BOSTON — Having lost momentum and opportunity in Baltimore, and off to a sluggish start Thursday, the Rays needed something to break their way.
Turned out it was B.J. Upton's Louisville Slugger.
And if the Rays somehow pull this off and beat out the Red Sox for a playoff spot, the shattered piece of ash — 34 inches long, 31 ounces and black — will take on legendary status as the broken bat that broke the hearts of the Fenway faithful.
Sparked by Upton's unlikely hit, the barrel of the bat flying at shortstop Marco Scutaro just before the ball went through his legs, the Rays rolled to a 9-2 win in the opener of this showdown series.
"You're always looking for signs, man," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "You're looking for signs from the baseball gods. They've got to throw you a sign once in a while, got to give you something to further the belief.
"Believe me, when I saw that I thought, 'Hey, let's see what's going to happen for the rest of this game.' "
What happened was the Rays rolled, their silenced bats coming to life. Evan Longoria followed immediately with a three-run homer for a 4-0 lead, and Casey Kotchman and Upton added two-run shots. Starter Jeremy Hellickson battled into the sixth on a chilly, damp and windy night, and four relievers teamed for 10 outs.
And what happened then was the Rays took a vital step in the right direction, the first of several required, as they closed to within three games of the Sox in the AL wild-card race, though with only 13 remaining. (They also clinched the season series by improving to 10-5 vs. the Sox, ensuring a one-game playoff would be at the Trop.) The four-game series continues tonight, with James Shields facing Boston's Josh Beckett.
"It's one game, and it's great to get the first one, and we can move on to (tonight)," Maddon said.
The struggling Sox helped with another poor effort as they lost for the seventh time in their last eight games and ninth in 11, including four straight to the Rays.
The Rays had their first two men on of the night with two outs in the third when Upton hit a sharp grounder to short. The barrel of the bat got to Scutaro just before the ball, and both ended up going through his legs.
"I saw the bat at the last moment," Scutaro said. "I just jumped. Couldn't do anything else about it. I thought maybe (today) I'm going to tell (coach Tim Bogar) to hit me ground balls and also bats so I can work on that."
Upton breaks a lot of bats — three or four already on this road trip, so he's got more being shipped to him — but never one that worked out so well. Or featured such good timing.
"That is definitely a first for me, but I'll take it," Upton said. "I think enough things haven't gone our way this year."
Maddon had pretty much the same take: "Obviously we got a break with the broken bat, my God, never seen that one before, ball and bat arriving at about the same time in the hole at shortstop. That was fortuitous, but we took advantage of it."
It took only four more pitches from Kyle Weiland, the first of seven Boston pitchers, as Longoria delivered, his 27th homer overall, and 22nd since June 11. His 75 RBIs since then are the most in the majors over that span.
The Sox got one run back as Hellickson teetered a bit, but the Rays tacked on two in the sixth on a homer by Kotchman. And then Upton struck again with a seventh-inning blast against the wind over the Green Monster in left-center — "punctured," Maddon said — to make it 8-1.
The Rays have beaten the Red Sox six straight times, and 10 in 15 overall, including five of six at Fenway, and the key has been their pitching, holding the Sox to a .178 average.
"Pitching, man," Boston DH David Ortiz said.