They ran the Boston Marathon on Monday. And if not for a seventh-inning walk to Evan Longoria, they might still be playing the baseball version of the race inside Fenway Park.
Fortunately for the Tampa Bay Rays, Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine opted to leave tired reliever-turned-starter Daniel Bard on the mound with two outs and the bases loaded. And Bard responded with a four-pitch walk that pushed the only run of the sweltering afternoon across.
Meanwhile, his counterpart, Rays ace James Shields, was busy putting on a pitching clinic. On a day the team desperately needed a clutch effort from its starter -- following three miserable losses to the revived Red Sox -- Shields provided it brilliantly by scattering four hits over 8-13 innings.
Fernando Rodney once again shined in his unofficial closer role to get the final two outs. And Tampa Bay left town with a much-needed 1-0 victory -- punctuated by notching manager Joe Maddon's 500th career win.
The outcome served as a gasp of oxygen for the Rays amid unseasonably hot April temperatures in the mid-80s. It snapped an ugly slide, in which the Red Sox won the first three games by a combined score of 31-11, dropping them below .500 (at 4-5) for the first time since last April. But more important, it gives the Rays some positive momentum heading into what could be a challenging three-game series in Toronto.
"We absolutely needed something like that today," Maddon said. "James did not disappoint."
In fact, the theme heading into the fourth and final contest of the Boston portion of the 10-game road trip had been Tampa Bay's shoddy starting pitching.
The series began badly on Friday when David Price, the No. 2 man in the vaunted rotation, couldn't get out of the third inning. That forced manager Joe Maddon to rely on his bullpen early, going through four relievers in a game that unraveled late in a 12-2 rout.
Saturday provided a glimmer of hope as the Rays jumped to a 4-0 lead in the second inning. But Jeremy Hellickson, who had been so masterful in a 3-0 shutout of the Yankees a week earlier, didn't exhibit good command or pitch selection and departed after five innings with the score tied 5-5. After that, the fatigued pen could do nothing to slow Boston bats in a 13-5 collapse.
Sunday heaped more misery on the Rays. Rookie Matt Moore managed to get through six innings, but the Red Sox jumped all over his best stuff -- prompting pitching coach Jim Hickey to discuss with Moore mid-game whether he might be tipping his pitches. In the end, the problem seemed to be a matter of poor location by the young lefthander, who spotted Boston a 3-0 lead in the second on a Cody Ross homer and fell behind 4-0 in the fourth when ex-Ray catcher Kelly Shoppach doubled home David Ortiz.
Oh, the indignity.
To have weak-hitting Shoppach do damage for the second time in the series (he had two doubles and three hits in the opener) was a cruel blow indeed. But the worst was yet to come. After the Rays rallied to tie the score 4-4 in the sixth -- courtesy of doubles from Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria and a homer by Luke Scott -- Moore still couldn't find his footing. He yielded an RBI double to Ortiz in the sixth and a solo homer to Mike Aviles in the seventh. That was the difference in a 6-4 loss, pulling the Red Sox in a tie with the suddenly stumbling Rays at 4-5.
The poor starting pitching of late prompted Maddon to express dissatisfaction with the starters, saying they needed to attack the strike zone more consistently. Their inability to go deep into games was also placing a heavy burden on the bullpen. Heading into the series finale, the starting pitching -- hailed as one of the best staffs in baseball -- led the majors in team ERA with an unsightly 6.75 (well behind the next-worst team, Milwaukee, at 5.65) and was second in walks with 42.
That's why Shields' performance couldn't have come at a better time. He challenged hitters and displayed excellent command, with 21 of his 29 first pitches going for strikes. It looked like he might get a shot at a complete game after retiring Aviles on a grounder to start the ninth. But the next batter, Dustin Pedroia, worked the count to 3-2 before walking. That brought Maddon onto the field and Rodney in from the bullpen to face Adrian Gonzalez.
Rodney, having already earned three saves in three chances this season, got right to work in retiring Gonzalez on a grounder to Pena. That moved Pedroia to second with dangerous DH David Ortiz coming to the plate. Maddon had no intention of letting Ortiz, who battered the Rays all weekend, hit. He ordered Rodney to walk him and face Cody Ross, no offensive slouch himself with two hits in the game already.
Rodney, however, won the duel, hitting the lower outside corner on a 2-2 count for a called third strike to end the game.
"Fernando came in and had a great fastball today," Maddon said. "We had opportunities to score more runs. We didn't do that, but I really like bounce-back -- 11 o'clock in the morning after losing three games in a row here. A lot of teams would give up at that point. Our guys did not. It was pretty outstanding."
As was Shields, who improved to 2-0 with an ERA of 3.38 after a rocky start in the season opener against the Yankees.
"I had first pitch strikes all day and was getting ahead of hitters for the most part and keeping them off balance," Shields said. "Obviously, I had a lot of ground balls today and we had good defense."
One particular play stood out in the bottom of the seventh. With one out, Ross singled to left. But the Rays got out of potential trouble when Ryan Sweeney struck out and catcher Jose Molina rifled a perfect throw to defensive replacement Reid Brignac, who made the tag at second for a key double-play.
"(Sweeney's) a pretty good hitter," Shields said. "He's always done pretty well against me. Right there in that situation, I knew I needed to be aggressive and he was hitting my off-speed pitch foul the other way. So I figured I'd go with the fastball and it turned out good."
So did the top of the seventh for the Rays. With two outs, Sean Rodriguez walked, Desmond Jennings lashed a single to left and Pena walked to load the bases. But Valentine opted to leave Bard on the mound, only to watch the move backfire with a game-changing walk. Bard departed after that, finishing with 6.2 innings and four hits allowed, though walking seven.
In the end, the one run made all the difference in a series dominated by Red Sox firepower -- and finally got Maddon No. 500. He moves into elite company on the list of active manager with 500 or more wins with one club: the Angels' Mike Scioscia (1,068), Minnesota's Ron Gardenhire (867), Philadelphia's Charlie Manuel (649) and Detroit's (525).
"It really speaks to the quality of the players in the organization, whereas the first few years spoke to the lack of quality," he said. "All of a sudden, it got better on years three, etcetera. I just happened to be standing in the corner of the dugout. Our guys -- the ability, the skill level, the way they are, all that stuff has really increased on an annual basis. The 500 wins -- I just happen to be the steward of this group."
A group that opens a three-game series Tuesday night in Toronto feeling a little better, thanks to Shields stifling the Sox on a steamy day in Boston.