Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 5/27/12
Talk about a reversal of Fenway fortune. The Tampa Bay Rays couldn't have scripted a better finale to their three-act drama in Boston. It wasn't just that they left town with a morale-boosting 4-3 victory Sunday afternoon, in advance of a three-game home series against the Chicago White Sox, starting Monday at 3:10 p.m. It was the utterly perfect symmetry of the conclusion and the simmering stage on which it all played out against their arch division rival. One night earlier, the Rays had watched in dismay as a win they badly wanted slipped from their grasp, with the Red Sox gleefully racing on the field to celebrate the ninth-inning, walk-off homer by Jarrod Saltalamacchiathat capped a3-2 triumph. The blast stung all the more in the wake of Friday's night base-brawl with the Boston and the ensuing barbs exchanged by Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon and Bosox skipper Bobby Valentine. But what hurt just as much was that the one-out, pinch-hit homer came against rock-solid reliever Fernando Rodney, who blew his first save of the season after converting his first 15, and prevented the Rays from tying Baltimore for first place in the AL East. Now fast forward to the ninth inning of Sunday's rubber match. The Red Sox were two outs away in the ninth from another victory when Sean Rodriguez stepped to the plate with Ben Zobrist on first. Rodriguez was 0-for-8 lifetime against closer Alfredo Aceves, but worked the count to 3-1 and then delivered a crushing blow over the Green Monster in left. That put the jubilant Rays ahead 4-3. All they needed was for Rodney to come in and shut the door and this time he did it in usual clockwork fashion, with a pair of groundouts and a strikeout for the 16th save that had eluded him Saturday night. The first batter Rodney retired in the ninth? Saltalamacchia, of course the ideal twist to the story line, with a broken-bat grounder to short, no less. "Loved it. That was the absolute perfect setup for Fernando," Maddon told reporters in his post-game briefing. "I know he was wanting that exact moment. I thought it was great. He pitched very well." What's more, the Rays did what they were unable to do Saturday moving into a tie for first place in the AL East at 29-19 with the Orioles, who lost their second straight game to the Kansas City Royals Sunday. Boston, alas, once again failed to get past .500 after reaching that mark, falling back to 23-24 and still at the bottom of the division. Big hits were the theme of the series. On Friday, there was Matt Joyce's second grand-slam in six games that proved the difference in a 7-4 decision. But the hit that got the most attention was the pitch that drilled the knee of Tampa Bay designated hitter Luke Scott in the top of the ninth. It was as blatant of a retaliation as you'll see, with Franklin Morales throwing first behind Scott, then under his chin, and finally connecting just above his right knee. Two innings earlier, Tampa Bay reliever Burke Badenhop had struck Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia in the back with a pitch, but protecting the tenuous lead, the Rays had no reason to throw at Pedroia with sluggers David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzales coming up next in fact, putting runners on base under the circumstances is the last thing they'd want to do. In any event, Scott was struck, perhaps targeted for derogatory comments he made several months back about Fenway and Red Sox fans. Whatever the case, he took a step out of the batter's box and mouthed something to Morales and both teams instantly changed from their respective dugouts and engaged pushing, grabbing, yelling but no punching before order was restored. Then came Maddon's much-publicized post-game reaction. He didn't mention anybody by name, but you could deduce he was aiming his words at Valentine and select members of his coaching staff. Among his choice comments: "I'm kind of curious regarding who put out the hit, because I know it wasn't one of their players. Truly, watch the video. The people that were incensed, obviously they're the ones that were probably behind the effort, the really weak, cowardly effort on their part. Did I say that strongly enough? Did I make my point?" If there was any doubt, Maddon later tweeted that "What occurred in the 9th reeked of intent. Was ridiculous, absurd, idiotic, incompetent, cowardly behavior." Valentine offered a sarcastic response after the game, remarking that perhaps Scott had it coming for supernatural reasons. "Maybe it was the Ghost of Fenway Past remembering that he bad-mouthed all our fans and