ST. PETERSBURG -- After losing six of their last seven games in a disappointing, injury-riddled first half, the Red Sox kicked off the second half on a positive note.
Boston got a strong start from Franklin Morales, four quality innings from its bullpen and enough early offense to beat Tampa Bay, 3-1, on Friday night before a crowd of 29,089 at Tropicana Field. It was far from perfect for the Red Sox -- they managed only seven hits, went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position and committed two errors -- but it was more than enough to get the victory.
"It was nine innings of really good pitching," Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said.
Morales, who has been a pleasant surprise since moving from the bullpen into the rotation, was excellent through three innings before running into trouble in the fourth. But he kept putting up zeros through five innings, lowering his ERA to 3.16 on the year and giving way to a well-rested bullpen.
Morales had only thrown 95 pitches up to that point, but Valentine said he wanted to avoid having a reliever make his second-half debut in a high-leverage situation with runners on base and the tying or go-ahead run at the plate. The plan worked Friday.
Scott Atchison gave up an unearned run but got two outs in the sixth, and Andrew Miller gave up a hit to the one batter he faced. But Matt Albers looked dominant in getting the last out of the sixth, then pitched a 1-2-3 seventh, racking up three strikeouts in all. Vicente Padilla tossed a scoreless eighth with an assist from Ryan Sweeney, and Alfredo Aceves picked up his 20th save in a clean ninth.
"It's nice. It's definitely good to get off on the right foot," Albers said. "I think [Valentine is] just trying to put us in positions to be successful."
When the pitching staff did run into trouble, for the most part, the defense was there to pick it up. Ben Zobrist led off the eighth with a double -- his second of the night -- and B.J. Upton strode to the plate as the tying run. Upton flied out to right field and Zobrist took off for third, but Sweeney connected with Mike Aviles and Nick Punto to complete the double play and clear the bases.
"Ryan Sweeney's play has to be the play of the game. With Mike's throw and Nick's tag, that's a game-saver right there," Valentine said.
"We're trying to scratch to score runs. We need to score more runs," Zobrist added. "We're trying to do everything we can to make that happen. ... We're not going to be afraid to make mistakes and keep playing hard, and let the chips fall where they may."
It didn't hurt that the Red Sox were pitching with a lead the whole night. Fresh off the All-Star Game, David Ortiz picked up right where he left off in the first half with a no-doubt shot off Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson that gave Boston a 1-0 lead in the first inning.
"It's just part of what I was doing in Kansas City," Ortiz joked. "While everybody was on vacation, I was taking swings."
Boston added to that lead as Hellickson struggled with his command in the second inning. The Rays right-hander walked Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Sweeney with one out, then hit Aviles, loading the bases for Pedro Ciriaco. The second baseman took a changeup, whiffed on a fastball and finally stroked a ground-ball single into center field, scoring Saltalamacchia and Sweeney to put the Red Sox ahead by three.
"It's a good feeling. We got the win, and everything's about that. I feel happy to do a little bit to help the team," said Ciriaco, who is 10-for-12 with six RBIs in his last three games and figures to see even more time at second with Dustin Pedroia on the disabled list. "It's huge for me. Every time I get a chance to wear the uniform is another opportunity for me. To be part of the Red Sox team is huge for me."
With the lead, Morales could continue mixing his pitches, working in his curveball and upping his fastball velocity as he allowed only two hits and struck out five while walking three -- all in the fourth inning. He walked the tightrope in that 33-pitch frame, loading the bases with two outs on three straight free passes. But he struck out Rays designated hitter Luke Scott on a high fastball to get out of the inning unscathed.
It was Morales' second scoreless start of the year, more than any other starter on Boston's staff. And more importantly, it was a win the Red Sox -- who also got Jacoby Ellsbury back from the disabled list Friday after he spent three months on the disabled list with a subluxed right shoulder -- can build on heading into a critical stretch of the season.
"It's nice. You wait four days and you have a sour taste," Valentine said. "It tastes a little better knowing [Rays pitcher David] Price is going tomorrow and [James] Shields the next day. It's good to get that one today."