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Cora's decision to stick with Sale pays off

Vazquez comes off bench in seventh to hit go-ahead homer
@IanMBrowne
July 24, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG -- Chris Sale had just thrown the 114th pitch of what had become a laborious night and manager Alex Cora was coming to get him. Or so it seemed. Sale wanted to finish the sixth inning, and he rewarded his manager's decision to let him do so by

ST. PETERSBURG -- Chris Sale had just thrown the 114th pitch of what had become a laborious night and manager Alex Cora was coming to get him.

Or so it seemed.

Sale wanted to finish the sixth inning, and he rewarded his manager's decision to let him do so by retiring Guillermo Heredia with a liner to short.

Led by Sale's grit and Christian Vázquez's clutch pinch-hit homer to lead off the top of the seventh, the Red Sox scored an important 5-4 victory over the Rays on Tuesday night at Tropicana Field.

Box score

When Cora walked out to get his ace, Sale essentially waved him off, saying that he had three pitches left.

Why three?

"That's how many pitches are in a punchout. He owes me one," quipped Sale, who needed just two pitches to retire Heredia.

Just after Cora decided to leave Sale in, he made another fruitful decision by enlisting Vazquez to hit for Mitch Moreland against lefty reliever Colin Poche. Vazquez scorched the second pitch he saw, a 92.5-mph fastball, over the wall in left to snap a 2-2 tie.

It was Vazquez's 16th homer of the season and second as a pinch-hitter. What was his approach?

"Wait for my pitch, don't miss it," Vazquez said. "I know the guy throws a lot of fastballs, so look for a fastball down in the zone and drive it and get on base. I got the homer."

With the win, the Sox moved to 10 games above .500 (56-46) for the first time this season. They also moved into a tie with the Rays for second place in the American League East, marking the first time Boston has been higher than third since March 29 -- the second game of the season.

"It seems like it's been an eternity to get to 10 [over]," said Cora. "We know where we are now. It seemed early in the season those guys were way ahead of us. It was something that we learned now, that we can catch up with people."

Though the defending World Series champs have often had to grind this season, they remain in position to make a run down the stretch. They are two games behind the Athletics for the second AL Wild Card spot.

"I think we've still got some work to do," said Sale. "I don't think you exhale yet, sit back or do anything like that. You just keep your foot on the gas."

And the Red Sox's chances of going deep will be greatly enhanced by a return to form from Sale, who has won his last two starts after going winless in the four before that.

"Yeah, obviously this has been a pretty big work in progress," said Sale. "I got off on the wrong foot and had some good starts mixed in in the middle. That's what it's about. Anyone can go out there and do it once. You want to get on a roll. You want to feel like you're the guy where the team feels like they're going to win where you're stepping out there. I obviously have a job to do here. I know what my role is for this team. I wanted to get back to that."

At times, Sale was dominant on Tuesday. There were others when Tampa Bay pestered him with deep at-bats, such as a 12-at-bat sequence with Tommy Pham in the fifth that resulted in a double. Or how about the nine-pitch at-bat in the third by Mike Zunino that set up a game-tying two-run homer by Travis d'Arnaud?

As annoying as the persistence of the Rays might have seemed, Sale didn't let it get to him. Instead, he minimized the damage, allowing four hits and two runs while walking three and striking out 10 for the 12th time this season. The 116 pitches were a season high.

The truth is that Cora nearly pulled Sale after the fifth inning -- by which point he had thrown 102 pitches.

"Actually, we were going to take him out in the fifth, and he said, 'I'm in a groove. I've got it.' Trust the player, trust him," said Cora. "He's healthy, which is the most important thing, and he was making pitches, so we kept him in."

It turned out to be a good thing Sale gave Cora those final three outs. The ninth inning got a little too adventurous, as Brandon Workman tried to complete a six-out save but instead got pulled at 44 pitches with a major rally in progress.

Marcus Walden was Boston's last line of defense, and after walking Pham to force in a run, Tampa Bay was a hit away from either tying or winning the game. But Walden made his pitch, and Austin Meadows grounded out to end it, allowing Cora and the Red Sox to exhale.

Crunch time has officially arrived, and the Red Sox are ready to attack it.

"I think that's pretty apparent right now," said Workman. "There's no secret where we're at in the standings. We're not where we need to be, so we have to play good ball for a while and get where we need to be. It's that time of year. We have to win. So all the stuff we've been saying about our potential is great, but it's time to do it on the field."

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.