stadium, or something, just directing the ball at his leg." Saturday prior to the game, Valentine no doubt having had time to hear Maddon's full condemnation took another shot. This time, he criticized the Rays' coaching staff. "I thought their coaches were really aggressive; as a matter of fact, I took offense to the aggressiveness of their coaches,. I thought it was really unprofessional. I was really proud of the way my coaches were trying to do what they were supposed to do in those situations.'' Maddon, meanwhile, made a point of saying Saturday in his pre-game session with reporters how much he respected "Boston Red Sox players." Point made, again. Yet for all the tension surrounding Saturday night's showdown, there were no moments of conflict or boiling tempers. Perhaps commonsense prevailed and both injury-plagued teams realized they can ill afford to lose anybody else to injury, or potential suspension. The only real drama was the next big hit of the series, courtesy of Saltalamacchia's two-run homer off Rodney, an emotionally deflating moment for the Rays given how much you know they would love to have won given the heated backdrop in Boston. That made what happened Sunday all the more impressive. The Red Sox suddenly had the upper-hand in the series, with a chance to finally get above .500 while dealing another blow to the Rays and their hopes of catching the O's. Yet Tampa Bay, riding a strong early effort by Jeremy Hellickson, built a 2-0 lead thanks to a fourth-inning double by Joyce, who advanced to third on an error and scored on a groundout, and a seventh-inning double by Rodriguez, who came home on Will Rhymes' third single of the day. Boston, however, struck back in the bottom of the inning when Hellickson put the first two runners aboard (Ortiz on a walk, Kevin Youkilis on a single) and then surrendered a three-run homer by Gonzalez. It looked like a variation of Saturday night's disheartening defeat, done in by yet another Boston long-ball with victory almost in hand. That would have been a tough way to return home for the 28-22 White Sox series, second in the AL Central, followed by a three-game home set against the rejuvenated Orioles June 1-3. But after a quiet eighth, the Rays started the ninth with a walk to Zobrist. Scott followed with a popout to short. And then S-Rod responded with his fifth homer of the season against a pitcher who'd dominated him a pitcher who had never been tagged for a homer by a Rays player for that matter. "It's a good feeling," Rodriguez told reporters. "You always want to help the team win, and to do it in that fashion makes it better. I got a good enough pitch, and I was able to do something with it." Maddon sounded a sympathetic sound of sorts toward the Sox. "We know exactly how they feel today based on last night it's not a great feeling." But Rodney certainly felt great about his own role this time around, saving the game for Jake McGee, who got the win by retiring Gonzalez with the bases loaded for the final out in the bottom of the eighth "I'm glad to come into the game and show that I can keep doing that. Cause last night, you know I missed the pitch. But (today) I came in the game and I knew I could do my job and that's what I did." Even with 10 players on the DL, the Rays continue to get big contributions from all corners newcomers and vets alike. They're 14-11 since Evan Longoria was lost for two months with a partial hamstring tear and have found a way to keep winning in spite of the adversity. Joyce continues to come up big, adding some excellent defense as well his throw from left to nail Pedroia at second Sunday helped quiet the Red Sox early on. He's hitting .290 and leads the team with nine homers. And B.J. Upton continues his career year. He extended his hitting streak to 10 games and boasts a .301 batting average. He also provided the defensive highlight of the series Saturday night, getting Pedroia at home with a sensational throw from center. In addition, Rhymes raised his batting average to .286 (20-for-63. Recently acquired third baseman Drew Sutton has been impressive in the field and at the plate (8-for-19, .316). And both shortstop Elliot Johnson (.263) and jack-of-all-trades Rodriguez (.241) have played key roles as well in keeping the team afloat. "Regarding all the different adversity we've felt to this point, it's pretty phenomenal," Maddon said. "It's a tribute to the players, especially those who have stepped up. A lot of guys have elevated their game and are making the most of it. That's the most impressive part." And the result was a big win in Boston with a big week ahead.
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