Saturday, August 15, 2009

Pain and Glory

Has there ever been a game where the Sox went from punching their fans in the gut to sending them into delirious joy so quickly? If all you looked at was the 8-4 final score, you'd think the Sox rolled to victory.

Man, would you be wrong.

Jon Lester pitched a decent game. He went six innings and gave up three runs. He also struck out 11 batters, the sixth time this year that Lester has had 10+ strikeouts in a start. His control was decent (61.5% of his pitches were for strikes, 60% of first pitches to batters were for strikes). Despite that, Lester was on the wrong side of a 3-2 score when he left the game.

That was due, in part, to Kevin Milwood once again giving the Sox fits this year. For 5.2 innings he held Boston down despite giving up five walks. Boston only scratched three hits off of him. But when Milwood came out, his relief (Eddie Guardado) put a fastball in the one spot where Papi can still drive them out of the park. The result was a 2-2 tie going into the bottom of the sixth.

The Rangers touched the Sox for a run each in the sixth and seventh, while Boston's bats went ice cold...or colder, as the case may be.

And then came the crazy, crazy ninth inning.

Frank Francisco was in to finish the game for Texas. Frank has a similar issue that Paps has had this year; the ability to utterly implode. He started off with giving up a double to Ortiz and an infield single to Varitek. Then Ellsbury stroked a 1-2 pitch to center for an RBI single.

At this point it's 4-3. You'd think that Ron Washington would take Francisco out. Instead he leaves Frank in. It looks like a good choice at first, with Chris Woodward striking out. In response, Tito pulls Varitek and replaces him with Clay Buchholz as a pinch-runner.


Now, I have defended Tito left and right all season, and will continue to do. But even I was a little confused by the decision to use Clay as a pinch-runner. Why not just use Casey Kotchman as the runner at that point? His knowledge of how to run the bases would more than offset any advantage you get from Clay's speed.

Regardless, Clay was now the runner at second when Dustin Pedroia rang a double off the left field wall. The problem was that Clay froze like a deer in the headlights between second and third while Ellsbury was trying to score from first. The result was utter disaster; Clay nearly tripping and staggering to home and getting tagged out with ease. So now instead of the game being tied at four, Pedroia is at second, Ellsbury is at third with two outs and every Sox fan all but thinks the game is over.

Enter Victor Martinez.

If anyone ever questioned why Boston traded for V-Mart, it was this moment they received their answer. With the game (and Boston's collective psyche) on the line, Martinez went eight pitches with Francisco and then drove a 2-2 pitch into right field, scoring both Ellsbury and Pedroia. Just like that, the Sox went ahead 5-4 and Boston looked like a different team. And that is no exaggeration, that two-run double looked like it lifted a weight of the team's shoulders.

Now, surely Ron Washington would pull Francisco at this point, right? Guess again. He leaves Frankie in long enough to give up a Jason Bay single (scoring V-Mart). And then leaves him in again to give up a two-run homer from J.D. Drew, which is a sure sign that you shouldn't be on the mound. Only then did Ron Washington replace his pitcher. By that time it was 8-4 and the game was all but over. Papelbon came on in the ninth and, although he gave up a double, he got the job done.

This win was huge in so many different ways. First is the obvious impact in the standings. The Sox now have a 1.5 game lead on the Rangers in the wildcard race. It is also the first time the Sox have won in Arlington this year. The Sox broke this particular hex at just the right time.

But most importantly, it allows the Sox to believe in themselves again. A six-run ninth, on the road, to win a critical game? When is the last time the Sox did anything close to that this year? I don't remember. But this year, when the Sox have been behind entering the ninth inning, their record is 3-38. So the "come from behind" win hasn't been a big part of Boston's season thus far. And after the Bronx disaster...this win is huge.

So now we see if the Sox can take this win and build on it. Tonight they send Penny to the mound to go against Derek Holland. Holland can pitch a gem (his last outing was a complete game shutout of the Angels) or a dud (four runs in 4.1 innings against Oakland the game before his shutout). So I guess we'll see which Holland shows up. But after last night, the Boston lineup should be brimming with confidence.

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