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Middlebrooks drives in two runs on three hits

ST. PETERSBURG -- The good news for the Red Sox on Sunday was that their 7-3 victory over the Rays was a group effort, as was their series win at Tropicana Field to kick off the second half, and they are back above .500.

The better news for Boston was that, finally, that group is beginning to more closely resemble the one the club expected heading into Spring Training.

Will Middlebrooks and Jacoby Ellsbury paced the offense with three hits apiece on Sunday. Daniel Nava belted a go-ahead homer. Mike Aviles hit a two-run blast and made a heads-up defensive play. Manager Bobby Valentine announced after the game that Carl Crawford will join the Red Sox on Monday at Fenway Park.

All that, and Josh Beckett picked up his first win since May 20 despite battling dizziness and "borderline blackout periods" on the mound that he attributed to the flu medicine he's been taking.

"You saw all the guys," Valentine said. "Everyone was just relaxed and doing what they could do.

"Two out of three is good, with a near miss on the sweep. I like the way we're coming together."

The Red Sox got to work quickly against Rays starter James Shields, who has given up 10 hits or more in four straight starts. Nava and David Ortiz walked in the first inning, and Adrian Gonzalez drove in Nava to give Boston an early lead. It was the first time since April 13 that Boston has had Ellsbury, Ortiz and Gonzalez in the same lineup.

"I need to do a better job of making my pitches," Shields said. "They found some holes today, and there is not much I can do about it. I just need to make better pitches."

But the Rays quickly struck back in a three-run first inning. Beckett gave up singles to the first three hitters he faced to score one run, hit Jeff Keppinger with two outs and then gave up a two-run single to Desmond Jennings to put the Red Sox in a 3-1 hole.

Beckett said he felt "zapped" by the flu medicine, but he got it together after that. The right-hander bounced back with five scoreless innings to record his 10th quality start of the season.

"I think he just had to get his feet on the ground a little," Valentine said. "He was struggling with it, battled the whole time, but did one heck of a job putting those goose eggs up."

Meanwhile, Boston's lineup was getting to Shields. Middlebrooks recorded his first hit in the second and scored on Aviles' 10th homer of the season, tied for his career high. That tied the game at 3 and set up the Red Sox to break out in the fifth.

Nava led off the inning with a solo shot to right field. Shields went on to load the bases for Middlebrooks, who delivered with a two-run single to center field. Middlebrooks went a combined 1-for-8 to start the series, but his 3-for-4 effort Sunday brought his average back to .301.

"We need to get the momentum going in the second half, and I want to be able to help as much as I can," said Middlebrooks, who singled off a changeup in the second and lined a curveball for a double in the fourth. "I had a feeling that's how they were going to attack me. ... I'm just sticking with my approach throughout the entire at-bat and not just one or two pitches."

Boston loaded the bases again in the seventh, this time against Rays lefty reliever Jake McGee with no outs. The Sox only got one run out of it, however, as Cody Ross sent a one-out sacrifice fly to center to score Ellsbury.

Junichi Tazawa gave up consecutive seventh-inning singles to Carlos Pena and Ben Zobrist, but Aviles and reliever Mark Melancon helped minimize the damage. Aviles cut off Ross' throw from right field on Zobrist's hit -- knowing Pena would be safe at third and Zobrist would try for second -- and fired the ball back to Gonzalez at first base to tag out Zobrist. With the Sox gradually easing him into higher-leverage situations, Melancon came in and stranded Pena at third with a strikeout and groundout, then worked a perfect eighth inning.

Alfredo Aceves made things a little too interesting for the Red Sox in the ninth, walking the bases loaded and bringing the tying run to the plate, but Hideki Matsui flied out and Boston was able to escape.

"We've got to win series now," Beckett said. "We didn't put ourselves in a situation where we can go out and just play .500 baseball from here on out, so we've got to figure out a way to win some series."

So, the Red Sox will take their series victory back to Fenway Park to take on Kevin Youkilis and the American League Central-leading White Sox. Crawford will be back Monday, and Dustin Pedroia won't be far behind him. With a few more group efforts like Sunday, the Red Sox believe they are still very much capable of keeping their season alive.

"You look around the names in this locker room, I definitely feel good," Aviles said. "I felt good about it in Spring Training. I feel good about it now. And I'll feel good about it at the end of the year, too."

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