That Jered Weaver is now one of the top pitchers in the game is beyond dispute. The towering right-hander finished fifth in AL Cy Young voting in 2010 in a season in which he led the league in punchouts and had a 3.01 ERA. This year, he had been even better -- nearly perfect -- in amassing a 6-0 record and 0.99 ERA.
Weaver had pitched into the seventh in all six of his starts entering Monday. He had one game in which he'd allowed two earned runs, three in which he'd permitted one earned run and two more in which he hadn't allowed a single run. As Sox manager Terry Francona noted before the game, Weaver was leading the league in virtually everything.
And so it seemed that the Sox had cause for despair when the Angels took a 2-1 lead in the top of the fifth inning. Weaver was on a run of retiring 10 of 11 Sox hitters, and seemed to offer little sliver of hope to his opponents.
But the Sox strung together a signature collection of at-bats in order to turn the tide and lay the groundwork for their 9-5 victory. (Recap.) An offense that had failed to deliver as advertised for much of the year came together over the course of 28 memorable pitches.
Carl Crawford doubled with one out, but that was the mere prelude for a remarkable sequence against Weaver.
The Angels right-hander has an uncommon array of pitches that has turned him into one of the great swing-and-miss artists in the game. But the Sox managed to spoil one pitch after another, in a three-batter sequence that involved 28 pitches, 15 of which were fouled off.
First, Jason Varitek stepped to the plate. He had struck out -- frozen by a changeup -- in his first at-bat of the night. With a runner in scoring position, he was looking to be aggressive in hopes of driving in the tying run.
"I’ve got a man on second," said Varitek. "I’m trying to drive that sucker in there."
But Weaver's repertoire eluded the barrel. Varitek fouled off a first-pitch, 69 mph curveball, a 1-1 changeup, a 2-2 two-seam fastball and a 2-2 slider. Then came the pivotal pitch, a 2-2 fastball that the umpire judged to be inside. Weaver disagreed.
"I thought there was one pitch in particular that could have got me out of the inning, but it didn’t go my way and it led to a big inning," said Weaver. "There’s always just some little thing in Boston that doesn’t seem to go my way or the team’s way. You know, roll with it and move on."
But Weaver followed that pitch with a changeup that dove out of the strike zone for ball four. That was the beginning.
"It just happened that I was in an at-bat where I was able to foul off pitches, foul off pitches," said Varitek. "You have in that situation one pitch I didn’t, take, it’s borderline and you have advantage."
Jacoby Ellsbury followed. He reached a full count, fouled off a fastball and then expanded the zone on a curveball that resulted in a seven-pitch fielder's choice groundout.
That brought Dustin Pedroia to the plate for the most impressive Red Sox at-bat of the season. Pedroia would ultimately match a career high by facing 13 pitches -- the most he's seen since encountering the same number on Aug. 27, 2006, in his third big league game. It was a sequence that left virtually everyone on the field marveling at both the pitcher and batter.
"We know what [Weaver]’s got. We know what he’s capable of. He’s going to be tough on everybody every night. He’s not going to give you an inch. You’ve got to foul away his tough pitches and try to make him give you a good pitch to hit, because he doesn’t do that often," said Jed Lowrie. "It was just two guys with unbelievably strong wills, and neither one of them is going to give in in that situation."
Pedroia had looked bad in his first two at-bats of the night against Weaver. He struck out swinging on a 93 mph fastball in the first, and grounded out to short on another fastball in the third.
"He didn't have the greatest first two at-bats," noted Varitek.
Through those two initial plate appearances, Pedroia -- who has a long history against the Angels right-hander, dating to the days when Weaver played at Long Beach State and Pedroia was at Arizona State -- was 3-for-24 (.125) in his big-league career (regular season and postseason) against a pitcher whose funky delivery and ability to hide the ball makes him a particularly miserable opponent for right-handers, who entered the game with a .126 average and .376 OPS against him.
Combine deception with a willingness to throw any pitch in any count and you have a pitcher whom right-handers hate to face.
"With a guy like that, we’re all battling. It’s not like you look up at the lineup and see he’s pitching and everyone is lining up at the bat rack," said Pedroia. "We know it's going to be a grind."
And so it was. Over the next 13 pitches -- an inning's worth of offerings -- Weaver threw four fastballs, three changeups, three cutters and three sliders. He worked up-and-in, low-and-in and up-and-away. He filled the strike zone, and Pedroia just kept fouling one pitch after another. Pedroia did not take a single called strike, nor did he swing and miss.
There were nine foul balls in the at-bat before finally, with Crawford on third and Ellsbury on second, Weaver left a 91 mph fastball up and on the outer half of the plate. And Pedroia lined the pitch for a single past Weaver and up the middle for two runs to put the Sox up, 3-2.
Pedroia was almost sheepish about the knock.
"To be honest with you man, I was just trying to put the ball in play. Jered’s tough, man. I faced him in college and the first few years in the big leagues and it doesn’t get any better than him," said Pedroia. "I haven’t won too many of those but it was nice to drive in a couple and kind of get everything going.”
Everyone else in both the Sox and Angels clubhouse, however, was far more effusive.
Take Weaver. Prior to Monday, the right-hander had taken part in 25 at-bats in his career that had lasted 10 or more pitches. The result? Opponents were 2-for-20 with five walks and eight strikeouts. No batter had ever driven in a run against him in a 10-plus pitch at-bat. No batter had ever lasted more than 12 pitches against him.
This year, no batter had seen as many as 10 pitches in an at-bat against Weaver. In the 14 plate appearances that had lasted from seven to nine pitches against him, however, Weaver had held his opponents hitless, going 0-for-13 with one walk.
Weaver clearly relishes the sort of challenge posed by Pedroia. And so it was that he emerged from the confrontation with nothing but respect for a counterpart who bested him.
"He’s a great hitter. He didn’t win the MVP for nothing. He goes up there and he wants to battle. He’s a bulldog. I feel like I’m the same way. He won that battle this time. I’m not going to change anything about how it went down," said Weaver. "I made some good pitches, 3-2 count, able to throw a couple sliders, a couple of changeups. It was a battle. That’s how he is. He’s not just going to give in and let you get him out. He won that battle."
The sequence of at-bats against a pitcher who had been as good as any in the game to this point in the season was exceptional. Not only did it allow the Sox to take the lead, but it also positioned them to blow the game open two innings later.
Weaver's night came to an end after six innings and 118 pitches. With the right-hander knocked out prior to the seventh for the first time all year, the Sox were able to erupt for six runs -- their biggest inning of the year -- against relievers Hisanori Takahashi and Francisco Rodriguez to put the game out of reach.
Ultimately, it was a night when nearly every member of the Red Sox lineup had something feel good about, as the team piled on one run after another while batting around (for just the second time of the 2011 season) in the seventh. But the postgame cheer could all be traced to a three-batter sequence that served as a perfect execution of the Red Sox blueprint for beating elite pitchers.
"It was great," said Varitek. "You can’t really [run deep counts] on purpose. But it’s [about] will and a testament to trying to grind out at-bats, trying to give what you have."