ST. PETERSBURG — In what has been one of the most trying road trips in the history of the Red Sox roster-wise, there was an added urgency to win on a night Chris Sale was on the mound.
It wasn’t easy, but how could the Red Sox expect it to be after the way things have gone lately?
The bottom line is that they did what they set out to do, getting a key RBI single by rookie Jarren Duran with two outs in the top of the ninth to take the lead en route to a satisfying, 3-2 victory on Wednesday night at Tropicana Field.
“That was big,” said Sale. “There’s no doubt we’ve had some gut punches over the last week, week and a half. Even before then. To know that we’ve still got some fight left in us, we’ve got some kick. No one here has given up. Our attitude and effort is staying the same no matter who’s in this clubhouse or who’s not, and that’s the most important thing. We’re still in a position that most other guys would love to be in, and we know that, and we’ve got to keep rolling with it.”
To Sale’s point, the 76-59 Red Sox are in possession of the second American League Wild Card spot by two games over the A’s, and trail the Yankees by two games for the first slot.
With 27 games left, Boston is determined to punch a ticket to October somehow, someway, even with eight players currently on the COVID-19 related injured list.
With team leader Xander Bogaerts out indefinitely after a positive COVID test, others are going to have to step up.
On Wednesday, Christian Vázquez did just that. Though he hasn’t had the season he expected offensively to this point, he played a big game on Wednesday, belting three hits, including a game-tying homer with one out in the top of the seventh.
Vázquez was even bigger with the glove, corralling a short-hop throw by Rafael Devers and slapping the tag on Joey Wendle in the seventh.
In the eighth, the Rays again tried to score on the contact play with one out and a runner on third, and Vázquez was in position again, this time pulling in a throw from second baseman Jack López, the 28-year-old Minor League veteran who was making his Major League debut.
“Obviously he’s a proud individual,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora of Vázquez. “He’s been with this team for a while. He understands that he needs to step up his game.”
With four middle infielders among the players currently shut down due to COVID-19, Cora installed a double-play combination nobody would have predicted for the pennant race with López at second and Jonathan Araúz at short.
The unlikely pairing turned a couple of big double plays for Sale.
Garrett Whitlock (1.52 ERA) pitched two clutch innings in relief of Sale to earn the win.
“I mean, he’s been one of the best relievers in baseball,” said Sale. “You’re talking about a guy that, it’s pretty unbelievable honestly, his story. His path to the big leagues. Having Tommy John. Not pitching past Double-A. Now, he’s got to be a lock for Rookie of the Year. The guy’s been absolutely nails for us.”
If not for the offense pushing a key run across in the top of the ninth, Whitlock’s latest strong outing might have gone for naught.
Rafael Devers started the rally with a single to right. With one out, Alex Verdugo hustled his way to an infield single on a chopper. Duran got ahead in the count 2-0, and ultimately got enough of a 2-1 slider from Rays reliever Pete Fairbanks to get into right field. Devers roared in from second, making it narrowly without a slide.
For Duran, who is hitting .215 in his first 107 Major League at-bats, little has come easy so far. If he can start getting on base and utilizing those fast legs, the Red Sox could have a different dimension heading into crunch time.
“I was just thinking about the team the whole at-bat,” said Duran. “This one’s for the team, I have to do something for the boys. I haven’t been doing much for the team, so I was just trying to step up in a big moment for them.”
The early moments of the game belonged to Sale. Though not overpowering like he was in his last start, the ace pitched well for the fourth consecutive outing in his return from Tommy John surgery, holding the Rays to six hits and two runs while pitching six innings for the first time this season.
If ever the Red Sox needed Sale’s competitive spirit, it is now.
“Tight ballgame the entire way, and we did what we had to do, and we found a way to scratch and claw through there and come up big. Our bullpen was nails,” Sale said. “Our offense did what they had to do in some big situations when we really needed it. That’s what you love to see. We’ve been kicked. We’ve been punched. To see us fight like that and win a game the way we just won that game, that’s a momentum boost.”