Bullpen falters, Sox fall to Rays

Bullpen falters, Sox fall to Rays

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Red Sox were nine outs away from a tidy getaway, not to mention a badly needed victory. But instead of that, they got what had to feel like a gut punch on their way out of Tropicana Field, which has been a house of horrors for the defending World Series champions this season.

How to describe what happened to the Boston bullpen in the bottom of the seventh inning? Meltdown would probably be the most fitting word. Craig Hansen and Manny Delcarmen were charged with all six runs in the inning, and neither right-hander recorded an out. That's how a three-run lead turned into a 7-6 loss and a three-game sweep at the hands of the American League East-leading Tampa Bay Rays.

"You see me out on the field that much, something's not going right," said manager Terry Francona. "We missed a lot of opportunities to spread the game out. Still, saying that, we had a lead. We got to Delcarmen, and things unraveled in a hurry. Our inability tonight to make pitches, throw strikes, cover first -- it led to a horrible inning. We kept playing, but giving up seven is too much."

Even after their most deflating half-inning of the season, the Red Sox made a valiant attempt at a comeback. Dustin Pedroia belted his fourth hit of the night, an RBI double in the eighth, to slice the deficit to 7-5. If he had singled in that spot, he would have become the first Boston player to hit for the cycle since John Valentin in 1996.

"I was just trying to go up there and hit a ball hard those last two times I got up," said Pedroia. "When I got back after the double, guys were joking, 'You should have fallen down or something.' But I was just playing the game."

Pedroia became the first Red Sox second baseman since at least 1956 -- when records are first available -- to have four extra-base hits in a game, and the first Sox player to achieve the feat since Jason Varitek on July 4, 2003.

"I hit the ball well," he said. "I'd much rather win, though."

The Red Sox tried to do just that in the top of the ninth, when they staged a promising rally against Rays reliever Dan Wheeler. It started with Manny Ramirez reaching on an error by shortstop Jason Bartlett. Mike Lowell followed with a single to right, putting runners at the corners with nobody out.

Up stepped Kevin Youkilis, who ripped a ball to deep right-center. But B.J. Upton made a game-saving play, racing to the wall and limiting the drive to a mere sacrifice fly.

While Ramirez trotted home, Lowell retreated to first, his hands over his helmet and a look of utter disbelief on his face.

"When B.J. runs, he kind of glides," said Lowell. "It didn't look like he was at full speed, so I thought he was almost going to play it off the wall. I really thought it was going to drop. I'm at third for sure. Maybe it takes a carom or something. That's kind of the way the whole series went. They capitalized, and we didn't."

Francona tried to jump-start Varitek's slumping bat by calling for a hit and run. It nearly worked, as Varitek drilled a ball just foul down the first-base line that might have tied the game if it stayed fair. Francona called for it again, but Varitek swung and missed, and Lowell was out stealing second. Varitek then struck out to end the game, dropping his average to .216.

"I know it's a glaring moment in the game," said Francona. "I felt good about it. Again, I know it's crucial. I still thought it was going to work. The pitch before, he was actually more direct to the ball than he had been."

Varitek took the loss -- and the strikeout -- hard. After talking to the media, the captain sat at his locker and just stared straight ahead for quite a long time.

"This team did a great job battling back and presenting ourselves with another chance late. I put that [short-lived rally] on my shoulders," Varitek said.

In the middle of a five-game losing streak, the Red Sox now trail the Rays by 3 1/2 games in the AL East, their largest deficit since the end of the 2006 season. They are 0-6 at Tropicana Field this season. That is fitting, because the Rays are 0-6 at Fenway.

The two teams won't meet again until Sept. 8, when the Rays come to Fenway for a three-game series.

"They took it to us," said Francona. "They beat us three games in a row. We came here to win, and didn't do a very good job."

On this decidedly down note, the Red Sox were prepared to spend the wee hours of the morning flying to New York, where they will start a four-game series on Thursday night at Yankee Stadium.

Though Daisuke Matsuzaka struggled with his control (five walks, 101 pitches in five innings), he was seemingly in position for his 10th win. The right-hander allowed just two hits and a run, striking out five.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox had worked Rays ace Scott Kazmir (five innings, seven hits, four runs, four walks, 107 pitches) in relentless fashion, mostly thanks to Pedroia's red-hot bat.

But it all fell apart in a gruesome bottom of the seventh.

Bartlett started it with a double to right off Delcarmen. Bartlett then stole third. Akinori Iwamura made it 4-2 with a single that Youkilis made a diving stop on, but Delcarmen forgot to cover first. Then came a single through the hole at second base from Carl Crawford. Out came Francona.

"The pitch to Bartlett on 3-2, it was away, he slapped it down the line. He took third on me," Delcarmen said. "It was just a bad day in general."

Hansen couldn't help but agree. He walked Upton and then Carlos Pena, forcing in a run to make it 4-3. Evan Longoria smashed a two-run double to left-center, and the Rays had the lead for the first time all night. They would never give it up.

"This series, they played better than us," Pedroia said. "They pitched better than us, they hit better than us, they hit in the clutch better than us. They beat us. That's why we didn't win any games. That's the way baseball is sometimes."

And the beauty of baseball, for the Red Sox at this moment, is that the season ends in October, not July.

"There's a lot of baseball left," Delcarmen said. "Remember that -- a lot of baseball left."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.