ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — As he walked to the plate Wednesday night, Mike Carp wasn’t necessarily planning to swing at the first pitch he saw.
Entering as a pinch hitter with the bases loaded and one out in a tie game in the top of the 10th inning, Carp wanted to keep his approach simple.
“I’m not letting a good pitch go by,” Carp said.
As it turned out, Carp got a perfect pitch: a hanging slider in the middle of the strike zone. He bashed it to straightaway center field and over the fence — “a lot more than I expected to do with it,” he said — to give the Boston Red Sox a 7-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field.
Carp’s blast was the first extra-inning, pinch-hit grand slam in Red Sox franchise history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. What’s more, it pushed Boston’s American League East lead over Tampa Bay to a season-high 9 1/2 games, the club’s largest division lead since 2007.
“To sit there for nearly four hours and come up and swing at the first pitch you see for a grand slam is pretty remarkable,” said Red Sox manager John Farrell, whose club has won seven of its last eight, 14 of 17 and 16 of 21 to climb a season-best 31 games over .500. “A pinch-hit home run is one thing. A pinch-hit grand slam in this situation was huge for us tonight.”
It was a big moment not only for its sheer unlikelihood, but also because it dealt yet another crushing blow to the Rays, who are looking for any sort of turning point amid a horrid stretch. Tampa Bay seemingly found it, rallying from a two-run deficit. Evan Longoria hit an RBI double in the seventh, and the Rays tied the game on James Loney’s solo homer in the eighth.
However, the Red Sox stormed back in a big way, with Carp crushing his second career grand slam and Boston’s first pinch-hit slam since 2003.
Dustin Pedroia led off the 10th by drawing a walk against Tampa Bay’s Joel Peralta, and he advanced to second on Shane Victorino’s sacrifice bunt. Rays manager Joe Maddon then elected to intentionally walk David Ortiz and bring in Roberto Hernandez to face Mike Napoli.
Maddon explained that Peralta (2-7) clearly was not at his best, possibly a product of the setup man’s heavy workload, and the numbers showed that Hernandez had a “60-some” percent chance of inducing a ground ball from Napoli.
Instead, Hernandez, recently removed from the Rays’ rotation, walked Napoli on four pitches. Farrell then sent up the lefty-swinging Carp to pinch-hit for Jonny Gomes, and Carp delivered.
“Looking for two outs with one pitch,” Maddon said of Hernandez, who declined to speak to reporters. “Roberto’s in the bullpen for a reason, and he’s been really good coming out of there the couple times we put him out there. He is a very heavy ground-ball pitcher, and we’re looking for a ground ball.”
But the move didn’t pan out, and the Rays’ freefall down the standings continued.
Tampa Bay was tied with Boston atop the AL East on Aug. 24 but has dropped 13 of 17 games since then. Now, the Rays are clinging to a one-game lead over the New York Yankees for the second AL wild-card spot heading into Thursday’s series finale against the Red Sox. There are now four teams within two games of the Rays, who seemed like a sure thing only a few weeks ago.
“It doesn’t get any worse than this loss,” Rays starter Alex Cobb said. “We gave ourselves a chance to walk it off in the ninth or later on. It just feels like a punch in the gut. It really does.”
There’s more to the Rays’ recent struggles than a couple of walks and one bad pitch by Hernandez, though, and it was on full display Wednesday night against starter Ryan Dempster and the Red Sox bullpen.
Tampa Bay is batting .173 with runners in scoring position over the 4-13 stretch, and the Rays failed to capitalize on several scoring opportunities against Boston. They put runners on second and third with one out in the second, loaded the bases in the third and fifth and had Longoria on second base in the seventh. Each time, they came up with nothing.
“That’s the kind of stuff that’s really put us behind the wild-card 8-ball,” Maddon said, referring to the team’s current 0-for-12 skid with the bases loaded. “Everybody’s been preaching doom and gloom, and from my perspective, it’s been a very tough run right now. However, as we right ourselves, we’re in pretty good position to continue on into the playoffs.
Of course, they’re not in quite the same ideal position as Boston, as the Red Sox own the AL’s best record and have proven to be resilient when necessary.
“I think that’s kind of been our mentality,” Dempster said. “We have a bunch of pros in here, a bunch of guys who put together solid at-bats, solid starts, great job out of the bullpen. We take a lot of pride in every aspect of the game.”