Victor Martinez backed Jon Lester in a big way, leading the Boston Red Sox past the Tampa Bay Rays.

Three of the Boston Red Sox best hitters (Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Dustin Pedroia) are out for the year, but the team has amazingly persevered. They have done so behind the table-setting of Marco Scutaro, the power of David Ortiz, and the efficiency of Adrian Beltre. Martinez, who hasn’t played up to par this season, joined the act in the team’s biggest game to date, a series-opener against the Tampa Bay Rays, a division rival they entered five and half games behind.

Martinez has the build of someone who would hit for a ton of power, but his career high is just 25, which was amassed in 2007. That season, his final full season with the Cleveland Indians, also featured 114 rbi’s and a steady .301 batting average. Boston traded for a bat full of pop, as he is not known for his defense behind he plate. The Red Sox didn’t get the home run power they desired, but he was nonetheless a hitting machine after coming over in last year’s midseason trade, batting a terrific .336 with 32 runs scored and 41 rbi’s in 56 games.

Boston has little catching help in the minors. The trade market is thin at that position, and the free-agent market will be severely depleted with Joe Mauer, who would have most likely been a target, signing longterm in Minnesota. These facts made this year a huge one in the career of the 31-year-old Martinez. A free-agent after the year, Martinez had the chance to prove to Boston, a team he has said he wants to play with longterm, that he could be behind the plate for years to come.

He has struggled in his contract year. Looking past the solid .281 batting average, Martinez carried a terrible .334 on-base percentage into tonight’s contest. He is not one to strikeout, as he has never whiffed more than 78 times in a season during his eight year career, and has only done so 40 times this season.  Overall he has had a down year, as the on-base percentage suggested; and, as Boston has become accustomed, home runs have not been hit very often.

He entered the game against the Rays with 10 in 354 at-bats, a ratio consistent with years past. Yet, to Boston’s delight, he increased his total against flamethrower David Price, Tampa Bay’s best pitcher. Batting third to begin the Red Sox biggest series to date, Martinez shrugged off Price’s well-known heat and deposited the second pitch he saw–a 97 mile per hour fastball–into the left-field seats for a solo-homer, giving starting pitcher Jon Lester some early offense.

Jon Lester allowed only two hits and struck out ten over seven innings to help defeat the Rays.

Judging by Lester’s performance in the early going, the single run appeared to be all he would need. The 26-year-old lefthander escaped a two-on, one-out jam in the first, breezed through the second, and worked around a one-out walk in the third; but after an rbi-single by Jed Lowrie in the top of the fourth to pad Boston’s lead, he soon ran into trouble that was entirely self-induced. The first two Rays reached in the fourth; and the lead-runner, Jason Bartlett, benefited from an uncanny bout of wildness out of the Red Sox pitcher.  Bartlett sprinting to third on an errant curveball, then scurried home on a second curveball that evaded Martinez’s grasp to cut the Red Sox lead in half.

Lester proceeded to settle down with the slim advantage, racking up the strikeouts in the process, then in the sixth inning received some more much-needed help from his defense. Rays underachieving leadoff hitter B.J. Upton was awarded one of five walks issued by Lester on the night and made good use of his time on the basepaths, stealing his 37th base of an otherwise trying season for the 26-year-old bottled up talent.

Upton has long strides, which increases his quickness in some instances, as in stealing the bag, but is detrimental in others. Bartlett laced a single to center. Upton hesitated, and then as the ball bounded into center field, jogged to third. To his presumptive surprise, he was waived home by the third base coach. He slowed as he reached the base. He touched the bag, but his slowness out of the gate and very methodical stride backfired, as McDonald collected the liner, came up firing, and gunned out Upton at the plate with the help of a good block by Martinez.

After Lester retired the final two batters of the sixth, Boston’s offense backed him once more. That is, Martinez did. The hitter turned slugger for one night clocked another fastball pumped in by Price, leveling it once again into the left field seats and once more with two out.

It was a very timely untying swing, as the bottom three in Tampa Bay’s order were due in the bottom half of the seventh. Lester mowed them down, treating them as the light-hitters they were. Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez were called out on strikes staring at cutters with dazzling movement for his 9th and 10th strikeouts of the game, then Kelly Shoppach popped out to put the finishing touches on Lester’s interesting stat-line of two hits, one run, five walks, and the aforementioned high strikeout total. He didn’t have his best stuff despite allowing few hits and whiffing many, but he gutted it out to avenge a poor previous outing.

Reliever Daniel Bard made sure the Rays could do nothing with a two-out single in the eighth, then Jonathan Papelbon was his usual self, making things far more interesting than they had to be. In between two strikeouts he walked Willy Aybar then issued a second to Dan Johnson, bringing the potential tying run to the plate, as he has the frustrating habit of doing. John Jaso couldn’t deliver as so many seemingly have against Papelbon, staring at strike-three to produce moans and groans from Rays fans and screams and claps of joy from the many Red Sox fans in attendance.

Who knows what the final two games of their series against the Rays will hold. However, with the win made possible by Lester’s solid effort, Lowrie’s single, and Martinez’s two blasts, Boston gains ground on not only Tampa Bay but an even bigger rival, the New York Yankees, who watched the frequently bad A.J. Burnett fuel a 9-4 loss to the Chicago White Sox. The series could take a turn for the worse and the Yankees could turn the tables on the White Sox; but somewhat remarkably for the present, considering their injury woes and inconsistent pitching staff, the Boston Red Sox are within 4 1/2 games of both American League East foes.

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