Heading into play on September 9th, 2008, the Boston Red Sox trail the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL East by only a half game. The Red Sox have trimmed a 5 1/2 game deficit in only 2 weeks and are primed to take control of the division at Fenway, where the Rays have yet to win a game all year.
The Rays are reeling, having lost their previous 4 games in a row, including a walkoff loss to the Toronto Blue Jays on September 6th, when the Rays scored a go-ahead run in the 13th, only to lose in the bottom half of the inning when Troy Percival gave up a walkoff grand slam to Gregg Zaun.
The Rays offense has also been slumping. It has not scored in the previous 18 innings. Key offensive players like Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, and B.J. Upton have been unable to play due to injuries.
The Boston Red Sox will send their Cy-Young award contender, Daisuke Matsuzaka, to the mound against the 1 of the Rays' 3 All Stars, Scott Kazmir. Here are the starting lineups:
Tampa Bay Rays
Boston Red Sox
2B, Akinori Iwamura
CF, Ben Zobrist
1B, Carlos Pena
DH, Cliff Floyd
3B, Willy Aybar
LF, Eric Hinske
C, Dioner Navarro
RF, Gabe Gross
SS, Jason Bartlett
CF, Coco Crisp
SS, Jed Lowrie
2B, Dustin Pedroia
1B, Kevin Youkilis
LF, Jason Bay
3B, Mike Lowell
RF, Mark Kotsay
C, Jason Varitek
DH, Jeff Bailey
Early Hole, Early Lead
In the top of the first, the Rays managed to get a baserunner thanks to a 2 out single from Carlos Pena. Matsuzaka was able to get out of the inning, while also recording 2 strikeouts. In the bottom half, Scott Kazmir was not as lucky.
Kazmir was able to record the first two outs of the inning on deep flyballs to Zobrist in center. Kazmir's nemesis, Dustin Pedroia, then lined a ball up the middle for a single. Boston cleanup batter, Kevin Youilis, came up and with a 0-2 count. Youkilis laced a deep drive to left-center field that hit the Green Monster on a bounce. Zobrist misplayed the carom, which allowed Predoia to scamper all the way around from 1st to score, giving the Red Sox an early 1-0 lead.
Kazmir stranded Youkilis on 2nd after a walk and a popout to close out the inning.
In the top of the 2nd, the first two Rays went down quickly again, but they were followed by back-to-back singles from Dioner Navarro and Gabe Gross, giving the Rays a chance to tie the game. Unfortunately, Matsuzaka worked out of it, getting Jason Bartlett to hit an infield pop fly to end the Rays half.
Kazmir set down the Sox in order in the bottom half of the 2nd, including a three-pitch strikeout of Jeff Bailey.
The top of the Rays order was up in the 3rd, and Akinori Iwamura bunted Dice-K's first pitch in front of home plate. Mike Lowell charged in on it, but Iwamura was safe at 1st with a leadoff bunt single. After that, Matsuzaka's troubled command appeared as he walked Zobrist and Pena, then followed that by drilling Cliff Floyd with a pitch to bring Iwamura home from 3rd to tie the game at 1-1.
After Floyd was hit, the bases were still loaded with none out for Willy Aybar, filling in excellently for injured rookie phenom, Evan Longoria. The count reached 2-1, when Aybar turned on one and sent it towards Pesky's Pole. Mark Kotsay went after it and was able to make the catch, a few feet from the wall. Ben Zobrist tagged from 3rd and scored easily, giving the Rays a 2-1 lead.
Carlos Pena also advanced to 3rd on the sacrifice fly, but he'd be stranded along with Floyd after Hinske lined out and Navarro grounded out to end the threat.
Kazmir had a quiet bottom half of the inning. He walked Lowrie on 9 pitches with 1 out, but would erase him thanks to a double play that ended the inning. After 3 innings of play, the Rays are in the lead, 2-1.
Gabe Gross led off the 4th with an infield single to 2nd to give the Rays another leadoff baserunner. Jason Bartlett came up, and on Matsuzaka's first pitch, he ripped a groundball past Mike Lowell and 3rd and into the left field corner. Foley waived Gross around 3rd and the relay throw was just late as Gross slid in safely, meanwhile Bartlett was able to slide into 3rd safely thanks to the throw home. The Rays lead reached to 3-1.
With Bartlett at 3rd and none out, the Rays had a prime opportunity to add some more runs. Unfortunately, they failed to capitalize as the next four batters proceeded to groundout, strikeout, walk, and strikeout to end the inning and strand Bartlett.
Kazmir had been in a groove since the 1st and got two quick outs in the 4th when Mike Lowell stepped up. After a first pitch strike, Lowell turned on one and sent it deep to left field and into the Monster seats for his 16th HR of year and a 1-run game again.
Kazmir ended the inning by getting Kotsay to flyout.
In the top of the 5th, the Rays were able to have their first 2 batters reach bases, but that's all they'd get as Matsuzaka retired the next 3 batters without the ball ever leaving the infield, stranding the runners on 2nd and 3rd.
Kazmir opened the bottom half of the 5th with two pop ups on the left side of the infield, but then he allowed a single to Crisp and walked Lowrie. Thankfully, he managed to get Pedroia to fly out in right center field to end the inning.
