ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- We promise to provide the particulars of the latest skirmish between the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays, the rivalry that just keeps on giving, whether it’s Pedro Martinez drilling Gerald Williams, Coco Crisp strutting off the field like a bantamweight after charging James Shields, or Yunel Escobar responding Sunday to some barbs from the Sox dugout by challenging any and all comers, an offer Jonny Gomes couldn’t refuse.
But first, a word from Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, looking beyond this latest set-to to address a matter of greater urgency than the high emotions that spilled over Sunday afternoon at Tropicana Field.
“We appreciate Jonny,” Pierzynski said. “We appreciate all the guys on the bench doing what they did. But hopefully tomorrow, we’ll find a way to win a game. That’s the biggest thing. We’ve got to find a way to win some [expletive] games.”
The losing streak is 10 and counting after Sunday’s 8-5 loss to the Rays, one that negated a hustle double by Pierzynski and dramatic pinch home run by Gomes that had briefly given the Sox life in the seventh inning. That hope was extinguished in the bottom of the inning when the Rays scored five times against Sox reliever Craig Breslow, counterpunching with Sean Rodriguez’s three-run pinch homer and Escobar’s two-run double.
The Red Sox hadn’t endured a double-digit losing streak in 20 years, not since the sons of Butch Hobson lost 11 straight in a 1994 season truncated by a strike. No defending World Series champion had lost 10 in a row since 1998, when the Florida Marlins, whose ownership dumped most of its valuable assets in a cynical sell-off just before handing off the franchise to John W. Henry, twice had 11-game losing streaks en route to a 108-loss season.
The Sox are 20-29, and with the Toronto Blue Jays winning their sixth straight game, are now eight games out of first place in the American League East. Only three teams in baseball have won fewer games than the Sox -- the Astros and Cubs, who are in perpetual rebuilding mode, and the Diamondbacks, who just hired Tony La Russa to clean up their mess.
Is this season already in danger of slipping away?
“Look, I think we have pieces,” Pierzynski said, “and I don’t think we’re dead, but I also think we have to play better and I think everybody knows that, myself included. I have to play better.
“We have to control the things we can control. Every guy is giving everything they have. Nobody’s giving away at-bats. We’re fighting tooth and nail to try and stay in this. There are only 25 guys and coaches who know what guys are putting in every day, the amount of time and effort and energy, and it’s not working out. They’re busting their butts and it’s not working out. That’s hard to explain.”
When Escobar took off on reliever Edward Mujica’s first pitch and jogged into third base unchallenged, emotions spun out of control, the Sox dugout erupting in invective at the Rays shortstop for what was perceived as kicking a team when it’s down -- he was already in scoring position, the Rays were ahead by five, the Sox were making no effort to hold him on.
Never mind that no one had to look far for the last time a team had blown a five-run lead at the Trop. Just the day before, the Sox scored five runs in the first, then lost 6-5 in 15. Backup catcher David Ross, who insisted that he was not a chief instigator even though TV cameras suggested otherwise, admitted that with frustration cresting, the Sox didn’t need much to feel slighted.
“I think a couple of us, I think the whole team, took exception to the stolen base [it was scored defensive indifference], down five, two out in the [seventh] inning, he’s already in scoring position,” Ross said.
“That’s neither here nor there. I think we’re just tired of getting beat. We feel frustrated.”
Escobar, for his part, didn’t appreciate the unsolicited critiques, taking off his helmet and gesturing angrily at the Sox dugout. That’s when Gomes, racing in from left field, interceded, reaching around an umpire to give Escobar a poke/shove, the signal for benches to empty.
Gomes said it wasn’t Escobar’s advance that bothered him -- “He can have the bag, I don’t care about the bag” -- but the demonstrative way he reacted to the dugout critics.
“I don’t have much patience, and I don’t have much time right now, to be in an arguing match,” Gomes said. “When you yell at my dugout and point at my dugout and basically challenge the whole dugout, I have a problem with that.
“I didn’t say one word from start to end. I’m not one to have an arguing match with someone. A hands-on approach seemed more appropriate.”
Hostilities tilted toward the tame side after the initial push, although Gomes, Escobar and Rodriguez all were ejected. Rays slugger Evan Longoria, whose home run in the fourth off Brandon Workman erased an early Sox lead, said he understood how Escobar’s actions could have set off the Sox.
“I understand it from their side because they're going through a rough patch,” Longoria told reporters from several Tampa media outlets, including the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s probably not the happiest environment over there right now. I didn’t think what Yuni did was wrong. It was just a baseball play. It wasn’t anything to throw it in their faces or run the score up.
“We’ve been there before and they’ve been there before and a week ago we were in the same situation. When you’re frustrated, things just tend to boil over, and I think that’s just what happened there.”
But Rays manager Joe Maddon wasted no time after the game recalling Game 1 of last October’s Division Series between the Red Sox and Rays, when Jacoby Ellsbury stole second with the Sox ahead, 8-2, in the eighth inning. He said Escobar’s advance was “not nearly as egregious” as Ellsbury running then, and yet the Rays didn’t utter a word of protest.
“You have to keep your personal vendettas, your personal prejudice, your personal judgmental components in your back pocket. So before you start screaming regarding any of that, just understand what happened last year and also understand in this ballpark, [five-run] leads can evaporate quickly.”
These teams, remember, have history. Even the guy running the music booth at Tropicana got into the act, playing the Bee Gees’ “Massachusetts” as the Sox walked off the field. “And the lights all go down in Massachusetts.”
“We play these guys a lot,” Ross said. “There’s no secret they like to beat us and we like to beat them. We’re not playing well right now and there’s a little bit of frustration on our end. They came back with that big home run from Rodriguez, where after Jonny, we thought we got some life. Just a little bit of ‘back at us.’ They kicked our butts and we’re tired of getting our butts kicked. We’ve got to find a way to win something.”
And if that means yelling at an insouciant Rays baserunner, so be it. The Sox did score twice in the ninth, and if there’s a carryover to Monday in Atlanta, all the better.
“We play these guys [the Rays] again in four days,” Ross said. “We go to Atlanta and try to get off this losing train, and they’re a good team. We’ve got to be focused on the Braves, and figure out what makes us go.”