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Boston 'pen spoils Sale's gem, could be key story line

Gap between Red Sox and Yankees relief units could loom large
MLB.com @MikeLupica

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Red Sox had been leading in their season opener against the Rays, who are only supposed to be good enough to win the Florida State championship this season from the Marlins, since the second inning. Eduardo Nunez had hit one to left-center between Denard Span and Kevin Kiermaier and the ball bounced between them, starting to roll in the general direction of the bay. It became an inside-the-parker for Nunez and by the time he went sliding across home plate, the Red Sox were ahead, 3-0. They also had Chris Sale on the mound. So against this Rays team, with that pitcher pitching for the Red Sox, it seemed like 30-0 at the time.

Sale had been telling everybody on Wednesday that he was here 20 years ago when Tropicana Field opened. It was his ninth birthday and his uncle brought him and they sat to the left of Section 144, down along the right-field line. Sale is a Lakeland kid; he pitched college ball for Florida Gulf Coast. Now he was pitching an opener at the same ballpark.

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ST. PETERSBURG -- The Red Sox had been leading in their season opener against the Rays, who are only supposed to be good enough to win the Florida State championship this season from the Marlins, since the second inning. Eduardo Nunez had hit one to left-center between Denard Span and Kevin Kiermaier and the ball bounced between them, starting to roll in the general direction of the bay. It became an inside-the-parker for Nunez and by the time he went sliding across home plate, the Red Sox were ahead, 3-0. They also had Chris Sale on the mound. So against this Rays team, with that pitcher pitching for the Red Sox, it seemed like 30-0 at the time.

Sale had been telling everybody on Wednesday that he was here 20 years ago when Tropicana Field opened. It was his ninth birthday and his uncle brought him and they sat to the left of Section 144, down along the right-field line. Sale is a Lakeland kid; he pitched college ball for Florida Gulf Coast. Now he was pitching an opener at the same ballpark.

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"I even have a panoramic shot of the first pitch," Sale said.

Imagine the panoramic shot he imagined for himself at 9, in this park, as he was surely dreaming his dreams about pitching in the big leagues someday. Now here he was, the day before his 29th birthday, Opening Day starter for the Red Sox, their ace on a day when there were aces pitching all over the baseball map. And the kid from Section 144 did his job. Did he ever. He pitched six innings, gave up just one hit, struck out nine, and left after 92 pitches after a spring when there was so much conversation about how important it was for Sale to finish this season pitching with as much force as he did for so much of the last one -- until he looked as gassed as he did by October.

Sox unravel in 8th after Sale's strong start

He had done his job on this day. He had been every bit an ace. You knew he was coming out after six, that new manager Alex Cora wasn't going to let him get any closer to 100 pitches than he already was. In the top of the seventh, Rafael Devers doubled home Xander Bogaerts. The Red Sox lead went to 4-0. Matt Barnes pitched a scoreless seventh. Six outs to go, and the kid from Section 144 would be 1-0 and the Red Sox would be 1-0 -- same as the Yankees, who had Giancarlo Stanton hitting a couple of home runs in Toronto in his Yankees debut.

And then Joe Kelly entered the game for Boston.

Kelly can throw a baseball 100 mph sometimes. It did him absolutely no good against the Rays, future state champs of Florida, in the bottom of the eighth. By the time Cora finally came and got him, it was 4-1 for the Red Sox and the bases were loaded and Carson Smith was coming into the game.

"[Smith] keeps the ball down," Cora said in the office of the visiting manager.
 
Only Smith was all over the place in walking Brad Miller. Now the Red Sox lead was 4-2. Smith went to 3-2 on Span, up there with the bases loaded, up there with a chance to take that inside-the-park home run right off the books. Span worked the count to 3-2. But then it seemed like the count had been 3-2 for half an hour in the bottom of the eighth. Then Span was turning on one that Smith had not kept down, hitting one deep to right field, and the bases were about to be cleared, and he was going to end up with a triple that made the game 5-4 for the Rays. Sale wasn't going to be 1-0. Neither were the Red Sox. But the Rays sure were.

Video: BOS@TB: Span gives Rays lead with triple to right

The difference between the Red Sox and Yankees might not be all the home runs the Yankees are going to hit. The difference might be everybody they have in their bullpen against all the guys not named Craig Kimbrel in the Red Sox bullpen. Of course, it is only one game.

Of Kelly's first 23 pitches, 21 were fastballs. They always talk about him working on other pitches. Then Kelly comes out throwing as if anything except a fastball is against the law. Very few of them were near home plate. Just like that, the bottom of the eighth was going all wrong for his team as everything went right for the home team, playing against a Boston team that spends around $150 million more on baseball players than they do.

"Looked like we were about to be 1-0 behind our ace," Tony La Russa, who works with Dave Dombrowski in the Red Sox front office now, said outside the Red Sox clubhouse.

Inside, Cora was left to talk about it, about Kelly mostly, at the end of a day that really had gone all wrong for his team, and for him as he managed his first official game in the big leagues.

"You create traffic," said Cora about what had happened with Kelly out there. "You put yourself in a bad situation."

Then he was talking about the one Span hit off Smith, after Smith had nearly struck him out on the pitch before that, the one that made it 5-4 before Span himself came home on an infield hit.

"He got one up in the zone," Cora said.

Did he ever. Now Opening Day was crashing down on the Red Sox, playing the future state champs of the state of Florida. It was such a good story, about the kid from Section 144. Then Sale had backed it up by pitching the way he pitched, not so terribly far from home, in the ballpark where he had first seen big league baseball with his own eyes. All his bullpen had to do was to give him three innings. The bullpen gave him one.

Long way to go, for sure. A lot more chances for Kelly and Smith and the other guys ahead of Kimbrel. They're just not the guys the Yankees have ahead of Aroldis Chapman. That may be as much of a story as anything else in the AL East this season.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.

Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays, Joe Kelly, Chris Sale, Carson Smith