Akinori Iwamura led off the 6th with a groundball through the right side for another leadoff single that also ended Matsuzaka's night after 5 innings. Javier Lopez came on in relief and retired 3 straight batters to end the half inning, stranding Iwamura on 2nd.
Kazmir had another quiet inning in the bottom half of the 6th, only allowing an infield single to Lowell, but also registering 2 more strikeouts. After 6 innings of play, the Rays held a slim 3-2 lead over Boston.
Willy Aybar led off the 7th by punching a groundball through the left side of the infield for a single. September callup, Fernando Perez pinch hit for Eric Hinske and worked a 6 pitch walk. After the walk, Manny Delcarmen replaced Lopez. Navarro was up and almost hit a 3 run HR, but it fell just short of the wall for a long out, and Delcarmen worked out of the inning to end another Tampa Bay threat.
In the bottom of the 7th, Grant Balfour took over after a solid outing from Kazmir. Balfour set down the Sox in order in the 7th, including a pinch-hitting David Ortiz.
After two quick outs in the top of the 8th, Hideki Okajima replaced Delcarmen and struck out Carlos Pena to end the Rays half of the 8th.
In the bottom half, Dan Wheeler took over for Balfour and was set to face the top of the Red Sox order. Wheeler came out dominant, striking out Lowrie on three pitches and working a groundout from Pedroia. Kevin Youkilis managed to work a walk to put a runner on 1st with 2 outs for Jason Bay.
At the trade deadline, the Rays were extremely close to acquiring Bay from Pittsburgh when Boston swooped and nabbed the outfielder from the Pirates.
After the count reached 1-1 on Bay, with Wheeler's next pitch, he hit a bullet that sailed just about the wall in left and into the seats for a devastating 2 run HR that gave the Red Sox and 4-3 lead in the bottom of the 8th. It was Bay's 29th HR of the year and it served as some form of nail that shut the coffin on the Rays chances of winning the division (even though there were still 3 weeks left in the season).
Wheeler ended the inning by getting Mike Lowell to ground out, but it seemed moot at that point, as the Red Sox were no doubt set to bring in their dominant closer, Jonathan Papelbon.
In the top of the 9th, Justin Ruggiano entered the game to pinch-hit for Cliff Floyd, only to be replaced by another pinch-hitter when Terry Francona swapped Okajima with Papelbon.
Ruggiano's pinch-hitter? Dan Johnson, who was recalled earlier that morning. Who was originally intended to start, but had to be scratched due to weather delaying his flights. Who arrived at the ballpark, only 20 minutes before the 1st pitch. Who was also 0-15 in his career as a pinch hitter and hadn't been in the big leagues since April.
Papelbon's first 3 pitches to Johnson were balls making the count 3-0. Johnson watched a pitch go by for a called strike then took a rip and fouled one straight back. With the count 3-2, Papelbon decided to try and challenge Johnson and blaze a fastball by him. The ball came in chest high and over the center of the plate, Johnson turned and smacked it. The ball soared through the Boston night sky and sailed over the Boston bullpen and into the seats in right-center.
As Johnson rounded the bases, the Fenway faithful had fallen an unusual silent after their dominant flame throwing closer had surrendered a home run that tied the game at 4-4. Meanwhile, Rays fans everywhere were praising Johnson for his heroics as he had just hit what could be the single greatest home run in team history.
Reactions right after DanJo's homer:
"THIS (expletive) AIN'T (expletive) OVER" - R.J. Anderson
"MY ROOMMATE THINKS I AM CRAZY BUT WHO GIVES A (expletive)" - SRQ MAN
"DANJO CAN PLAY LF ON MY TEAM ANY (expletive) DAY" - Sandy Kazmir
Although it seemed as if Johnson had given the Rays the lead, the score was only just tied at 4. Willy Aybar flew out, but then speedster Fernando Perez showed some power and hit a ball off the monster in left for a one-out double. Dioner Navarro, the Rays All Star catcher came up, and on a 0-1 pitch, Navarro laced a ball into the left field corner.
Perez dashed around 3rd and scored easily, and Navarro coasted into second with a double and a 5-4 Rays lead.
Navarro would be stranded at second as Paplebon was able to retire the next two batters, but the damage had been done as the Rays had taken a one-run lead heading into the bottom of the 9th.
Joe Maddon went to his veteran closer, Troy Percival who had been giving fans an incredible amount of stress during his outings. This time out would be no different.
Mark Kotsay led off the bottom of the 9th and worked a six-pitch walk to give Boston a leadoff runner. Percival settled down though and struck out Jason Varitek for the first out of the inning. David Ortiz, who instantly strikes fear into every single Rays fan, stepped up. After the count reached 3-1, Ortiz flew out to right field for the 2nd out of the inning, and Rays fans everywhere sighed in relief.
After the fly out, Jacoby Ellsbury pinch-ran for Kotsay, and he immediately took off for second. Navarro's throw skipped into center field and allowed Ellsbury to reach third bases with two outs as Coco Crisp stepped into the box. An errant throw would have tied the game at 5-5, but that wouldn't happen as Crisp popped out to Iwamura at second to end the game and securing the Rays lead atop of the AL East for at least two more games.
For a trip down memory lane: