe he hadn't thrown that many pitches, I don't think, in a long time."
In all, Tavarez threw 87 pitches, 47 for strikes. He hadn't thrown six innings in a game since June 20 in Atlanta, when he was entrenched in the starting rotation.
The Angels added an insurance run in the top of the seventh on a wild pitch by Red Sox reliever Kyle Snyder.
New Red Sox outfielder Bobby Kielty impressed the home crowd with a first-inning, over-the-wall catch and collected two hits, but it wasn't until Mike Lowell roped an RBI single in the eighth that Boston got on the board. Francisco Rodriguez got the save for Los Angeles with a scoreless ninth.
Ultimately, the game belonged to Saunders, whom Francona called "too impressive."
"He threw the ball great," Pedroia said. "He was cutting the ball in on righties. He was doing it to lefties, too."
"Very, very effective," Francona added.
With the loss, the Red Sox's lead over the American League East shrunk back down to four games.
After the game, Pedroia and third baseman Mike Lowell downplayed the race with the Yankees.
Lowell, a member of 2003 Marlins, who won the NL Wild Card and then the World Series, said: "The division means nothing, you know? I know it's a good feather in your cap, but if you guarantee me every division winner gets to the World Series, then it'll mean something. But it doesn't mean anything."
Said Pedroia with a laugh, "We've got the best record in baseball. Let off the panic button a little bit, you know what I mean?"
Alex McPhillips is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.