ST. PETERSBURG -- One will never know how much different the 2012 season would have been for the Red Sox if not for that big misfortune that Jacoby Ellsbury had on April 13, when he separated his right shoulder. That incident occurred against the Rays, the same team Ellsbury made his comeback from the disabled list against on July 13.
However, Ellsbury was back in name only for a while. With the season down to its final couple of weeks, Ellsbury is at last recapturing his ability to be a game-changer.
With Ellsbury leading the charge, the Red Sox pulled out a 5-2 victory over the Rays on Monday night, looking comfortable in the role of spoiler.
Rays right-hander Alex Cobb had a no-hitter going through 5 2/3 innings, but Ellsbury changed all of that with one swing, lining a two-run homer to right that put Boston ahead, 2-1.
From that point on, the Red Sox never trailed.
"Yeah, he had a [no-hitter] and then [Jose Iglesias] got hit by a pitch, and I'm just trying to put a good at-bat together," said Ellsbury. "That's the main thing. I got a 3-1 count and got a fastball. It was actually in. He threw a good pitch. I just put a good swing on it."
When Ellsbury is in top form, as he was for virtually all of 2011, a pitcher can throw his best pitch and still see it deposited into the seats.
Ellsbury went 3-for-5, and is hitting .400 over his last 30 at-bats.
"I thought Ells took control of the at-bat," said manager Bobby Valentine. "He stepped out and did a good job, and Iggy did a really good job of getting a good jump to beat the ball to second on a [Pedro] Ciriaco ground ball and got a good jump on the ball in the dirt to get to third. It looked like, for five innings, we didn't even have any gas in our tank and then it seemed like Iggy ignited us a little there and Ells took a lot of time in between pitches and got a 3-1 pitch and gave us the lead."
The Red Sox can never make the nightmare of last September go away, when the Rays turned the tables on them with a historic pennant-race comeback. But Boston can at least help spoil Tampa Bay's hopes at an encore performance during this year's stretch run.
The loss dropped the Rays 5 1/2 games back in the American League East, and 4 1/2 off the pace in the hunt for an AL Wild Card berth. Tampa Bay has lost six of its last seven games.
"We are going to have to find a way to bounce out of it," said Rays outfielder B.J. Upton, who had three hits. "We need to find a way to do it."
Veteran righty Aaron Cook kept his sinker down, giving up five hits and a run over six innings to earn the win, his first since Aug. 6.
"It's one of those things," said Cook. "I just try to put it out of my mind and go out there and try to be myself every start and try to give us a chance to win some baseball games. Fortunately it worked out tonight."
Cook (4-10, 4.93 ERA) opened with four shutout innings.
"I feel happy for Cookie tonight," said Valentine. "He threw 71 pitches, but he threw them with all his might and gave us everything he had. I thought it was a tough night for him to get outs with and he got them. There's been a little time in between wins. Maybe he'll get on a little roll here before the season ends. I thought he and Ryan [Lavarnway] mixed pitches up real well, too."
Boston kept the pressure on in the seventh. James Loney led off with a single up the middle. Jarrod Saltalamacchia followed with a walk. Lavarnway reached on an error by shortstop Ben Zobrist, and that loaded the bases with nobody out. Pinch-hitter Mauro Gomez stepped up and smashed a two-run single to left, giving the Red Sox a three-run lead.
"Big pinch-hit by Mauro with two strikes," said Valentine. "He kept battling, fouled off the 1-2 curveball and then got a pitch he could handle and drove in a couple of runs. That was big."
Iglesias executed a sacrifice bunt, moving the runners to second and third. Rays manager Joe Maddon opted to walk Ciriaco intentionally, even with the dangerous Ellsbury coming up. The move didn't work, as Ellsbury blooped an RBI single to left against lefty J.P. Howell.
"That just goes to show you that Ciriaco has gained a little respect around the league, too," Valentine said.
Ellsbury admitted getting a little extra charge from driving in a run after the dare by Maddon.
"I was excited to have an opportunity to get up and drive a run in," Ellsbury said. "I like that. I always liked that mentality in any situation. I like being in a situation where I can help my team win, having an opportunity to drive in a run. You're not always going to have success in that situation, but it only adds to my focus."
Speaking of focus, Boston's bullpen was locked in over the final three innings. Rich Hill mowed threw the seventh, striking out two of the three batters he faced. Junichi Tazawa, who has been ridiculously hot of late, did the same thing in the eighth, lowering his ERA to 1.43.
"You can't throw a ball any better than he's throwing it," Valentine said. "It's impossible to throw it better -- it really is."