Ciriaco strikes again as Sox top Rays

Pedro Ciriaco strokes the game's key hit, a two-run single in the second inning. Kim Klement/US Presswire

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- For a sophisticated baseball audience like New England, we would never expose ourselves to the ridicule that would come from putting Pedro (Caramba!) Ciriaco's name in the same sentence as Ty Cobb.

Or maybe we would.

Ciriaco had three more hits and a stolen base Friday night, including a two-run single that stood up as the difference in the Boston Red Sox's 3-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays in the first game for both teams after the All-Star break.

"Blooped a couple more in there, made a good bunt, stole a base," manager Bobby Valentine said of Ciriaco, who bounced a single up the middle after the Sox had loaded the bases on two walks and a hit batsman. "He's playing a very high caliber of baseball."

Ciriaco had three hits and a stolen base in each of the last two games before the break, too, drawing the attention of ESPN researcher Jason McCallum, a keen observer of the arcane. McCallum notes that Ciriaco is the first Sox player ever to have three straight games of three hits and a stolen base, and the first big leaguer since Johnny Damon in 2000.

And what does that have to do with the Georgia Peach? If Ciriaco should do it again Saturday night, he would become the first player since Cobb in 1927 to do it four games in a row.

And here you thought the storyline Friday night would be the return of Jacoby Ellsbury. Yes, the MVP runner-up did come back, but it was a quiet return, Ellsbury bouncing a single through the right side in five trips to the plate. He had a chance to expand the Sox lead in the ninth with a runner on third, but went down swinging against Rays lefty Jake McGee.

Third baseman Will Middlebrooks also came back after a six-game absence (tight hamstring) but failed to get the ball out of the infield in four trips, striking out twice. He also was lifted in the eighth inning, which means Nick Punto was the man applying the tag -- and absorbing the spike wound -- on a double play that short-circuited Tampa Bay's last scoring opportunity.

"Ryan Sweeney's play was the play of the game," Valentine said. "Mike's throw, Nick's tag -- a game-saver there."

Ben Zobrist had opened the inning by hitting a Vicente Padilla eephus pitch for a double. B.J. Upton then followed with a liner to a right, but Sweeney made a nice sliding catch, bounced up and hit cutoff man Mike Aviles, who fired to Punto in time for the Sox third baseman to tag out Zobrist trying to advance on the play.

The Rays have had a hellacious time scoring -- their 363 runs before the break were their fewest since 2002 -- which might have led to some overzealousness on the bases. Sox starter Franklin Morales shut the Rays out through five innings, walking the bases loaded with two out in the fourth before striking out Luke Scott with a fastball in the eyes.

Valentine then mixed and matched masterfully with five Sox relievers the rest of the way, Matt Albers striking out Desmond Jennings with runners on the corners to end the sixth, then striking two more in the seventh, and Alfredo Aceves collecting his 20th save.

David Ortiz hit a monstrous home run in the first for his 23rd of the season, crushing a 3-and-1 pitch from Jeremy Hellickson with two outs and nobody on. Hellickson challenged Ortiz even though the on-deck hitter was Mauro Gomez, a late replacement for Adrian Gonzalez, who was a late scratch apparently because of illness. "[Hellickson] comes back and just throws a 3-and-1 cookie and he knows he wasn't supposed to do that," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

Gonzalez, who had come out of Sunday's game after two innings because of illness, had worked out Thursday during the team's optional practice and appeared to be fine. "I didn't think he was moving around very well," Valentine said. "Might have been flu-related. He was real stiff."

It seems a stretch to believe that Gonzalez, who spent the break on Cape Cod and played a spirited game of pepper with Alfredo Aceves Thursday, was still flu-ridden, but Valentine wasn't furnishing further details and Gonzalez was gone by the time the media invaded the clubhouse (WEEI.com cited a source saying Gonzalez had a stiff back, believed not to be serious).

Gonzalez's scratch was announced about an hour before first pitch, which would have given Valentine plenty of time to shuffle his lineup. Instead, he made the change straight up, and the Rays pitched around Ortiz the rest of the night, walking him twice intentionally, once with first base already occupied. Gomez was not equal to the challenge, whiffing twice, grounding into a force and rolling into a double play.

Valentine's explanation for the straight-up change? "I really didn't have a feel for it," he said. "It would have been a real juggling act. Guys were already set where they were hitting, so we went one-for-one."

No harm, no foul. It all made for a winning start to the second half for the cheerful Cody Ross, friendly Mike Aviles, inspiring Daniel

Nava, powerful Jarrod Saltalamacchia, talented Will Middlebrooks, beloved Big Papi, ever-dirty Dustin Pedroia and tireless Ben Cherington. All adjectives, by the way, courtesy of the letter sent to Sox season-ticket holders under the signature of CEO Larry Lucchino, who wouldn't be caught dead in normal conversation talking about his team in Hallmark-card fashion.

"Our play on the field has at times tested the mettle of the faithful," the letter read. "It could be maddening one day, enthralling the next day. Along the way, we have seen our bullpen gel [sic], young players emerge, and veterans lead. ... We want to play October Baseball this year."

The Rays denied them that opportunity on the last day of the 2011 season. With the Rays having lost 10 of their past 15 and going 26-34 since being a season-best 11 games over .500, the Sox might have a chance to return the favor, only a game now separating them in the standings. And every game in which Caramba! Ciriaco contributes to a win is a bonus.

"Just to be a part of the Red Sox team," Ciriaco said, "is huge for me."