A reason to believe

Clutch performances all around help the Rays take down the Red Sox.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 23, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - So often the Devil Rays seem so far away from competing with elite teams such as the Red Sox. But some nights, such as Wednesday, the future doesn't seem so distant.

With a strong start by Edwin Jackson, a huge two-run homer by B.J. Upton, a clutch sliding catch by Delmon Young and a bullpen good enough to finish, the Rays scored an impressive, and inspiring, 2-1 win over the baseball-best Sox.

"I don't think in any of our minds that it's too far away," Upton said. "I think we all want to win now, and this last month I think we're going to build up for next season."

The victory - just the Rays' third in 12 tries against Boston - was the sum of many parts, including another trio of scoreless innings by relievers Dan Wheeler, Gary Glover and Al Reyes; a running catch by leftfielder Carl Crawford; perfect execution on Upton's strong throw and Josh Paul's crafty tag to nail David Ortiz at the plate; and an unexplainable mastery of Daisuke Matsuzaka, Boston's $103-million man whom they beat for the third straight time.

But it was really three-part harmony.

Jackson delivered another solid start - that's five straight if you're counting, with a 1.36 ERA over that span - allowing just the one run over six innings, though it was not without blemishes, primarily five walks.

But the difference this time was the way Jackson worked out of trouble.

"He pitched," manager Joe Maddon said. "There were tough moments but you could see he was under control, in control of the moment and able to pitch through it. That's what I liked best about him tonight."

No more so than in the third, when Jackson loaded the bases with no outs and was behind dangerous Mike Lowell 3-and-0. Even Maddon acknowledged, "You're just waiting for that five-run inning to happen."

But Jackson got Lowell to line out scoring one, then retired J.D. Drew and Jason Varitek without the ball leaving the infield.

"Most of the year I have that one inning that kills me, and that was definitely it," said Jackson, now 4-12 after an 0-8 start. "To come out of it with only one run given up, it definitely felt good. After that I told myself, you get out of that with this lineup and this team, you definitely have to keep battling."

He did just that, and Upton, starting at cleanup for the first time in the majors, made it pay off in the sixth. After Carlos Pena drew a one-out walk, Upton, hitless in seven previous at-bats against Matsuzaka in which he saw mostly sliders, drove a 1-and-0 fastball over the rightfield fence for his 18th homer.

Upton made the standard claim of just wanting to make contact, but admitted he also relishes the chance - "I always want to be in that situation." - to make a difference in key moments.

"I really believe this about him: as he gains more experience you're going to see a lot of that out of him," Maddon said. "He has shown us all year that he's able to hit in RBI situations, and he doesn't shy away from it."

Lastly, Young, a defensive replacement in rightfield after a rare night out of the lineup, made a sliding catch to rob Lowell as the Sox were rallying in the ninth against Reyes, with the tying run on first and one out.

Or did he? "I have no clue," Young admitted, evidenced by his just-in-case throw to second. "I was caught in between; you just put your glove down to try to block it."

So did that mean the Rays got a break?

"First one in Devil Rays history?" Young said.

Maybe that, too, will change.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/rays.