Sox breathing easier for now

BOSTON -- Exhale (EKS-heyl, ek-SEYL), v.t.

1. To emit breath or vapor; breathe out.

2. Collective activity undertaken by any group after a period of high anxiety or near-panic, e.g., the followers of a beloved baseball team teetering on the brink of collapse.

That whooooosh you heard roundabout Kenmore Square late Friday night? That was the sound made by the relieved denizens of Fenway Park after a tense 4-3 win by the Red Sox offered much-needed relief from the unrelenting pressure applied by the Tampa Bay Rays in their bid to overtake the Sox for a playoff spot.

The Sox no longer have to worry about the Rays leaving with a share of the American League wild-card spot Sunday night after Josh Beckett's wobbly right ankle stood the test of six strong innings, Daniel Bard struck out the side in a faith-restoring eighth inning and Jonathan Papelbon, who had gone a career-long 28 days without a save opportunity, closed out the Rays in the ninth, also by striking out the side.

Sox pitchers whiffed 15 Rays batters -- seven by Beckett, plus the last eight outs of the game (two by Alfredo Aceves, in addition to the six from the Bard-Papelbon combo) -- to end Tampa Bay's six-game winning streak against the Sox. The victory restored Boston's lead to four games over Tampa Bay with a dozen games left to be played by each team, including two more against each other.

"We weren't worried about Josh -- that wasn't going to be an issue,'' said Red Sox manager Terry Francona, whose confidence in Beckett's ability to not only return 11 days after spraining his ankle but stem the tide of onrushing Rays was hardly a universally shared sentiment.

But while Beckett, who gave up three runs (two earned) on seven hits and a walk, provided deliverance, so, too, did a most unlikely candidate for that role -- reserve infielder Mike Aviles, who would not have graced Francona's lineup card except for the inability of the battered Kevin Youkilis to perform any physical activity beyond sitting on the Sox bench.

Aviles, playing third base in Youkilis' place, elicited groans in the second inning when he bunted into a double play to sabotage a first-and-second, no-out rally. But his two-out home run off Rays ace James Shields in the fourth, which banged off the Sports Authority sign in left, stood up as the deciding run, as neither team scored over the last five innings.

The home run, which came on a hanging changeup, was not only Aviles' first in 67 at-bats for the Sox and first in 176 big league at-bats dating back to May 1 (when he was still with the Royals), but it also might have been the first home run he has hit of any real consequence. Asked to name the most significant home run he'd ever hit, Aviles replied, "I have no idea. I don't think I've hit any walk-offs.''

He hasn't. It wasn't tough to check, given that he is not a power hitter and has a total of 25 home runs in his career.

Well, then, might this be the first?

"It's only one game,'' he said, "we're still in a race.''

A race that the Rays, nine games out on Sept. 2, had made much too close for comfort by sweeping the Sox in the Trop last weekend, then having their way with the Sox again here Thursday night in a 9-2 win after which Rays manager Joe Maddon seized upon B.J. Upton's bizarre broken-bat single as a sign that the baseball gods had taken a shining to the Rays.

The umpires, however -- that was a different story, as the only sign Maddon saw Friday night was the thumb of plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt. Maddon was ejected in the sixth inning after he took umbrage with Wendelstedt for ringing up John Jaso on a called third strike with Johnny Damon on third with the potential tying run. Maddon raged that the pitch was outside; replays appeared to confirm his view.

"It was an egregiously bad strike tonight, and I really hope that somebody takes a look at it because it was that bad,'' Maddon said in the cramped visiting manager's office. "Obviously under these circumstances -- I'm all for the fact that the Red Sox beat us tonight, God bless them, they beat us tonight. But our hitters were at a great disadvantage tonight, they really were. And I definitely saw it as being one-sided.''

For that critique, the next signs Maddon sees might be the dollar signs being lifted from his wallet by MLB disciplinarian Joe Torre. But his frustration was understandable, given the night's high stakes.

There was nothing remotely easy about this win, as the Rays pushed all night -- from the drag bunt that leadoff man Desmond Jennings dropped on the gimpy Beckett to open the game until Evan Longoria went down swinging against Papelbon with Upton on second to end it.

Longoria hit a two-run home run in the first inning to give Tampa Bay an early lead. Longoria singled in another run in the third. The Sox matched Tampa Bay's two in the first, Jacoby Ellsbury opening with a double and Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz driving in runs, and matched again in the third, when Pedroia singled, stole second and scored on an Ortiz double.

The Rays stole seven bases, three by 38-year-old Johnny Damon, Francona saying afterward that the Sox were willing to let the Rays run if it meant Beckett made his pitches.

Longoria turned two phenomenal double plays at third base, one on a bunt, the other on a line drive scorched by Pedroia, who stood transfixed for long seconds after Longoria's diving catch and tag of third base in the seventh.

After Aceves struck out two, including Casey Kotchman with two on to end the seventh, Francona summoned Bard, who had lost each of his previous three outings, no easy task for a reliever. The last Sox reliever to do so was Jim Willoughby, and that was in 1976.

Under those circumstances, another manager might have elected for a safer option, such as running Aceves out for a second inning or Papelbon for a two-inning save. Not Francona.

"I don't know if I agree with that,'' Francona said. "That's his job. If he does it like he's done it all year, we have a chance to be the team we want to. When you start running from Daniel ...''

His voice trailed off. Bard, who might have caught a break when third-base umpire Bob Davidson said Damon went around on a back-foot slider that hit him in the foot, said he appreciated the show of confidence but was not surprised by it.

"He's a loyal guy,'' Bard said. "He's loyal to players who've proven themselves. I didn't expect anything different this time. He hasn't treated guys like that in the past, and it's paid off. He's not going to change now.''

The only thing that changed Friday? That whooosh should tell you all you need to know.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.