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Closing Time: Red Sox release the hounds in blowout victory over Rays

05.15.13 at 10:42 pm ET
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Drip. Drip. Drip. And then the deluge.

The dam finally burst, as the Red Sox seemed intent on making up for a fortnight’s worth of failures with runners in scoring position over the course of a single inning. In a tie game in the top of the third inning, the Sox put runners on first and second with one out — precisely the sort of situation in which the team had failed so many, many times in recent days.

The team’s .179 batting average with runners in scoring position in May was the worst mark in the majors. That was complemented by a .283 OBP and .292 slugging mark in such circumstances, numbers that had yielded a horrendous offensive swoon — three or fewer runs eight times in a 12-game stretch. The futility had continued in the first two innings, with the Sox wasting a pair of doubles by going 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position.

But the Sox defied what had become their habit in that third inning, not just with a single exception but with a flood. Dustin Pedroia singled to right-center for a run. David Ortiz zinged a single down the third-base line for another run, with Rays starter David Price having to leave the contest with tightness in his left triceps, and the Sox suddenly feeling emboldened.

“It goes back to momentum. We feed off that. Really, any team feeds off that. David hits a ball down the line right there. Guys breathe a sigh of relief — OK, [Evan Longoria] didn’t make a great play on us and no run scores,” said Lester. “When things like that fall for us, it makes our innings that much better.”

A lengthy pitching change did not stop the momentum, as Mike Napoli jumped on a Jamey Wright fastball and blasted it to the warning track in right-center for a two-run double. Jonny Gomes then stayed on a fastball and lined it up the middle for a another RBI single.

Then, after Will Middlebrooks briefly interrupted the string with a flyout, the Sox did not relent. Jarrod Saltalamacchia walked to load the bases, a prelude to a two-out grand slam by Drew.

In one inning, the Sox had five hits with runners in scoring position — the same number they’d had in 40 trips to the plate in such situations over their previous four games. The result? A feel-good win in which nearly every Red Sox player who stepped on the field could feel as if he made a positive contribution, and a 9-2 blowout win for a team in need of just such a day.

“It goes back to us controlling the strike zone, putting up quality at-bats and when we’€™re right and we’€™re kind of clicking offensively, it’€™s when we grind deep into each individual at-bat and I thought we did that multiple times tonight, even though there might have been some zeroes that showed up on the board,” said Sox manager John Farrell. “We had a good offensive approach tonight.”

WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX

— The four consecutive hits with runners in scoring position by Pedroia, Ortiz, Napoli and Gomes represented the team’s longest stretch of consecutive plate appearances without an out with runners in scoring position since April 24, when the team had five straight batters reach (four hits, an HBP) with runners in scoring position against the A’s.

— Drew continued to show steady extra-base pop in recent weeks. He pounded his third homer and fourth double of the year as part of a 2-for-3 game that also featured a walk, and now has eight extra-base tallies in his last 18 plate games. In that span, he’s hitting .317/.411/.571.

It was the second grand slam of Drew’s career. The other came at the expense of former Cubs pitcher and current teammate Ryan Dempster.

“[Dempster] was laughing about that one when we came in. He’s like, ‘I ain’t the only guy now,’ ” chuckled Drew. “I’m feeling good. It’s just a matter of getting in good counts and get good pitches to hit.”

Dustin Pedroia went 2-for-5 with a pair of singles and jumpstarted the Sox’ scoring in the third. He’s now amidst a seven-game hitting streak that has seen him collect multiple hits in six of those contests, hitting .517/.563/.571 in that time.

Will Middlebrooks slammed a double and a solo homer (his seventh of the year), both to right-center — an excellent indicator that he’s rediscovered his approach after weeks of searching. He now has seven extra-base hits (six doubles and a homer) in his last six contests.

Those six games have come since catcher David Ross bulldozed Middlebrooks into a fence at Fenway Park. Interestingly, Middlebrooks suggests that there is a connection between his injury and his improved results.

“I was getting kind of big. I was swinging a little hard and I didn’t realize it. Just trying to do a little too much. With that bruise, it kind of slowed me down. I think it helped,” said Middlebrooks. “When I’m going good, I’m hitting the ball that way, I’m hitting the ball to left, right, center, all over the place. Just hitting the ball where it’s pitched is the big thing and hopefully keep it going.”

Given his improved approach, Farrell was asked, will he institute more regular collisions for his slumping players?

“As long as they come out with extra base hits to follow, sure,” the manager mused. “We’€™ll take it.”

Jon Lester did everything for which the Sox could have hoped once entrusted with an eight-run lead. He logged seven innings and allowed two runs on eight hits while striking out five. Though he hit a batter, he did not walk a batter for the second straight outing, and he filled up the strike zone with 74 of his 107 offerings (69 percent).

“The biggest thing is that I feel really good with my offspeed — my changeup and my curveball,” Lester said of his control, on a night when he acknowledged having to feel his way through the early innings until he got locked into a groove. “I feel like I can throw my curveball, especially tonight, it’s been a while since it’s felt as good as it did tonight. I feel like I can throw my changeup pretty much anytime, and that’s big for me. Anytime I can get an offspeed pitch over early and late in counts, it takes the pressure off my cutter and being really fine with my fastball.”

He is now 4-0 with a 1.94 ERA in six starts following a Red Sox loss this year. He also surpassed Josh Beckett for sole possession of fifth place on the Red Sox’ all-time strikeout leaderboard with 1,110 punchouts for the club.

“That’s pretty cool,” Lester said of the milestone. “It’s not something that’s what you play for. I play to win games and hopefully win World Series. If it just so happens along the way your name moves along those lists, then great. Obviously it’s an honor when you guys bring that stuff up. I don’t really pay attention to it. It’s an honor to be with those names that I’m sure are still ahead of me, and hopefully I can keep pitching, and hopefully we can bring more World Series here.”

Lester is 6-0 for the first time in his career. He improved to 4-1 with a 2.25 ERA at Tropicana Field in six starts since the start of the 2009 season — the best ERA of any pitcher with at least four starts at the facility.

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX

Shane Victorino‘s 0-for-6 night included an 0-for-3 against left-handed pitchers. Victorino — who entered this season enjoying considerably greater success against southpaws than righties — is now hitting .227/.277/.318 against lefties. He was the only Sox starter to neither score nor drive in a run.

— Though Jarrod Saltalamacchia crushed a ball to deep left-center, Desmond Jennings tracked it down, and Saltalamacchia otherwise failed to make contact (two strikeouts and a walk) in his other three plate appearances. He thus had his five-game hitting streak snapped.

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