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Closing Time: Will Middlebrooks leads Red Sox to ninth-inning comeback win over Rays

05.16.13 at 10:55 pm ET
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Just over a week ago, Will Middlebrooks took a shot to the ribs. On Thursday night, he delivered one to the Rays.

With the Red Sox trailing, 3-1, in the top of the ninth, the bases loaded and his team down to its final strike, Middlebrooks laced a 1-2 changeup from Rays closer Fernando Rodney into the gap in left-center. The ball scooted all the way to the wall, allowing all three runs to score.

It was a mammoth hit, turning a 3-1 deficit and a fourth consecutive series loss into a 4-3 advantage that permitted the Sox to leave Tampa Bay with its first series victory in two weeks. The hit represented something of a landmark for Middlebrooks, as it was the first of his career to give the Red Sox a lead in the seventh inning or later.

“Awesome, man. Gives us some momentum, we’re on the road, so it’s obviously good to get that momentum going to the next series, and try to get things turned around,” Middlebrooks said of the hit.

WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX

— Middlebrooks continues to impact the baseball since returning from his injury to the ribs. In seven games back, all eight of his hits have been for extra bases, with seven doubles and a homer in that span. He’s hitting .296/.321/.667 in that stretch.

On Thursday, not only did he smash the game-winning hit, but he also continued to show evidence of an improved overall approach both in that at-bat — when he spit on a 100 mph fastball on which Rodney just missed the strike zone on an 0-2 count, then jumped on a changeup — and in a previous one where he negotiated his first walk since May 2.

Middlebrooks said that he continues to feel improvement in his ribs — describing himself as “sore but getting better every day” — and that, more significantly, he continues to feel better at the plate, and that a slump that ran from early April to early May is now behind him.

“I got frustrated a little bit, but I never changed my plan, my routine at the field. And my teammates, they had my back the whole time. They were grinding right there with me,” said Middlebrooks. “Sitting out, I wasn’t going to get any better sitting out. You need reps. You need to fix stuff on your own and not just say I’m going to go sit down. That’s the selfish way to go about it. I wanted to go out there and do anything I could to help my team win, and I knew I couldn’t do that on the bench.”

Junichi Tazawa worked a pair of scoreless innings to earn his third win of the year. He received an assist from outfielder Shane Victorino in keeping the Rays off the board in the eighth, but in the ninth, he worked around a pair of singles to shut the door.

“Much like we talked about the reason why we chose him in that ninth inning, there’s good poise, there’s very good stuff, he does a great job of controlling the running game even when they pinch-run [Sam] Fuld, so a solid job on his part,” manager John Farrell said.

— Thursday represented a considerable step forward for Felix Doubront. Though the left-hander lived dangerously for much of his outing, mostly due to command issues that resulted in a career-high six walks, he navigated carefully around trouble and baserunners. Though he gave up a solo homer to Ryan Roberts in the second, he stranded seven runners and held Tampa Bay hitless in five plate appearances with runners in scoring position, allowing him to work five-plus innings in which he allowed just one run on three hits.

Perhaps more importantly than the line, though, he showed improved power on his pitches. He showed a slight bump in velocity, sitting at 90-92 mph with his fastball for most of the night, and he also had a curveball that at times proved an outstanding pitch with sharp break. (At others, it became loopy and couldn’t find the strike zone.) While pitch inefficiency (104 pitches in 5-plus innings) and control (54 of 104 pitches for strikes — 52 percent) were both issues, he had the arsenal to compete, as evidenced by his seven strikeouts. Meanwhile, his one run allowed was his lowest yield of the season, while his three hits matched a season best.

“A lot better,” Doubront said of his outing. “[I] finally figured out that my pitches, my breaking balls, changeups and curbveballs, start getting the feeling back. I wasn’€™t that consistent but good spin and my grip, everything was real good.’€

While acknowledging that the walks were suboptimal, Farrell backed his starter’s positive outlook.

“We have to take one step at a time. Looking at the stuff objectively, it was much more crisp. Even though, yes the walks were there, but much as he’s done, prior to the last two outings, when he gets into a little bit of a jam, he bends but he doesn’t break and that was the case here tonight,” said Farrell. “He was on the plate with his stuff, all three pitches. I thought he had better conviction to the stuff he threw tonight. His curveball had much better consistency to it. He pitched with a little sense of urgency tonight, which was good to see.”

David Ortiz erased an early Red Sox deficit by lining an RBI single off the fence in right, the ball hit so hard that he could not advance. The hit was the third in as many games for Ortiz with runners in scoring position during the Tampa Bay series. He went 1-for-3 with a walk.

Shane Victorino interrupted what had been an early breeze through the Sox lineup for Rays starter Alex Cobb, who retired the first 10 batters he faced. Victorino snapped an 0-for-11 stretch by ripping a double to right that catalyzed a run-scoring rally. The switch-hitter continues to demonstrate strong plate appearances from the left side of the plate. After his 1-for-4 night, he’s hitting .316 with a .771 OPS against righties.

Victorino also made a pair of outstanding catches in right field to rob the Rays of extra bases, slamming into the wall while grabbing a Jose Lobaton smash and then tracking down a Desmond Jennings drive to right with an over-the-shoulder catch on the warning track. However, he ended up having to leave the game in favor of a defensive replacement prior to the bottom of the ninth.

Dustin Pedroia went 1-for-3 with a single and walk, extending his hitting streak to eight games.

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX

— Walks! Doubront’s six free passes not only represented a career-high for him; they also matched a season-high by any Red Sox starter. The eight total walks issued by Sox pitchers likewise matched a season-high.

— While the Sox entrust their highest leverage situations against left-handers to Andrew Miller, he’s struggled in that capacity. Lefty hitters now are 8-for-24 against him.

— A subtle defensive miscue contributed to what nearly amounted to a game-winning rally for the Rays (before the Sox’ three-run ninth-inning rally). Mortensen appeared to have Matt Joyce picked off of first base, but Mike Napoli — who was playing in front of the bag to protect against a possible bunt — had just enough of a struggle with his footwork that he was late getting back to the bag and wasn’t in position to apply a tag to the runner as he dove back into first. Joyce ended up scoring as the first of two runs in the sixth, and the Sox missed out on a potentially inning-changing out.

— Napoli also went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts. He’s whiffed in 33.3 percent of his plate appearances this year, ranking in the top five in the AL in that ignominious category. However, he did negotiate a walk — his 12th of the year.

Jacoby Ellsbury went 0-for-5 and now is hitting .188 with a .512 OPS in May.

Read More: John Farrell, junichi tazawa, mike napoli, Will Middlebrooks
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