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Boston is losing today’s game against Tampa Bay as I write. Nevertheless, It was a special night in the Fens last night. An evening of hope for a region of panicked Red Sox fans.

Jon Lester took the mound in Fenway Park for the first time since being diagnosed with cancer. That in itself was an achievement. But it’s what he did next that electrified the old ballpark.

A full seven innings pitched on an economical 97 pitches (62 of which were strikes). Four strikeouts. One walk. Only two hits and just one run.

He used his fastball, his curveball, and his changeup and consistently hit his spots all night, alternately fooling hitters and freezing them. He strode in from the bullpen and tipped his cap to the standing, cheering Fenway Faithful and then, perhaps fighting down some nerves, walked the first hitter he faced. Then something shifted. For the rest of his time out there, it was clear he was in charge, as he retired 9 straight batters and then, after the Devil Rays run scored their one run, another 12 straight.

Unfortunately for Lester, he was up against Scott Kazmir, the Devil Ray’s one legit starter. Kazmir has always enjoyed success against Boston despite his tender years, and last night was no exception. On a strict pitch count, he left the game after six innings and 95 pitches, having struck out eight and allowed no runs, despite giving up four hits and walking three. The Red Sox were pleased to see the arrival of Tampa Bay’s bullpen (aka “batting practice pitchers”) but didn’t make any headway until the bottom of the ninth.

Manny Ramirez started the frame by watching strike three sail in—it looked low, and he argued, but he was out. Then Mike Lowell—himself a cancer survivor—launched a bomb over the Green Monster, over the Monster seats, over everything. Aerial footage from the Hood blimp showed it coming crashing down on Landsdowne Street, where ball scavengers tussled over it. Inside the confines, the crowd erupted. At home on the couch, I rejoiced, then worried—the last thing we needed right now was an extended, extra-innings slog that would sap our bullpen before today’s day game and what’s sure to be a tough, four-games-in-three-days battle with the Angels this weekend. We had to end this thing now.

Varitek follows with a ground-rule double. Youkilis then makes the second out of the inning when he—like Ramirez—strkes out looking. As an enraged Youkilis storms back to the dugout, looking more like a wrathful Russian Tsar than ever, Coco Crisp steps in to the batter’s box. Crisp has had some great defensive plays this season—and added another with a running basket catch last night—but has never had in Boston the kind of offensive output he had in Cleveland. His fingers fluttering over the handle of the bat, he waits.

Ball one. Ball two. Crisp takes a pitch for a strike. Ball three. Then another called strike. The count now full, Crisp swings at the next pitch and fouls it off. Crisp attacks the next offering, looping the ball into shallow right! Jason Varitek motors around third, but the Captain’s not known for his speed. His teeth gritted, he chuggs home as the throw comes in. The throw is short! Varitek slides home! Red Sox win!

A few thoughts.

1. Pitch counts are stupid. The Devil Rays are trying to “save Kazmir’s bullets” but costing him wins. Not to mention all the wins the team costs him by just sucking, period. I feel bad for Scott Kazmir.

2. This could be the moment the Sox get hot again. With the Yankees utterly crushed by the Orioles last night (12-0), Boston brought its lead in the division back to 5 games. I would love nothing more than for this game to galvanize the Red Sox and send them screaming into their upcoming series with New York.

3. Lester has disappointed, frankly, with his peripherals so far, despite being a highly touted prospect at the start of last season. Last year with the Sox, his 7-2 record and impressive string of five straight wins (making him the first rookie lefty in franchise history to win his first five decisions) was undermined by his 4.76 ERA and 43 walks in 81.1 innings. And as you might expect from someone who walked so many batters, but also struck out 60, he threw a lot of pitches and didn’t get very deep into games. This season, his record is 1-0 with a 5.14 ERA in 5 starts. He’s shown flashes of real brilliance, but has had trouble staying consistent. If he can get in a groove and go out there every five days and start stringing some innings together, this could finally be the season Jon Lester breaks out. Looking ahead, I would love to see the 6’4″ lefty helping to anchor the rotation in 2008—especially if Curt Schilling will be elsewhere. Beckett, Matsuzaka, Lester, Wakefield, and Buchholz? Rowr.

3. Boston’s bullpen looked good last night. After Manny Delcarmen got two outs in the eighth, Terry Francona called on veteran Mike Timlin to finish the job. Part of the reason the Sox wanted Eric Gagne was because it looked like Timlin’s days as a lights-out setup man were done. Timlin’s health hasn’t been great this season, giving him a rocky start. But lately, when he can pitch, he has pitched, giving up just two earned runs in all of July and August. Last night he came in and struck out B.J. Upton on four pitches–without throwing a ball. Not bad for a guy who only needs 7 more appearances to reach the 1,000 mark. If this is Timlin having a last gasp of glory, his timing couldn’t be better.

4. Eric Gagne was, well, Gagne-esque. After unleashing an expletive-filled tirade against himself on Sunday (when he blew his second save opportunity of the weekend), he came out last night and dominated. Maybe it’s because he was pitching the ninth inning. Maybe it’s because Friendly Fenway greeted him with a chorus of boos and it ignited within his breast a fierce desire to prove them wrong. Maybe it’s because he knew, deep inside somewhere, that Sarah Green had castigated him in an as-yet-unpublished column and he wanted to make her look stupid. Whatever the reason, I don’t care. He gave up a scary looking double—it one-hopped the low wall in right before J.D. Drew made a sweet one-handed grab, but was just feet away from being a game-tying homer— but also struck out the side. He threw heat, he threw changeups, and the Devil Rays looked like the overmatched scamps they are. It was hot.

5. Nevertheless, runners left on base continue to plague the Sox. Boston stranded 7 last night. Manny has grounded into 19 double plays–only six players in all of the major leagues have more. And David Ortiz still isn’t hitting like David Ortiz. Worry, worry. Fret, fret. This season’s going to go right down to the wire.

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