BOSTON -- Hunter Renfroe had already parked a two-run homer onto the street with two outs in the eighth, giving the Red Sox the big hit -- and a go-ahead hit no less -- that had eluded them all night.
Renfroe had already made yet another cannon throw from right field to nail Manuel Margot, who tried to stretch a softly-hit single into a double to end the top of the fourth.
But with the game still hanging in the balance with two outs in the ninth inning, Renfroe came through with another thrilling moment that ended a tense, 2-1 victory for the Red Sox over the Rays on Wednesday night at Fenway Park.
In what was the signature night of Renfroe’s strong season for the Red Sox, he was in the right place at the right time when center fielder Danny Santana tried to make a diving play on a sinking liner by Joey Wendle.
The ball squirted past Santana and rolled for a bit before Renfroe tracked it down. The speedy Wendle thought he could make it to third in hopes of putting the tying run on the corner with two outs in the ninth.
Renfroe thought otherwise and heaved what turned out to be his MLB-leading 16th assist of the season, as third baseman Bobby Dalbec slapped down the tag and the Red Sox went right to the hand-shake line.
“It’s tough to run, stop, catch the ball, plant, throw all the way to third, and on the money. It was just unbelievable,” said Red Sox righty Nathan Eovaldi, who dominated with seven shutout innings in a no-decision.
With the much-needed win, the Red Sox leap-frogged the Yankees by a half-game for the top American League Wild Card spot. The surging Blue Jays are 1 1/2 games behind the Yanks and two behind Boston, setting up an exciting final 20 games for three AL East teams.
The play was an electrifying way for the Sox to end a 3-3 homestand in which they played with a roster depleted by COVID-19, but one that should get healthier for a big road trip to Chicago and Seattle that starts on Friday night.
“You see Hunter getting there and he made an outstanding throw, and the tag by Bobby. It was a huge play,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “I mean, big swing, big throw. What he’s done for us this season, it’s been amazing. It was fun to watch.”
It wasn’t as fun for the Rays, who non-tendered Renfroe after he struggled offensively in 2020 as a platoon player for the AL pennant winners.
The Rays, who have a nine-game lead in the AL East over the Sox after taking two out of three in Boston, were gracious enough to creatively tip their caps technologically to their former teammate.
“Those guys are great over there,” said Renfroe. “It’s kind of funny, I got back in, looked at my phone and had messages from those guys and just kind of laughing matter, nothing too bad or anything, but just jokingly, a GIF waving the white flag and stuff like that. It was great. Those guys mean a lot to me still.”
In truth, getting let go by the Rays was the best thing that happened for Renfroe, who is built to hit in Fenway Park and has gotten a chance to play every day that he didn’t get for Tampa Bay.
When it comes to Renfroe and the Red Sox, the only real debate is this: Has he meant more with his bat or his glove/arm combo?
After a night like Wednesday, the question was all but impossible to answer.
Renfroe has 27 homers, 85 RBIs and an .837 OPS. Of late, Renfroe has been particularly hot, ripping nine hits in his last 17 at-bats, including three doubles and a homer.
"I don't think I've had the right fingers to get Renfroe out in the whole time we've faced him,” said Rays catcher Mike Zunino.
In the field, Renfroe continues to serve as a human roadblock for teams who dare to run on him.
The 16 assists by Renfroe are the most by a Red Sox player in right field in a single season during the expansion era, which started in 1961. Red Sox Hall of Famer Dwight Evans held the previous record with 15 in three different seasons (1975, ’76 and ’79).
He is just the sixth player in team history to hit 25-plus homers and record 15-plus assists in the same season, joining Jason Bay (2009), Manny Ramirez (’05), Jim Rice (1983), Carl Yastrzemski (’69, ’77) and Ted Williams (’42).
One reason Renfroe racks up so many assists is from his belief that he can always throw someone out.
“I kind of thought I had a chance to get him,” said Renfroe on the game-ending play. “Where he was, I knew I had a chance to possibly get him so I knew I had to make a good strong throw and throw it on the money and it was lucky enough to be on the money.”
For the Rays, there was no second-guessing of Wendle, who simply dared Renfroe to make a great play, which he did.
"Hunter Renfroe had a pretty good day today. We know he's got just a cannon for an arm,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “Joey is putting pressure on the defense. I don't know, from standing up and practicing that over and over, if he could have made a better throw. Just tip your cap to Hunter for what he did at the plate and then what he did right there on that play.”