Sunday, July 5, 2009

Salvage Job

So, after your team loses two in a row to Seattle at home, what do you do? How do you try to pick up the pieces when Boston blows two winnable games? Well, it sure doesn't hurt to go down to Fenway to catch the season finale.

Thanks to my brother-in-law Adam, my wife and I met him and my sister at Fenway to watch Lester take the mound. Even better, we were just seven rows behind home plate. So this post will be as much about the Sox winning 8-4 as it is about my impressions from where I was sitting.

This picture isn't apropos of much except for the Seattle coach exchanging lineup cards. That is one Lee Tinsley, who played for almost four seasons in Boston in the early and mid 1990s. I just like seeing old Boston players in the field.

The game kicked off very nicely. Watching Pedroia and Papi belt solo shots in the first was quite fun. And neither blast was cheap; Pedroia's would have cleared the stadium if it hadn't hit the sign. And Papi's went more than a few rows back in right. The picture above is Papi coming to home on his solo shot.

Watching Jon Lester pitch from the vantage point of behind home plate at ground level was pretty amazing. The one thing that stood out was the sweep of his curveball. Against right-handed batters that thing is devastating. It breaks from upper left to lower right on a near-diagonal line. When he trusted in it, the pitch was near unhittable. Seattle batters would either foul the pitch off or just flail at it.

I say "trusted" in it because when he didn't, the wheels fell off. When Seattle put up three runs in the fourth to take the lead, you could see Lester's confidence fade. He would get ahead in the count and then lose the batter. And his location would disappear. The curve wouldn't break properly and either come in too high or break too soon.

The result was a brutal fourth and fifth inning. In the fourth, thanks to a rare error from Pedroia at second, the bases were loaded for a Ronny Cedeno triple to deep right that J.D. Drew misplayed that cleared the bases. In the fifth, what should have been the second out on an infield fly became a single when Lester lost the ball in the sun. That allowed Langerhans to hit a sac fly to center and bring in the fourth Seattle run.

So it's the fifth inning and Boston was down 4-2. The park was quiet. You could feel everyone contemplating the idea that Boston would actually lose all three games to Seattle and go into a tie with the Yanks (no one thought the Jays would actually win...and they were right).

So when Ellsbury hit that homer in the sixth, it completely changed the tenor of the game. Once the Seattle lead was one run, everyone felt the Sox could at least tie the game, if not take the lead outright. And in the seventh, that is exactly what happened.

It's one thing to see a team collapse on television; it's another to watch it happen in front of your eyes a handful of feet away. The Mariners felt they had to replace Adam Morrow after 98 pitches with Miguel Batista. Batista got two outs but sandwiched them with a walk and a pair of singles. The last single from Ortiz drove in Drew and tied the game. And then came the key moment of the game. Rather than leave Batista in to try and get the last out, the Mariners brought in Mark Lowe.

Sometimes, you see a pitcher take the mound and you can tell he just doesn't want to be there. That was Mark Lowe on Sunday. He had no command of his pitches or the game. He walked the bases loaded, walked in the go-ahead run on just five pitches and then gave up a two-run single to Mark Kotsay. The pic above is of Lowe confabing with the infield before he gave up the single to Kotsay. That was it for Lowe. Sean White came in and and suffered a passed ball that allowed the eighth and last Boston run. In total, Boston scored five runs on three hits, three walks and a passed ball, and sent all nine batters to the plate in the seventh inning.

At that point the Boston bullpen took over. Masterson (who got the last out in the seventh) retired the side in the eighth on 12 pitches. And then in the ninth, Okajima came out and did Masterson one better by finishing the game with 11 pitches. Oki looked really good for a guy who is lucky to hit 86 on his fastball. But he mixes it up with his off-speed stuff so well that when it comes in, the batter isn't looking for it.

This was a huge win for the Sox. With it they stay one game ahead of the Yankees and it provides some momentum into the next series with Oakland. Had they lost this game you'd have to wonder if the losses wouldn't continue to mount up. Instead, there's some confidence that Smoltz can get his first win tomorrow.

Besides the win, the other big news was Boston getting a league-best six players named to the AL All-Star team. And of all the names, the one the crowd cheered longest and loudest for was Tim Wakefield. Wakefield may be viewed as a sentimental choice by some, but he deserves to be on the roster. His 10 wins are tied for the AL lead. He's fourth in complete games with two and third in win percentage (.769). Some may argue other guys deserved his slot. In my opinion, since Wakes got screwed in 1995 AND 1998, this has been a long time coming.

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