Finally, the Red Sox left nothing to chance, putting together a complete batting barrage en route to a 13-5 romp over the Rays on Monday night. Nobody could have seen this coming, not with Tampa Bay sending ace Scott Kazmir to the mound.
But the Red Sox shelled Kazmir (three-plus innings, six hits, nine runs and four walks) and kept swinging after his departure, belting six home runs in a game for the first time since Aug. 3, 2003.
Just like that, the 89-61 Red Sox and 88-60 Rays are tied for the lead in the American League East, with two games left in this three-game showdown at Tropicana Field. It is the first time the Sox have even tasted a share of first place since the All-Star break.
And after six straight losses at Tropicana Field, the Red Sox turned the tide at a venue they might even return to in October.
"I think it was very important, because it's an important series," said Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. "It's a lot harder to win the series when you don't win the first game. But I think it was a big statement game for us. We hadn't won in this park. We swung the bats real well."
Which was made all the more impressive considering who it was against.
"I think when you come into a game and you're facing him, you know you have your hands full," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona of Kazmir. "We did an exceptional job tonight, because he's, if not one of the best pitchers, certainly one of the best left-handers in the league."
If not for the typical gathering of Red Sox fans -- be it New England transplants or vacationing members of the Nation -- Tropicana Field would have been left silent. There was nothing for Rays fans to cheer about during any of this contest.
Not long after the national anthem, David Ortiz unloaded for a three-run homer to right with nobody out in the top of the first. For Ortiz, it was just his second homer in the past 28 games.
"He's, obviously, a major piece to our offense," said Lowell. "With one swing, you can really open up a game and put momentum on our side."
Kazmir got himself into that mess, walking Coco Crisp and Dustin Pedroia on eight straight pitches. Lowell added a solo homer later in the inning, allowing Daisuke Matsuzaka to make his first pitch with a 4-0 lead.
Riding the generous helping of support, Matsuzaka was only asked to go five innings (three hits, one run and seven strikeouts), but it was enough for the right-hander to improve to 17-2 on the season.
"I don't know if I led the team to victory," quipped Matsuzaka. "They definitely gave me the 'W' today. Last year in this ballpark, there were a few times I pitched well and didn't get the win. This year, I hadn't won here yet. This was an important win, and I'm very happy that we won."
|Jason Varitek set the Red Sox's career record for home runs by a catcher on Monday night vs. the Rays with his 158th long ball while playing the position.|
The 17 wins for Matsuzaka broke Hideo Nomo's record for most in a season by a Japanese pitcher.
"The numbers alone might show that I've surpassed Nomo-san, but I don't think that I've actually passed him as a pitcher," said Matsuzaka. "All I want to do is keep striving to surpass him one day."
A much shorter-term goal belongs to the Red Sox, in their quest to at last put the Rays in their rearview mirror. It hasn't been easy, but they've finally given themselves a chance.
"It's very important," said Red Sox reliever Mike Timlin, who made career relief appearance No. 1,051, most by a righty reliever. "These guys have been playing well all year long. We haven't played well here at all. We came out and swung the bats well -- a lot of base hits, a lot of home runs. It was an amazing game offensively for us. It was just fun to sit back and watch our offense do what they do."
The Red Sox delivered a resounding knockout punch in the fourth inning, scoring seven runs to take an 11-1 lead. It started with Jason Bay hitting a towering homer to center off of the C-ring catwalk. Two batters later, Jason Varitek smashed a two-run blast into the upper deck, helping him pass Carlton Fisk for first place on the club's all-time list for catchers with 158 homers.
Following a single by Jacoby Ellsbury and a double by Crisp, Kazmir was removed from the game.
"I was really expecting a lot more from Kaz tonight," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "He had just pitched up there [in Boston] and done relatively well. Overall, recently, I thought his command was getting back to where it had been. So I was kind of surprised myself."
Even after Kazmir's early departure, there were plenty of fireworks left against reliever Mitch Talbot, including a two-run homer to left by Kevin Youkilis.
Ellsbury became the sixth Boston player to go deep, producing a solo homer to right in the fifth.
The only Red Sox starters not to clear the fence were Crisp, Pedroia and Jed Lowrie.
"We did a great job early," said Francona. "We jumped on Kazmir. We hit some balls out of the ballpark. We gave ourselves a cushion. It allowed us to take Dice-K out after five."
The AL East intrigue will continue on Tuesday night.
"I've got them ratcheting it up a little bit," Maddon said of the Red Sox. "They are turning up the dial. Like I said before, they've been there. And I know that they can smell it. They can smell it, we can smell it."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.