Red Sox aren't back but they're better

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You can't say the Red Sox are back.

Not when they're in fourth place in the American League East with a 20-20 record. Not when they're last in the A.L. with a 4.94 ERA.

But consider this:

If the Sox had lost Tuesday night, they would have trailed the Rays by 9 1/2 games, the Yankees by 7 1/2 and the Blue Jays -- yes, the Blue Jays -- by 4 1/2.

They didn't lose.

Didn't lose even though they trailed the Yankees by five runs entering the eighth inning.

Didn't lose even though shortstop Marco Scutaro made two errors.

Didn't lose even though right-hander Josh Beckett allowed five runs in 4 2/3 innings.

Oh, the legend of this 7-6 victory gets better, and not just because outfielders Darnell McDonald and Jeremy Hermida, two of the Red Sox hitters who helped vanquish Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, had combined to face him once previously in their entire careers.

The Sox didn't lose even though David Ortiz went into a home-run trot prematurely and was thrown out at second representing the tying run in the eighth.

Didn't lose even though right fielder J.D. Drew left with minor left calf/right hamstring issues that same inning.

Didn't lose even though closer Jonathan Papelbon had the tying run on third with one out in the ninth -- and even though the Boston outfield in the final inning consisted of McDonald, Hermida and Jonathan Van Every.

"A lot happened tonight," manager Terry Francona said. "That's probably an understatement."

A lot always happens when the Red Sox play the Yankees. This little ditty lasted 4 hours, 9 minutes after a 59-minute rain delay -- and was played under protest by the Yankees, who claimed that the Red Sox failed to note Beckett's injury prior to removing him in the fifth.

The protest has no chance -- Beckett injured himself while throwing a splitter to Alex Rodriguez, and Francona said that pitching coach John Farrell alerted plate umpire Angel Campos when the change was made.

But with Yankees-Red Sox, the drama never ends.

It's always tempting to ascribe too much meaning to a game like this, to say -- aha! -- now the Red Sox will gain momentum.

Except a lot of people thought that after the Sox swept three games in Toronto in late April. And a lot of people thought that again after they rebounded from getting swept in Baltimore by winning four straight over the Angels in Fenway Park.

The impending returns of outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron -- that might spur momentum. A normal start or two by Beckett certainly would help, too.

The Red Sox's schedule remains difficult -- they open a two-game series at Fenway against the Twins Wednesday night, then go back on the road for six games in Philadelphia and Tampa Bay.

After that, things get easier -- home against Kansas City and Oakland, away against Baltimore and Cleveland. Yet, if the Sox's vaunted rotation does not start clicking, the team still might be buried by the end of May.

"You never know in this damn game," said right-hander John Lackey, a newcomer to the Sox-Yankees rivalry. "That's the one thing I do know -- that I don't know anything."

Which is why, for a few hours anyway, the Sox can savor what they accomplished Tuesday night.

Rivera allowed a decisive grand slam to the Twins' Jason Kubel on Sunday, but speak not of a slump. This one should have ended differently.

If not for an error by right fielder Marcus Thames, who had hit a game-winning homer off Papelbon the previous night, Joba Chamberlain's four-run stumble in the eighth would have figured less prominently, too.

McDonald, a career minor leaguer who had never faced Rivera, stepped to the plate with one out.

"They didn't need to give me a scouting report," McDonald said. "That's Mariano. Do what you can. Don't try to do too much and hope you find some grass."

McDonald did just that, dropping a soft single to center. It was then that Thames botched a popup by Marco Scutaro, but Rivera retired Dustin Pedroia for the second out.

In stepped Hermida, who had replaced Drew.

"Best thing I did all night," Francona dead-panned.

Hermida had faced Rivera once before -- in 2006, as a member of the Marlins.

"An 18-hopper to second," he recalled.

Ah, better luck this time.

Hermida hit a two-run, go-ahead double over the head of Yankees left fielder Randy Winn, who appeared to be playing unusually shallow.

Thus, inevitably, the stage was set for Papelbon.

Thames was the hero who became a goat. Papelbon was the goat who became a hero.

With runners on first and third and one out, the Yankees' Juan Miranda hit a hard smash back to the mound.

What followed, Francona joked, was a reasonable facsimile by Papelbon of the late John Belushi jumping around from side to side in "Animal House."

Pinch-runner Ramiro Pena had been running on the pitch. Papelbon looked toward second but did not throw, knowing he did not have a play. He then looked toward third to check Robinson Cano. And then, finally, he threw to first to retire Miranda for the second out.

"An instinct play," Papelbon said.

"I was glad he threw it to first base instead of right field," Pedroia said.

The game ended only after Papelbon, following a walk to Thames, struck out Winn in an eight-pitch at-bat.

No, the Sox aren't back.

But for one night, at least, they sure felt better.