- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- More cowbell?
That's quite enough, thank you.
For the 110th consecutive year since the American League came into existence, the pennant will not be decided by Memorial Day.
And even if the Tampa Bay Rays rebound from Monday night's 6-1 loss to the Red Sox to win the next two at Tropicana Field, the race to the top won't be settled by Father's Day, your kid's high school graduation, the Fourth of July, the World Cup final, Patriots training camp, Labor Day or any other occasion that takes place before the leaves begin to turn.
You might have believed otherwise, judging by the anxiety spreading throughout New England that the Rays were already so far ahead in the AL East that nobody could possibly catch them.
But while it may be happening a little later than you were led to believe it would, listen closely and you'd swear on Longfellow's grave that you can hear the call echoing from village green to town square to city block:
The Red Sox are coming, the Red Sox are coming.
There are the obvious signs, of course. Six wins in the past seven games, including another star turn Monday by Clay Buchholz, who pitched out of a bases-loaded one-out jam in the first, and a second-and-third one-out jam in the second to limit the Rays to one run in six innings, punctuated by eight punchouts and just one walk.
Through the first 31 games of the season, Sox starters had a 5.21 ERA , were 10-9 in decisions and were barely averaging over five innings an outing. In the past 14, they're 9-3 with an ERA of 3.58, and have gone seven or more innings nine times.
In the past six starts, bookended by Buchholz's past two outings, Sox starters have allowed two or fewer runs five times, the only blemish in that stretch left by John Lackey (4 runs in 5 IP in Philly on Friday night). All those games have come against teams in first place in their respective divisions -- the Twins, Phillies and now Rays.
On Monday, there were the home runs by David Ortiz, his eighth this month and ninth overall, and the 10th by Kevin Youkilis, whom Rays manager Joe Maddon calls the "poster child for a great at-bat." Adrian Beltre had three hits, his fifth multiple-hit game in the past six, and so did Dustin Pedroia, an emphatic way to break an 0-for-19 slump.
But the keys to this win might have been buried in two small details: one guided by the invisible hand of Red Sox bench coach DeMarlo Hale, the other dictated by the caprices of a Tropicana Field catwalk.
If Tampa Bay flyer Carl Crawford -- who has stolen 31 consecutive bases against the Red Sox going back nearly five years -- had been running from first on a full-count pitch in the first inning, Buchholz likely would not have emerged unscathed.
"When have you not seen him run 3-and-2?" Francona said.
Why didn't he? Because Buchholz, taking his cues from Hale flashing signs in the Boston dugout, did such a great job of keeping Crawford close after his one-out single. If Crawford had been running on the pitch, he easily would have taken third on Ben Zobrist's single. Evan Longoria followed with an infield hit, a ball that Francona said probably would have gone through because shortstop Marco Scutaro would have been deployed differently. And on and on it goes.
Buchholz had thrown over to first twice after the first pitch. Later in Zobrist's at-bat, he waited and waited and waited, then stepped off. With the full count, he threw over twice more, both times with zip, Crawford just getting back.
"I felt he was going to run regardless of what we did," Buchholz said. "But it worked out the way the dugout planned it, the coaches planned it. That's what they're there for."
Buchholz, who has had to fight becoming preoccupied with runners on base, said he has shifted his focus much more to the hitter. But his times to the plate have improved sufficiently to give his catchers a fighting chance.
"I set out this season to let control of the running game come from the dugout," he said. "They definitely have a feel for the running game."
The signs come from Hale, who is in his first season as bench coach after serving as third-base coach.
"It's the little things," Buchholz said, "that not too many think about at the end of the game."
An inning later, in the other defining moment that won't show up in any box score, Pedroia hit a popup behind the plate. In any other park, a sure out. In the Trop, however, there are catwalks that come into play, and Pedroia's ball hit the catwalk. Catcher John Jaso caught the carom, but no matter. A ball hit off the catwalk in foul play is a dead ball.
Pedroia told reporters later that he didn't know the rules. But he knew to seize a second chance, which he turned into a base hit that touched off a three-run Red Sox inning and an arduous 40-pitch inning for Rays starter Wade Davis. Then came a bases-loaded walk and an infield hit that normally splendid third baseman Longoria dropped when he transferred it to his bare hand.
"All of a sudden," Maddon said, "the building is turning against us."
It's usually the visitors who are tripped up by the Trop, not the home team.
"I've never been happy with that before," Francona said of the catwalks dictating the action.
But on this night, he was more than happy to make an exception.
The Rays -- who have the best record in the majors (32-13) and began the night with a six-game lead over the Yankees in the AL East, their biggest ever -- lost by five or more runs for just the second time this season. They lost 10-0 here to the Bombers in the fifth game of the season.
Big game? Neither manager had any interest in going down that road. "Of course people are going to talk about that, I understand that," Maddon had said before the game. "I don't want us to even think about that. For us, it's really about one day at a time. I know it's boring to hear me to say that. That's truly the way I approach this thing. I don't want us to apply any more importance to this, or any less, just go out and play."
Ortiz, however, was ready to slap the big-game label on this one.
"Of course, man," said Ortiz, who has bought back his swagger from whatever pawn shop he'd sold it in. "These guys have been giving us a hard time. Not just us, but to everyone. That's why they had the best record in baseball, and that's why we had to play our best.
"But our team, we're going to play better."
Well enough to catch the Rays? We'll have the entire summer to find out. No reason to stop watching now.
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.
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