Red Sox keep good times rolling

BOSTON -- It was exhausting, exhilarating, maddening, compelling, interminable, sloppy, surprising and dramatic. Yankees-Red Sox, in other words, was well worth the wait. And wait the Boston Red Sox did -- the New York Yankees this weekend making their first appearance in the Fens at a later date than they ever have in a full season.

The finale, an 8-7 Boston Red Sox win in 11 innings, was 4 hours, 46 minutes of hand-to-hand hardball combat, extending over parts of two days, starting on a Sunday night, ending on a Monday morning, at 12:53 a.m. to be precise. The time, it should be noted, of Pedro Beato's first win this season with the Red Sox. [We interrupt this retelling to give you time to look up and ask, "Who?"]

Bookended by a rainbow and a full moon, the game was brought to a sudden close by a thunderclap home run by Mike Napoli, his second of the night, interspersed with three strikeouts and a bases-loaded double play ball by the Sox first baseman.

Napoli added the forward pass to Jonny Gomes' repertoire of walk-off celebrations, Napoli air-mailing his helmet to a waiting Gomes at home plate. Gomes then hurled the helmet into the air as the rest of the Sox converged on Napoli, a scene that has been repeated at Fenway Park nine times in the first 100 games of 2013.

The Brady-Welker imitation wasn't planned. Even this confident bunch doesn't sit around talking about how they intend to act out their walk-offs. It was spontaneous, as spur of the moment as the woman dancing with abandon on the video board just before Boston's last at-bat, Yankees left fielder Vernon Wells watching in apparent awe, the remnants of the biggest crowd of the season, 38,138, responding with one last surge of energy.

"I just saw him there," Napoli said of Gomes, "and flipped it to him."

The Red Sox lost Saturday because of some baserunning mistakes. They put themselves in a 3-0 hole Sunday with batterymates Ryan Dempster and Jarrod Saltalamacchia commiting throwing errors just three batters into the game.

They lost a 7-3 lead they built against CC Sabathia, who hadn't given up seven runs in five innings since he was with the Cleveland Indians in 2008, when Jose Iglesias, the usually wondrous fielder but still an apprentice third baseman, made a wild throw on Chris Stewart's surprise bunt in the seventh. They failed to capitalize on a bases-loaded, one-out threat in the eighth, Napoli sucking the air out of the place by bouncing into a double play.

But they persevered, the bullpen holding even as Red Sox manager John Farrell ran through youngster Drake Britton, newcomer Matt Thornton (who responded with a dominating eighth inning after being cuffed around in his first two appearances), the dependable Japanese tandem of Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara, and the way-deep-on-the-depth-chart Beato (not the guy you'd expect to see with the game on the line in the 11th).

They hung on despite striking out eight times in the last 4 2/3 innings against the Yankees' bullpen, the team's greatest source of strength in a season sapped by a disabled list that could be mistaken for Forbes' list of the world's richest people: Jeter, A-Rod, Teixeira, Granderson, Youkilis, multimillionaires all.

And they prevailed when the scruffy Napoli, the embodiment of hit-or-miss who already had burned Sabathia with a three-run blast over the Monster, connected off Adam Warren, the Yankees' sixth pitcher of the night. There would be no reprise of the standing ovations accorded Mariano Rivera, who was feted as he strode out of the bullpen Saturday, then got the same treatment both on his way in and on his way out of Abe and Louie's, the Boylston Street steakhouse.

"You've just got to keep going," said Napoli, who was talking about his own up-and-down night but could have been talking about the team the past two days. "Can't do nothing about it. I just went up there and let it go."

The most amazing part of this weekend (other than A-Rod making news even though he wasn't here)? Yankees-Sox was just the undercard to this week's main event, a four-game series between the Sox and Tampa Bay Rays, who are the hottest team in baseball as winners of five straight and 17 of their past 19 that drew within 1½ games of the Sox in the AL East.

The Rays eliminated the Jays all but mathematically with their sweep in Toronto this weekend, and though they have lost nine of 12 to the Sox this season, they feel the wave they are now riding isn't close to cresting.

"I want to believe that we're playing a better brand of baseball than earlier in the season and we're back close to what we're normally accustomed to doing on a nightly basis," Rays manager Joe Maddon told reporters in Toronto on Sunday. "I want to believe we should match up better this time, through."

The Sox? They were less than crisp this weekend. Saltalamacchia figures he lost 20 pounds catching in the extreme heat of the games on Friday and Saturday. The bullpen is feeling the strain of so many key absences, the most notable being left-hander Andrew Miller. Iglesias is no longer hitting at a Teddy Ballgame pace. Clay Buchholz is flying to Florida on Monday for a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews.

But doubt this team at your own peril.

"You've got grinders, you've got guys who come every day ready to play, just a bunch of guys who just really want to win," Daniel Nava said.

And if they can all gather around home plate at the end, so much the better.

"You see us all out there going crazy," Napoli said, "ripping each other's jerseys off. It's a fun thing to do. It's about winning."