The Red Sox have continuously said, rightly so, that they will be fine as long as their starting pitching does its job. Since the catcher works in conjunction with those on the mound, perhaps we can lump him into the equation.
If that’s the case, then Friday night in Tampa Bay was a perfect example of how a battery at its best can carry a club.
Jon Lester allowed only an unearned run in seven innings and catcher Victor Martinez slugged a pair of solo homers to lead the Sox to a mammoth 3-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays. Their efforts allowed Boston to pull within 4 ½ games of the Rays, who entered the night tied atop the American League East with the New York Yankees.
“Definitely, definitely,” Martinez said when asked if the Red Sox are playing for their playoff lives. “We’re still right there with all that we’ve been through.”
Indeed, conventional wisdom, and the words of many of the Red Sox players, suggested that the club needed to win this series to remain in the thick of the playoff race. Dropping the opener would have put Boston with its back firmly against the wall.
Lester and Martinez wouldn’t allow it to happen.
The catcher set the tone with his first home run of the game just two outs into the game off Tampa Bay lefty David Price, who had dominated the Red Sox on this very mound last month.
Martinez’s second blast in the seventh gave Boston a 3-1 advantage. It was his third home run in 12 at-bats against the All-Star starter.
As it turns out, the second home run was not necessarily needed. Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon finished what was started by Lester. The left-hander is making a habit of clutch road starts down the stretch.
While allowing just two hits and striking out 10, Lester ran his string of consecutive innings on the road without giving up an earned run to 21 1/3 innings. He has defeated three straight first-place opponents in that span, and in each outing the Red Sox were coming off of a loss.
Lester is now 4-0 at Tropicana Field, always up for pitching in the awkward environs.
“It’s always tough coming in here and playing these guys,” Lester said. “I don’t know about playoffs or anything like that but yeah it’s a tough atmosphere to play here and they’re obviously pretty good here so it makes it real hard.”
In fact, when the cowbells were at their loudest and the Rays fans were ready to erupt, that’s when Lester was at his best — he twice struck out Tampa Bay slugger Evan Longoria with two runners on and once got him to hit into an inning-ending double play.
The aforementioned portions of Lester’s line are superb. However, he did walk five batters, hit another and throw a season-high three wild pitches. His ability to overcome a few errant pitches was one thing. Martinez was an integral part of that effort, too.
“Offensively he gave us a lift with the home run and then the next one, but I thought catching-wise I thought that was about as good a game as he’s played,” manager Terry Francona said of Martinez, who also made a great block of the plate on an out at home in the sixth. “He was all over the place, blocking balls, that was one of the better games he’s played all year.”
When it was all said and done Lester had dropped his road ERA to 2.27, second in the American League to teammate Clay Buchholz, your starter in the second game of the series Saturday night. In all likelihood Buchholz will be throwing to Martinez, and the partnership will remain front and center in the Red Sox’ pursuit of a playoff spot.