Infielders Akinori Iwamura and Carlos Pena both belted game-tying homers in clutch situations, which ignited comeback attempts, but rookie starting pitcher Andy Sonnanstine was roughed up early for eight hits and seven earned runs in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ 8-6 loss to the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday night.
After the Red Sox took a 2-0 lead in the top half of the first inning, Pena tied the game with a long two-run home run, his team-leading 28th, to right field. With the blast, the Devil Rays first baseman, who was a non-roster invitee to spring training, passed his previous career high – 27, with Detroit in 2004.
But the Red Sox answered back with five runs off Sonnanstine in a long fourth inning. With the bases loaded, Jason Varitek singled home slugging designated hitter David Ortiz, who took the day off on Monday, to put the Red Sox back on top. The following batter, Coco Crisp, smoked a line-drive double to right, scoring Mike Lowell and J.D. Drew. Then, former Tampa Bay shortstop Julio Lugo plated Varitek and Crisp with a two-run a double of his own, which gave Boston a commanding, 7-2 lead.
"Crisp and Lugie, they're very good players," Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon said after the game. "There is no real let up in that lineup. And when they're playing for something like they are right now, everybody mentally is at a little higher state."
An inning later, Jonny Gomes started a rally for the Devil Rays with a one-out single up the middle off of Red Sox starter Jon Lester. Following Gomes’ hit, Lester – making just his seventh start since coming back after successfully beating anaplastic large cell lymphoma, walked Josh Wilson. The young lefty then induced Dioner Navarro – currently hovering around the Mendoza line with a .202 batting average, to ground into a fielder’s choice for the second out of the inning. But Iwamura, constantly among the league leaders in home runs during his playing days in Japan, cleared the bases, with his fourth homer, a clutch three-run shot to the opposite field, which brought the score to 7-5.
Two innings later, Boston tacked on another run when Wilson booted Manny Ramirez's liner, which enabled rookie second baseman Dustin Pedroia to score from third base. Wilson, acquired from the Washington Nationals earlier in the season, is currently auditioning for a spot, and possibly the starting shortstop role, on the team next spring. The 26-year-old now has 10 errors – during his time with Washington and Tampa Bay – in 2007.
In the bottom half of the frame though, the Devil Rays once again cut Boston’s lead to two. Pedroia, after scoring on a defensive miscue less than 20 minutes earlier, albeit ironically, made an error himself, just his fifth all season, on a hard-hit ground ball from Carl Crawford. Pedroia’s error allowed, of all people, Wilson, who reached base after being hit by a pitch from Boston reliever Manny Declaremen, to score from third.
But Tampa Bay couldn’t muster any more runs off of All-Star setup men Hideki Okajima or Boston’s phenom closer, Jonathan Papelbon. Okajima, who is now 3-1 with four saves and 1.21 ERA in his first season in Major League Baseball since coming over from Japan, retired three consecutive batters – including the final out of the seventh, and first two of the eighth, in dominant fashion, to bridge the gap to Papelbon, who as usual, was lights out. The 26-year-old right-hander, a product of Mississippi State University, came on and tossed a perfect 1 1/3 innings at the end of the game to earn his 30th save in 32 chances.
Sonnanstine (2-9), who earned his second win of his career, against Boston on August 15, struggled through five innings – eight hits, seven earned runs – to suffer his ninth loss of the season. Since being promoted to the big leagues after a brilliant start at Triple-A Durham, the Kent State alumnus is just 2-9 – including several tough-luck losses due to a lack of run support – with an alarming 6.53, which rose 34 points in the loss. After Tuesday, Sonnanstine is 1-9 over his last 13 starts.
"I think I was a little less aggressive," Sonnanstine told reporters. "Too many times trying to make the perfect pitch."
On a promising note, Tampa Bay relievers Scott Dohman, Grant Balfour, and Gary Glover combined to throw four solid innings – three hits, one run – in relief to keep Tampa Bay in the game. Dohman, who was called up from Durham on July 20 when Jorge Cantu was traded to the Cincinnati Reds, is now 2-0 with a 2.16 ERA in 14 games in the big leagues. His performance has been a pleasant surprise for Tampa Bay fans and Maddon.
Pitching against the Devil Rays for the third time this year, Lester (2-0) picked up his second victory. The second-year pitcher, who turned in his best outing of the season last Tuesday against Tampa Bay, but didn’t factor in the decision, battled through 5 1/3 innings to earn the win. He scattered only four hits, but walked four and gave up five runs, all earned, which were a result of allowing multiple homers with men on base. Since being recalled from Triple-A Pawtucket on July 26, he’s 2-0 with a 5.67 ERA in seven starts.
Iwamura finished the night 1-for-3 with his 17th, 18th, and 19th RBIS of the season to raise his batting average to .283, which is now fifth on the team.
Pena, recently picked as the Devil Rays’ representative on the ballot for the annual Hank Aaron Award, given to the top offensive player in each league, had a hit and a walk in four plate appearances. The Haverhill, MA native, having a monster season, arguably better than his breakout season with the Tigers three years ago, is leading the team in homers, RBIs (81), and slugging percentage (.560). With all due respect to Greg Norton, his knee injury during March, which essentially gave Pena a chance to showcase his power and solid defensive play on a regular basis, is, arguably, one of the best things to happen to the franchise in recent years – with exception to the infamous New York Mets trade, which brought ace Scott Kazmir to St. Petersburg for practically nothing.
With the victory, Boston, who improved to 76-20, the best record in baseball, added a nice cushion to its five-game lead for first place in the American League East headed into Tuesday night’s action. Following the loss, Tampa Bay is now a season-worst 31 games under .500 at 47-78.
The Devil Rays will look to prevent a sweep in the series finale on Wednesday night. Edwin Jackson – pitching up to his potential since the All-Star break – will take the mound for Tampa Bay, opposite Japanese sensation Daisuke Matsusaka. Matsusaka – a leading candidate, along with his teammate, Pedroia, to win the American League Rookie of the Year – is 13-9 with a 3.79 ERA in his first season in the United States.
Notes- No Tampa Bay player collected more than one hit. The game attendance was 16,393, which was 39.7 of the maximum capacity at Tropicana Field. Lugo, who got off to a terrible start with his new team after signing a multi-million dollar contract in the off season, finished 2-for-4 to improve his batting clip to .242, a number which has raised nearly 35 points over the last two months. Ortiz also had two hits for the Red Sox, including a rare triple, and is batting .318. Prior to the Yankees game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Boston is now 5 ½ games ahead of New York for first place in the division.