NEW YORK – When Felipe Lopez arrived in Yankee Stadium on Saturday, he said that part of his reason for joining the Red Sox rather than the Padres was because he did not want to bear witness to a champagne celebration of which he did not feel a part. Instead, on Sunday, he had an up-close view of a wake.
The Red Sox’ last-ditch effort to thrust themselves back into contention came to a crashing halt on Sunday night, in one of the most dramatic games of recent seasons between the two clubs. A sense of desperation prevailed on both teams, and it showed as the two sides exchanged leads over the engrossing final innings.
But in the end, the Sox were left feeling gutted, their closer having failed to secure a lead in the bottom of the ninth en route to a 4-3 loss in 10 innings to the Yankees. (Recap.)
With the defeat, any remaining embers of playoff hope for the Sox were extinguished for all intents and purposes. The team’s elimination number in both the division and wild card races is now one, meaning that either one Boston loss or one win by either Tampa Bay and New York would eliminate the Sox officially. That outcome seems inevitable.
The dramatic turn of events in many ways served as a microcosm for the entirety of the Sox’ season, revealing about the character of the club as well as its shortcomings in a narrative arc that was similar to that of the 2010 campaign.
The Sox found their stride in May, jumped ahead in the standings but could not create any real separation between themselves and their American League East rivals. A tremendous effort from Daisuke Matsuzaka followed a similar pattern on Sunday.
Matsuzaka was nothing short of dominating for most of the game, allowing the Sox to claim an early 1-0 advantage that the team carried into the seventh inning. But the Sox lacked any margin for error, and so a single misstep changed the course of a game they had to win.
In the case of Matsuzaka’s outing, it was an 0-2 cutter that stayed over the plate and didn’t get quite far enough on Alex Rodriguez’ hands that undid one of the pitcher’s finest outings of the year. Rodriguez managed to get his hands inside the ball and drive it to the opposite field, where the Yankee Stadium jet stream carried it just over the top of the wall in right-center.
“In my mind, I was thinking of the strikeout pitch that I threw [Rodriguez] in his first at-bat,” said Matsuzaka, referring to a swing-and-miss cutter. “I didn’t think that pitch on the 0-2 was in that terrible of a spot, but he put a good swing on it. I also thought to myself that it’s a good ballpark if you’re a hitter.
SHORT-HANDED LINEUP, UNEXPECTED CONTRIBUTORS
For most of the game, the lineup appeared hollow. Critical at-bats were being entrusted to players who did not start the year on the major league roster, with responsibilities exceeding what would normally be conferred upon players with limited experience levels.
Lars Anderson was 0-for-3 and stranded four runners. Eric Patterson was the leadoff hitter in the 10th inning.
Yet there was another side to that coin, as the Sox also received unexpectedly impressive contributions that breathed life into their hopes for the game. Rookie Ryan Kalish delivered a huge single and then stole a pair of bases against Mariano Rivera in the top of the ninth to help the Sox rally. Bill Hall singled him in, then stole a pair of bases of his own. That players who entered the 2010 season with no real expectations for their contributions to a pennant race continued an ongoing theme that commenced in April with Darnell McDonald's walkoff heroics and that continued over a season in which players like Daniel Nava and Jed Lowrie added to the highlight reel.
It was a plucky effort, by a group that was almost good enough to pull off a formidable heist of a victory. Almost.
But in the end, it was hard not to look at the absences of players like Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis and to wonder how – on a night when the Sox were shut down by Yankees starter Phil Hughes – things might have been different with the team’s “real” lineup.
UNDONE BY THE BULLPEN
The Red Sox’ late rally against Rivera had the team on a remarkable emotional high.
“I was even screaming myself,” acknowledged David Ortiz.
Yet after the Sox rallied in the top of the ninth to turn a one-run deficit into a one-run lead, the fact that Rivera was followed into the game by Jonathan Papelbon cast a somewhat unsettled feeling over the bottom of the ninth.
Once a harbinger of near-automatic victory, Papelbon came to represent uncertainty this year. A career path of singular dominance prior to 2010 received a bucket of cold water, with Papelbon enduring by far his worst big league season, with memorable failures against the Yankees sprinkled among his career-worst eight blown saves and six losses.
And on Sunday, though there were times when Papelbon’s stuff – especially his off-speed offerings – looked superb, he could not perform his task. He allowed three hits and a walk, allowing the Yankees to tie the score.
