BOSTON -- Balls and strikes were the overriding theme for the Red Sox in a frustrating 1-0 loss to the Rays on Marathon Monday.
Daniel Bard, amid an otherwise dazzling performance, couldn't throw a strike when he desperately needed to, and it cost him the game.
Cody Ross, in the most important at-bat of the game, desperately needed the benefit of the doubt from home-plate umpire Larry Vanover. Instead, he got rung up on three called strikes during a five-pitch at-bat that ended the game. All of three pitches to Ross looked like they could have been called balls.
For eight innings, James Shields dominated Boston's hitters, but he had the slimmest of leads to show for it.
With one out in the ninth, Dustin Pedroia drew a walk. Fernando Rodney came on for Tampa Bay and got Adrian Gonzalez on a fielder's-choice grounder on a nasty 3-2 pitch. The Rays decided to intentionally walk David Ortiz, even though he represented the go-ahead run.
But instead of belting a walk-off three-run homer that the Fenway faithful salivated for, Ross stayed away from pitches he thought were off the outside corner.
"We're trying to get something going right there in a late situation, and that's unacceptable," Ross said. "I'm battling, I'm bearing down, my whole team's bearing down. Everyone on the field should be bearing down."
Ross was clearly upset after the Red Sox narrowly missed being able to sweep the Rays in four straight.
"We've been playing this game for so long that you recognize pitches early and you see them out of the hand, and you say, 'That's a ball,' and then it crosses wherever and it's called a strike," said Ross. "I've taught myself over the years to take those pitches and not expand my strike zone. Make him make a mistake. He didn't make a mistake. As soon as it comes out of his hand, I'm in shutdown mode, saying, 'No, that's a ball.' Then it's a strike. Next one -- ball. No, strike. What are you going to do? Move on and go get them tomorrow."
Manager Bobby Valentine had no problem with the approach Ross took in his final at-bat.
"I didn't get to see it on video [yet]," Valentine said. "If Cody's not swinging at fastballs, I've got to think they're not strikes, though."
Gonzalez was less diplomatic.
"As far as the end of the game goes, those pitches that were called on Cody, that's not right," Gonzalez said. "They were in the left-handed hitter's box. The way I see it, we missed the playoffs by one game last year. If he walks there, like he should have, or assuming he gets a hit, and we end up winning today, that could make a difference."
Things might also have been different if Bard had finished his sparkling performance with six walks instead of seven.
The game was still in a scoreless stalemate when Bard came out for the top of the seventh. In fact, he retired the first two batters in the seventh before the trouble started. Sean Rodriguez started it with a walk. Desmond Jennings lined a single into center. Carlos Pena loaded the bases by drawing a walk, and then it was decision time for Valentine.
With Evan Longoria at the plate and Bard at 107 pitches, Boston had righty Matt Albers warming up in the bullpen. But Valentine stuck with Bard, and it didn't pay off. Bard exited after his four-pitch walk to Longoria forced in the only run of the game.
Valentine felt after the game he made a mistake in not going to Albers in that spot.
"It was the wrong decision, obviously," Valentine said. "You know, the inning started, [Bard] looked good, he got the two quick outs, he got two strikes on the next two guys. I committed at that time he was going to finish the inning, or at least try to finish it. It didn't happen."
Longoria also admitted to being surprised that Bard didn't come out sooner.
"I was going to take. I wasn't going to auto-take on 3-1, but I was definitely going to take on 3-0. I just had a sense that he was tired. I didn't even think he was going to leave him in for Carlos. I thought [Boston manager Bobby Valentine] was going to the lefty then, and then I was really surprised that he left him in for me. They had Albers ready. It ends up being the difference in the game, so we'll take that and get out of here with the win."
In Bard's first start of the season in Toronto, he seemed a little annoyed when Valentine pulled him in the middle of a similar jam.
"Yeah, I wanted to let him know that I believed he could work himself out of a jam," said Valentine. "He had a couple during the game and did a heck of a job. You know, [pitching coach] Bob [McClure] wanted to talk to him. He went out. I said, 'Just make sure you see the right look in his eye.' He came back and [said], 'He said he's very determined. He wants it.' Everyone wants it."
After the walk, Valentine came out to mound to remove Bard, who gave up four hits and a run while striking out seven over 6 2/3 innings. In fact, Valentine was booed both when he first emerged from the dugout and when he returned to it.
"They felt what I thought," Valentine said. "I should have taken him out earlier. They're good fans. They know what's going on."
Bard just wishes he could have rewarded Valentine's faith.
"In hindsight, probably the signs pointed that I was getting tired," Bard said. "In the moment, I wanted to be out there. I really felt good. I felt like I was one pitch away from getting that release point back. On top of that, those are my runs out there, and I want to be responsible for them. I wanted it. They gave me the chance. I can't complain about it."
The same could not be said for Ross.
"It's tough. It's such a tough situation. Believe me, I've umpired before. It's tough," said Ross. "It's hard, but at this level, I don't know what to say. You've got to bear down."