Rapid reaction: Red Sox 4, Rays 3

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

1. To emit breath or vapor; breathe out.

2. Collective activity undertaken by any group seized by high anxiety or near-panic, e.g., followers of beloved baseball team teetering on 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 temporary relief from the unrelenting pressure applied by the Tampa Bay Rays in their bid to overtake the Sox for a playoff spot.

There was nothing remotely easy about this win, one that 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. The Sox no longer have to worry about the Rays leaving with a share of the 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.

The Rays pushed all night, from the drag bunt that leadoff man Desmond Jennings dropped on the gimpy Beckett to open the game. Evan Longoria hit a two-run home run in the first inning to give Tampa Bay an early lead. The Rays stole seven bases, three by 38-year-old Johnny Damon. Longoria turned two phenomenal double plays at third base -- one on a bunt, the other on a line drive scorched by Dustin Pedroia, who stood transfixed for long seconds after Longoria’s diving catch and tag of third base in the seventh.

And Rays manager Joe Maddon, that seeker of signs cosmic and otherwise favorable to the Rays' cause, had his search spoiled by plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt, who ejected Maddon for arguing a called third strike on John Jaso in the sixth.

The Sox, meanwhile, found deliverance in the unlikely person of Mike Aviles, who would not have graced Terry 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 evoked groans when he bunted into a double play in the second, sabotaging a first-and-second no-out rally. But his two-out home run in the fourth, his first as a member of the Sox, stood up as the deciding run, the Sox ending their six-game losing streak against the Rays.

Twice the Sox erased deficits in the early innings, scoring two runs in the first on a double by Jacoby Ellsbury and singles by Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, and another run in the third when Pedroia singled, stole second and scored on Ortiz’s double.

Beckett lasted six innings, allowing three runs (two earned) in the team’s first quality start since Jon Lester 10 days earlier. Lester will go Saturday afternoon as the Sox try to quash the nipping Rays once and for all.