ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- So, just how long will that beard survive after the season?
"Funny question," Mike Carp said Wednesday night. "Same thing my wife is asking me all the time.
"I definitely want to show it off when I get back home, because not a lot of people can pull it off and do it. There's a few weeks to go, so it still has some growing to do."
A longer beard, Carp hopes, will offer some protection from what he endured Wednesday night after hitting a 10th-inning, pinch-hit grand slam that broke a 3-3 tie and catapulted the Red Sox to a 7-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays, reducing their magic number to win the AL East to eight with 15 games to play. It started with Jarrod Saltalamacchia waiting at the top step to give Carp's beard a joyous tug, but it didn't end there.
"Pulling on the beard, that's a big thing going on here," Carp said. "There's about 25, 26 pulls in the dugout, so I'm a little sore. If it grows a little longer, it'll be OK. That's why I'm hoping it grows to be as long as possible."
Koji Uehara, who pitched a 1-2-3 ninth to set a couple more club records and gain the win, was on an exercise bike back in the clubhouse when it happened. There was no one to high-five, so Uehara just thrust his fist in the air.
Dustin Pedroia, who had drawn a leadoff walk, was on third base.
"I mean, I was kind of like an idiot, tagging up," Pedroia said. "Butter [third-base coach Brian Butterfield] told me to tag up. It was a great swing. He went down for the ball, hit it with backspin. It was loud."
"That might have been the fastest I've ever run around the bases," he said. "I looked up, and I was already halfway to third. I kind of wanted to savor that moment, but at the same time, I wanted to get in and savor it with the boys.
"I knew I'd gotten the job done off the bat. I knew I put a good swing on it. I knew it was deep enough to drive in a run. But when I saw it go over the fence, wow."
In New York last Sunday, the Yankees had accused Mike Carp, who was playing first base, of being a sign-stealer, an accusation that at first made Carp incredulous, then angry, as he barked back at a Yankee dugout that was woofing at him.
"I couldn't take that from them," he said.
Wednesday night in Tropicana Field, the Red Sox part-timer became a scene-stealer. Guilty as charged, in this case, Carp hit a first-pitch slam off Rays reliever Roberto Hernandez, which cleared the center-field fence and sent the Sox to their 14th win in 17 games and the Rays to their 13th loss in 17 games.
Only 19 days earlier, the teams had been in a virtual tie for first place, and Sox players were being asked about the September collapse in 2011, when they went 7-20 and the Rays slipped into the playoffs ahead of them on the season's last day.
Those questions aren't being asked now.
"I don't [know if] there are too many players now who were around then," manager John Farrell said.
The Sox, who have won nine consecutive series, are now 9½ games ahead of the Rays, who once had a five-game cushion for a playoff spot but now have four teams within two games of their spot, the closest being the Yankees, only a game behind.
"Everybody's been preaching gloom and doom," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, "and from my perspective, it's been a very tough run right now. But as we right ourselves, we're in pretty good position to continue on into the playoffs. I don't want our guys to go out there and worry about sharp objects."
No such concerns on the Sox side, where someone has been showing up on a nightly basis to do something to put their chin in jeopardy. That's one of the reasons, Carp said, that makes a very difficult job -- coming off the bench to be productive -- a welcome challenge more than a cross to bear.
It had been more than 10 years since a Sox player hit a pinch grand slam; one of the Idiots, Kevin Millar, did so on June 7, 2003, against Milwaukee.
But this was the seventh pinch home run hit by a member of the Soggy Bottom Boys, breaking the club record of six set 60 years ago.
Sox pitchers, meanwhile, have not allowed a single pinch-hit home run this season.
"Just watching these guys go to work every day, wanting to be part of it, wanting to be that guy who has a big hit, the big pinch-hit home run in the game," said Carp, who now has two pinch homers to the four hit by Jonny Gomes, the man whom Carp hit for Wednesday night.
"That's what we're all playing for. If I get an opportunity to do something, I want to do it."
And what exactly was the point he stole the sign for Hernandez's hanging slider, a wise guy asked.
"Never," Mike Carp, scene-stealer, said with a grin. "When the ball left his hand."