ST. PETERSBURG — The way Dan Johnson — officially Daniel Ryan Johnson — is going, Red Sox fans are likely to give him a new, um, customized nickname, like they have for Bucky "Bleeping" Dent.
And if the Rays keep going the way they're going, Boston fans will have reason to curse them all as they head to the playoffs and the Sox head home.
Johnson earned more wrath by delivering the key hit again, a bases-loaded single in the sixth, as the Rays beat the Red Sox again Sunday, 5-3 before ESPN's national audience and 13,000 empty seats in a Tropicana Field crowd of 23,438.
"I like Boston. I like the ambience of the place. The history. That's crazy to be hated there," Johnson said. "I'm usually the nice guy. Or at least I thought I was. But it means I'm doing something good. I'll go with it. … It means I'm doing something good for this team. So I'd enjoy that. I hope that I keep doing that."
Johnson's legend is growing — a huge homer during the 2008 playoff race, a walkoff blast Saturday and Sunday's game-winner — but isn't quite yet as damning as Dent's legendary homer in the 1978 Yankees-Sox playoff game.
Plus, Johnson had plenty of help Sunday, topped by Carl Crawford's two-run homer earlier in the sixth that tied it at 3 and also made history, as he became the eighth player in modern times (since 1900) to have 100 homers, 100 triples and 400 steals.
"Momentum was in their hands," Rays starter James Shields said. "When Crawford hit that, momentum jumped back into our dugout."
Plus, Shields worked impressively into the seventh to become the franchise wins leader with 56, Carlos Peña had a big homer, centerfielder B.J. Upton made an impressive running catch and the bullpen trio of Randy Choate, Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano, who picked up his major-league leading 39th save, dominated.
The win kept the Rays (80-50) tied with the Yankees atop the American League East but more importantly at this point, it knocked the Red Sox 6½ games back with a little more than a month to play. Put another way, if the Rays finish just 16-16, the Sox have to go 23-8 to surpass them.
Not that the Sox are worried.
"What are we, five or six behind?" starter John Lackey said. "We've got a lot more games than that left. I'm not a math whiz, but I think it's doable."
The game wasn't quite as intense as the Rays' last Sunday night contest at the Trop — their 2008 AL Championship Series Game 7 win over the Red Sox — but it was pretty good, another tense back-and-forth affair that manager Joe Maddon insists will be much more the norm over the final month than the exception.
After the Rays went up 1-0 on Peña's homer and the Sox rallied for a 3-1 lead, the Rays responded with three runs in the sixth.
The first two came easy, Ben Zobrist singling with one out and Crawford (a .467 hitter off Lackey) following with his 15th homer of the season and 100th of his career.
Evan Longoria followed with a double, and after the Sox intentionally walked Peña then unintentionally walked Matt Joyce, Johnson delivered again, his single up the middle scoring Longoria with the go-ahead run.
The Rays lost a chance for more when Peña was thrown out at the plate but added an insurance run in the seventh.
Just another Bleepin' night.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]com.