BOSTON -- One of these days, Carl Crawford will get red-hot for the first time as a member of the Red Sox. For now, everyone is more than satisfied to keep watching him perform the role of walk-off hero.
Yet again, it was Crawford who provided the game-ending hit in the bottom of the ninth, a one-out single to center over the head of drawn-in center fielder Austin Jackson, lifting the Red Sox to a 4-3 victory over the Tigers on Thursday night.
While the left fielder is hitting just .212 on the season, Thursday's well-timed, well-placed single was his third walk-off smash in May.
"It's always nice to come through in those situations," said Crawford. "I've been struggling, so whenever I get a chance to do something good like that, it feels good."
This clearly isn't the type of start Crawford wanted to have after signing a seven-year, $142 million deal to come to Boston, but the late-game heroics are providing some level of comfort for the speedster.
"It's weird," Crawford said. "I'll take whatever I can get right now. We won and that's the main thing, so I'm happy about it."
A game that started as a duel between two of the best starters in the American League -- Josh Beckett and Justin Verlander -- turned into a late-inning thriller.
The Red Sox have won six in a row, and the last three have all come in the club's last at-bat. Adrian Gonzalez was the one who sent everybody home happy Monday night, raking a two-run double with two outs in the ninth to beat the Orioles, 7-6. Jarrod Saltalamacchia played the role of hero on Wednesday, his RBI double in the bottom of the eighth serving as the clutch hit in a 1-0 win over the Tigers.
With each day, Boston (23-20) is making a 2-10 start a more distant memory.
Not only are the Red Sox winning games, but they are building an identity in the process.
"Another huge win," said closer Jonathan Papelbon. "Like I said last night, we're on this streak because of timely hits, and that's what happened tonight. We're pitching good enough to keep us in the ballgame."
For the second night in a row, Papelbon played the role of heat-throwing escape artist. The righty came on in a tie game in the top of the ninth and promptly gave up two singles and a walk to load the bases with one out.
All the Tigers had coming up were their Nos. 3-4 hitters -- Brennan Boesch and Miguel Cabrera. Papelbon punched out Boesch on three pitches. Then came Cabrera, who worked the count to 2-2, before Papelbon blew a 97-mph heater right by him.
"You know, obviously there was no room for error for me tonight again," said Papelbon. "Their lineup is very, very good. Once again, I kind of backed myself up against a wall and had to find a way to get out of it. [Jason Varitek] made a great play holding on to that ball in Cabrera's at-bat."
Papelbon then handed it over to the offense, which got him a win.
Al Alburquerque came on for Detroit to start the inning, and Kevin Youkilis led off with a walk. Jose Iglesias came on as a pinch-runner, and David Ortiz rifled a single to right-center, putting runners at the corners with nobody out. J.D. Drew was walked intentionally, giving the Tigers the force at any base.
Jed Lowrie looked like he might have the game-ending hit, as he blooped one on to the short grass in left field. But Iglesias, forced to hold up and make sure the ball wasn't caught, was thrown out at the plate by left fielder Andy Dirks in what was ruled a 7-2 fielder's choice.
"That's what me and [third-base coach Tim Bogar] were talking about -- we haven't seen that in a while," said manager Terry Francona. "You can see how it happened. We've got a short left field. [Iglesias] can't go too far. The kid came up and made a nice throw. So you certainly see how it could happen."
But thanks to Crawford, it didn't matter. On May 1, Crawford ripped an RBI single up the middle in the ninth to beat the Mariners, 3-2. He smoked an RBI double off the Monster to beat the Twins in the 11th inning on May 9. And then came Thursday.
"You always want to get a hit in those situations," Crawford said. "You want to win the game -- you don't want to go to extra innings. You just try to tell yourself to focus a little harder and hope for the best."
The duel between Beckett and Verlander lived up to expectations, as both pitchers had filthy stuff for most of the night.
"A real tight game between those two," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. "I thought Justin did a great job, as did Beckett. It was a great matchup. We figured runs would be stingy, and they were. Not many runs scored in this ballpark in a couple games."
Beckett had to leave a little earlier than he wanted -- after six innings and 83 pitches -- due to neck stiffness. The Red Sox called it precautionary.
"Yeah, it was pretty tough to get loose," Beckett said. "I battled through the first few innings. I actually went down in the third and the fifth and was actually throwing between innings, because I was just trying to get it loose. Like I said, it would never loosen up. I think it was just a little muscle spasm in there. I don't think it's anything serious at all, but it was better to be cautious, especially in the situation that we're in right now with our starters."
When Beckett departed, he had a 2-1 lead, courtesy of a solo homer by Drew in the bottom of the fourth.
The game stayed right there until the seventh, when Ortiz took a mighty cut, walloping a solo homer over the Red Sox's bullpen and into the bleachers in right-center. It was Ortiz's eighth of the season.
"As we talked about before the game, it wasn't going to be easy [against Verlander]," said Francona. "He left a couple pitches over, and we hit them, which we needed to."
The Sox needed to because the two-run cushion proved not to be enough.
Daniel Bard, Boston's ace setup man, started the eighth by giving up back-to-back homers to Boesch and Cabrera. It was only the second time in Bard's career he's given up two homers in one outing. The other occasion -- Aug. 9, 2009 -- was at Yankee Stadium, and also back-to-back long balls by Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira.
"Those are two pretty good hitters," Varitek said of the Boesch-Cabrera homer tandem. "In that case, we kind of tip our hats a little bit. You could go selection. You could go all sorts of things. The ball is coming out of Bard's hand good, and he utilized three pitches to four corners of the plate, and he just ran into a little tough spot."
On a night scoring opportunities were sparing, the Tigers created one in the top of the second, as Cabrera led off with a walk and Victor Martinez followed with a single to right. An RBI single to left by Dirks made it 1-0. A one-out single by Alex Avila loaded the bases. It seemed as if the Tigers were about to score another run when Brandon Inge hit a flyball to left. But with the slow-footed Martinez running, third-base coach Gene Lamont played it safe. Jackson popped out, keeping it a 1-0 game.
The Red Sox rallied right back to tie it in their half of the second. Youkilis and Ortiz led off with singles, putting runners at the corners with nobody out. Youkilis came home on a sac fly to left by Drew.
There were plenty of dramatics left, until Crawford put a capper on it.
"It's got to be good for his confidence," Francona said. "It's a good time to hit -- infield's playing in, outfield's playing in. And he stayed on the ball really well. That's the one thing you don't want to do -- roll over, pull off. He stayed on it really well."