Jason Bay had just struck a two-run, two-out homer over the Green Monster in the bottom of the eighth, turning a one-run deficit into a one-run lead and Jonathan Papelbon seemed primed to get the three outs necessary to put the Red Sox back in first place for the first time since July 17.
But Papelbon -- the man his teammates often refer to as the best closer in baseball -- had one of those rare down nights at an inopportune time, and the Rays held on to the top spot in the American League East by handing the Red Sox a heart-breaking 5-4 defeat at Fenway Park.
Yes, the closer who had converted 15 consecutive saves since his last misfire on June 22, is indeed human. Just ask him.
"You know, it's part of the game," said Papelbon. "It's not going to be my first blown save and it won't be my last. What can I say? There's a human factor involved in this thing. We are human. We are going to make mistakes. Yeah, I'm human and I didn't throw the pitch where I wanted to tonight."
It was bad right form the outset for Papelbon. He started off pinch-hitter Dan Johnson, 3-0, before getting back into a full count. But Johnson, who arrived just before game-time after being recalled from Triple-A, unloaded on a fastball and smashed it over the Boston bullpen for an equalizing solo shot.
"Fall behind 3-0, that's obviously not what you want to do," Papelbon said. "You throw a ball middle, belt high over the plate, on 3-2 and a hitter is sitting, probably fastball. What are you going to do? A lot of times, yeah, I'll get a popup out of that, but they don't always go your way, man."
Papelbon briefly settled down to get Willy Aybar on a flyout to center, but trouble immediately started back up with Fernando Perez belting a double off the wall in left-center that narrowly missed being a homer and Dioner Navarro spraying an opposite-field double to left that put Tampa bay back in front -- for good, as it turned out.
"We had such a nice emotional lift with Jason's home run," said third baseman Mike Lowell, who belted career homer No. 200 earlier in the game. "We have all the confidence in the world in Pap. But he's a human being, and that's going to happen. We go on and see if we can win the series tomorrow."
The Red Sox, who had won 15 of 19 entering this one, trail the Rays by 1 1/2 games going into Wednesday night's rubber match of this three-game series. It was the first time the road team has won a game in 14 meetings between these two clubs this season.
"I was hoping that trend would continue," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "I'm sure that was a fun game to watch, it was a fun game to be a part of, but we didn't like the ending very much."
Even after Papelbon's rough ninth, the Red Sox gave themselves a shot against Rays closer Troy Percival.
Mark Kotsay drew a leadoff walk and, with two outs, Jacoby Ellsbury came on as a pinch-runner. Ellsbury stole second and moved to third on a throwing error by Navarro, putting him just 90 feet away from tying the game with the red-hot Coco Crisp at the plate. But Percival got Crisp on a popup to end it.
Such a grim end didn't seem to be in the cards after Bay's dramatic blast, a liner that just cleared the Monster against Dan Wheeler, a man he had come in 1-for-18 against.
"For me, to get that hit was huge team-wise," said Bay. "We were down the whole game. Kind of heads down and quiet and all of a sudden -- boom -- in a matter of two seconds. All our fortunes changed."
The crowd responded so favorably to the moment that Bay eventually came out for a curtain call two pitches into Lowell's at-bat.
"I'm not a real emotional guy who gets caught up in the magnitude and the atmosphere of the games," said Bay. "But everyone was like, 'Hey, they want you to go out there for the curtain call.' I was just thinking [that] it was only the eighth inning, the game's not over yet. Lo and behold, look what happened."
Not that Bay really thought this one would slip away.
"With Pap coming in, I didn't think there was one guy out there who didn't think we were going to win that game," said Bay.
Just like after the agonizing loss, there wasn't one member of the Red Sox who thought it would carry over.
With 18 games left, the Red Sox still have their sights set on the Rays -- particularly with a three-game showdown at Tropicana Field, beginning Monday. And Boston also holds a six-game lead over the Twins in the Wild Card standings.
"Our team, we're going to fight and grind," said Papelbon. "Especially here at home, it's obviously tough to lose. We've still got a long season left, we've got a lot of games left. This one game is not going to determine whether we're going to make the playoffs or whether we're going to be a good playoff team or whatever you want to say. One game out of the season is not going to determine that."
Early on, the story was the laborious outing of righty Daisuke Matsuzaka, who somehow gave up just three runs despite surrendering eight hits, four walks and hitting a batter over five-plus innings and 102 pitches.
"It's disappointing," Matsuzaka said through interpreter Masa Hoshino. "That's all I have to say."
Meanwhile, the Red Sox worked Rays ace Scott Kazmir, forcing him to throw 108 pitches over six innings. But the lefty never gave in, allowing two runs on five hits.
Ultimately, it wound up being a bullpen game.
"When that stuff happens, that's part of the game," Bay said. "We battled and put ourselves in position to win and I don't think it's really going to have that much of a bearing going forward."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.