BOSTON -- When players are dropping left and right, the latest casualty being Daisuke Matsuzaka two days before he was scheduled to pitch, maintaining a sense of humor can be an asset.
And sometimes it isn't.
Wednesday night, Adrian Beltre's "talking smack" with Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez, a former teammate whom Beltre considers a "little brother," led to the second-inning ejection of the Boston Red Sox third baseman by a vacation-replacement umpire who evidently thought he was being shown up.
Without their leading hitter, and with Tim Wakefield pressed into service as an emergency starter because of Matsuzaka's sore back, the Sox succumbed to Hernandez and the Mariners 4-2 in the back end of Wednesday's day-night doubleheader.
The Sox, 5-3 winners in the opener, gained a half-game on the teams ahead of them in the American League East, the New York Yankees and Tampa Rays, both of whom lost Wednesday night. With manager Terry Francona bumping back Jon Lester to Friday night in place of Matsuzaka, the Sox now head to Florida for a three-game series against Tampa Bay.
This will be the last trip to Tropicana Field for the Sox, who also have three more games against the Rays at Fenway Park on Sept. 6-8. With 34 games left to play, what do they have to accomplish this weekend?
"We have to play against the players and the umpire now, 25 against 26,'' Beltre said sarcastically, still annoyed at his ejection by Dan Bellino. The 31-year-old umpire, who has eight seasons of minor league experience, including his present assignment in the International League, is used by MLB to give their regular umpires a break.
"We have to go to Tampa and try to win the series,'' Beltre continued. "I think we're trying to go in there looking for a sweep. They're playing really good baseball. We have to try to do our stuff and win games, and hopefully we can catch some breaks and cut [into their lead]. It's tough because they're not budging.''
The Red Sox won six of nine games on this homestand, taking two of three from the Los Angeles Angels, Toronto Blue Jays and the Mariners. The Sox have not been closer than five games to the division lead since their last trip to the Trop, when they lost three straight to the Rays to fall from 1½ games back to 4½ games out of the lead.
A sweep Wednesday would have pulled the Sox to within 4½ games of both the Yankees and Rays, but beating Hernandez (now 3-0 with a 1.53 ERA in four career starts at Fenway) has proven an impossible task here. Felix the Cat threw a one-hitter against the Sox at Fenway Park three years ago.
That task was compounded by the loss of Beltre.
Wednesday night, Bellino replaced Rob Drake, who had been behind the plate for the afternoon portion of the separate-admission doubleheader. In the bottom of the second, Beltre had objected to a called third strike by Bellino, although television replays suggested the pitch caught the bottom of the zone.
Beltre said he had been exchanging taunting text messages with the ace of the Mariners' staff for two days, with Hernandez boasting that he would strike out Beltre three times and make him the 1,000th strikeout victim of his career. This was the first time the two had ever faced each other in a game.
After his first at-bat Wednesday, Beltre said, he went to his position and began jawing back and forth with Hernandez, who was in the visitors' dugout.
"He said, 'That's one' in Spanish,'' said Beltre, who is Dominican, of his conversation with Hernandez, a Venezuelan. "I'm talking to him. I'm facing him this way. The umpire is over there.''
Beltre said he responded by telling Hernandez that he was going to take him deep in his next at-bat, if he got his pitches up. Hernandez told reporters that Bellino saw Beltre pass his hand below his knees, an indication that the pitch was low.
"Then I heard my name, the umpire was yelling my name,'' Beltre said. "I said, 'I'm talking to [Hernandez]. Next thing I know, I'm out [of the game].''
Infuriated, Beltre began running toward the plate but was intercepted by Angel Hernandez, the second-base umpire, who placed his hands on the player to keep him from Bellino. After Beltre was pulled away, Hernandez then placed himself between Bellino and Francona, who also was ejected.
"He got in the midst of something he didn't know,'' Francona said of Bellino, reiterating that Beltre's remarks were directed solely at the Seattle pitcher. "It shouldn't have happened. It was a shame.''
Red Sox shortstop Marco Scutaro also took up Beltre's case with Bellino.
"I went to the umpire and said, 'He's talking to Felix,''' Scutaro said. "He said, 'It doesn't matter.' I said, 'What do you mean, it doesn't matter?'''
Though it happens regularly, Beltre questioned why a rookie umpire would be working the plate and also said he wasn't happy that Angel Hernandez made physical contact with him. Francona said Hernandez was interceding on behalf of a rookie umpire.
"They have sort of their code,'' Francona said. "I figure if a guy is old enough to throw you out, he's old enough to get yelled at.
"I just wanted an explanation. I couldn't get around Angel to get an explanation. If a guy's going to throw you out, he probably should be able to tell you what happened. I was having a hard time getting that accomplished. Then I started cursing. That was real helpful.''
The Sox managed an unearned run off Hernandez in the third on Ryan Kalish's double and consecutive errors by shortstop Josh Wilson, and J.D. Drew hit his 17th home run to dead center in the sixth. The Sox threatened in the eighth on Bill Hall's pinch double and a full-count walk to Drew, Hernandez's last batter, but David Ortiz lined out against Mariners reliever Brandon League to end it.
So, the Sox head south for a showdown with the Rays, no laughing matter, though Francona as ever tried to keep the hysteria at bay.
"What's tomorrow, Thursday?'' he said when asked what he hoped to achieve. "Play good Friday.''
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.