In past seasons, a blown save by Rivera might serve as a starting point to explore the ascendancy of Papelbon, and the idea that he was pushing Rivera for the title of the game’s top closer. Not so in 2010.
Instead, Papelbon was left shaking his head, incensed by a strike zone that seemed to shrink and that, the closer insisted, made it impossible for him to succeed.
"It was really tough tonight, considering I’m not only pitching against the hitter, I’m pitching against the umpire. I mean, when you’ve got to do that against this lineup you’ll never be successful. It just won’t happen," Papelbon said. "Plenty of at-bats I felt like I threw the ball well. I felt like I threw clutch pitches in clutch situations, mixed up my pitches well and in those situations when you’ve got to pitch on the plate and resort to that you’re going to get beat, especially against this lineup in this ballpark. ...
"No question about it. When you’ve got to do that you’re in a lose-lose situation," he continued. "I’m not blaming the umpire. I could have definitely battled a little bit more out of that situation. I’m not one to complain about pitches, no. I’m not one to do that at all, but when you’re pitching against the umpire and that lineup, nobody can win that situation. It’s impossible."
Papelbon did appear to get squeezed on multiple pitches, including a pair of offerings to Alex Rodriguez (who walked against him) and on a two-strike offering to Mark Teixeira that ended up producing a single.
Even so, in a season in which he has struggled – particularly against the Yankees, against whom he has an 8.64 ERA, and in Yankee Stadium, where he has a 9.00 mark – Papelbon’s complaints sounded a somewhat desperate note. While the umpire no doubt influenced the pitcher’s plan of attack on Sunday, it was hard not to view the loss as being another example of the Sox’ brutal year in the bullpen.
The Sox bullpen has a 4.32 ERA, ranked 23rd in the majors and 12th of the 14 American League teams. The team’s 21 blown saves are tied for the fourth most in the majors and rank as the second most by an American League team.
The relief corps, moreover, was thin, a fact highlighted by the presence of Hideki Okajima on the mound in the 10th inning. Yes, Okajima had been reasonably sharp since coming off the disabled list near the end of August, but the once-reliable lefty had suffered a significant slide this year. And in the 10th inning, his inability to retire left-handed hitters led to the Sox’ defeat.
Curtis Granderson yanked a single through the right side, and Brett Gardner then put down a bunt that Victor Martinez fired off of the speedy Yankee’s back. That put runners on first and third, and with the bases loaded and one out, Okajima nibbled against left-handed rookie Juan Miranda, forcing in the winning run on a five-pitch walk.
“When I fell behind 3-1 I tried to be really fine with my location. I tried to find my spot, but it sailed on me a little. I’m disappointed,” said Okajima. “It’s the bottom of the [10th] inning in extra innings. I went into the game knowing it was all or nothing. Daisuke had pitched really well. I wish I could have followed that up.”
That frequent lament played a major role in sabotaging Boston’s season. The Rays and Yankees had 16 bullpen losses this year; had the Sox matched that total, then they would not be staring at the reality of their elimination.
Yet the fact that the Sox were clawing for the postseason as midnight approached on Sunday was perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the night and indeed the season.
The Sox had every reason to fail. They were without four members of their Opening Day lineup for most of the second half. They were short-handed in a division of juggernauts. Facing the stark reality of such massive injuries, it would have been utterly unsurprising to see the club sag.
But the team did not yield. Instead, the Sox injected the Yankees with a state of semi-panic, forcing New York to employ Phil Hughes as their starter on Sunday, just two days after the team had announced its intention to skip and rest the young right-hander. And the Sox were within just two outs of trimming their deficit against the Yankees to 4½ games, making almost real for a flickering moment the idea that a historic collapse/comeback tandem could transpire.
It was not to be, but not for lack of determination or desire. And so, as their defeat all but sealed the fate of their season, the Red Sox could still take pride in what their undermanned roster was able to accomplish.
“We came in here and played [our guts] out for three games, and that's all you can ask,” said Bill Hall. “We came in here and showed people what kind of character this team has. I'm proud of the way the guys played this weekend. It was unbelievable.â¨
“We definitely put a little fear in their heart. They planned on starting somebody else, and they wound up going with one of the aces of their staff. Like I said, that gave us a lot of respect going into this game. They knew it was almost a must-win for them. They rolled their best guy available. They really battled and had a big game, and unfortunately, we came up on the losing end.”