For a night, the two teams that have established themselves as the best to date in the American League played a game worthy of that stature.
It was a long game that featured multiple lead changes and whose deliberate pace only added to the prevailing tension. There was brilliance from stars, most notably in the performance of Red Sox ace Josh Beckett, who received a no-decision on a night when his ERA against the Yankees this year rose to 1.00.
There were surprising contributions from unexpected corners, whether Yankees Eduardo Nunez and Brett Gardner or eventually Red Sox right fielder Josh Reddick, who contributed his first big league walkoff hit to give his club a 3-2 victory in 10 innings. (Recap.)
It was a compelling game, with a result whose significance could reach beyond a mid-August contest. With the win, the Sox improved to 10-2 against the Yankees in the season series. As a result, not only do the Sox have a one-game lead over New York, they also own the tiebreaker for the AL East should the two teams finish the season with identical records.
In sum, for those who stayed up past midnight to watch its conclusion — and even those who did not — it was a contest that left plenty of themes that merited dissection. Here, then, are five takeaways from a long, dramatic night at Fenway Park.
YES, THE RED SOX CAN RALLY
It was a formula for the Sox to sink to second.
When trailing after eight innings, the 2011 Red Sox had a 1-41 record. The Yankees, behind the great Mariano Rivera, owned a 63-2 mark when entering the final inning of regulation with a lead. And so, when the bottom of the ninth arrived with New York in possession of a 2-1 advantage, many could have been excused for considering the outcome a fait accompli.
Only it wasn’t, thanks to a rally instigated by Marco Scutaro’s ninth-inning leadoff double, followed by the small ball contributions of Jacoby Ellsbury (sac bunt) and Dustin Pedroia (sac fly). It marked the 14th time that the Sox have hung a blown save on Rivera in the regular season; no other club has accomplished that feat more than eight times against the future Hall of Famer
“Any time you see Mo in a game, it’s not good news,” Sox manager Terry Francona said. “We’re the one team, every once in a while, you kind of make a chip.
“This is a tough series to pitch in, either side. I think he’s got more blown saves against us than anyone else. And [Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon] likewise [against the Yankees],” reliever Daniel Bard said. “It’s a tough series to pitch late in the game. It’s pretty cool. Every time you do it, he’s still the greatest at what he does. It’s pretty awesome.
Catcher Jason Varitek downplayed the significance of a comeback win against the closing great, suggesting simply that “a win’s a win.” Nonetheless, it certainly can’t hurt the Sox to have such a memory at hand in any subsequent meetings between the clubs, whether in September or possibly during the postseason.
FOR MARCO SCUTARO, TIMING CAME AT A TIMELY TIME
There was no indication that this was coming. Marco Scutaro had struggled through a poor homestand, going 2-for-15 (.133) in six games.
But in batting practice, the shortstop suggested, something happened.
“Hitting is just a feeling. It’s just a feeling, It’s hard to explain,” Scutaro said. “Sometimes you know what you’re doing wrong, you go to the plate, you don’t want to do it, and first move is whatever you’re doing wrong.
“I’ve been kind of battling the whole year with my mechanics and my timing. It’s been kind of inconsistent,” he added. “And today during batting practice I kind of felt something clicking in and I just took it to the game.”
On a night when the top four hitters in the Red Sox lineup combined to go 1-for-16, Scutaro generated a spark at the bottom of the order, matching a career-high for hits while going 4-for-4. He drove in the first Red Sox run by delivering an RBI single with two outs in the bottom of the second inning after his team nearly squandered a bases-loaded, no-out opportunity against Yankees starter Freddy Garcia.
Then, in the bottom of the ninth, Scutaro led off the inning against Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. Though a .200 lifetime hitter (3-for-15) against Rivera, Scutaro had one noteworthy success against him, having touched him for a walkoff three-run homer in 2007. This time, there was no homer, but Scutaro jumped on a 2-2 cutter and hammered it off the Green Monster for a double.
“The first couple pitches he kind of painted away and I was looking for something middle-in. I noticed he liked to throw the front-door cutter after two strikes so I was aware of that pitch,” Scutaro said. “He left it down the middle.”
He advanced to third on a Jacoby Ellsbury sacrifice and then scored on a Dustin Pedroia sacrifice fly to send the game into extra innings.
Scutaro’s resurgence came at an opportune time on both a team and personal level. For the Sox, it allowed them to manufacture a run against the best closer in baseball history, on a night when they needed bottom-of-the-order production. For Scutaro, who is on the cusp of a time share at shortstop with Jed Lowrie slated to return to the active roster on Monday in Minnesota, it underscored that he remains capable of delivering solid offense at his position. Scutaro is hitting .272 with a .338 OBP, .370 slugging mark and .708 OPS this year, numbers that are unspectacular but nonetheless are in line with league average (.266/.321/.387/.708 entering Sunday) at the position.
Scutaro, who has been the everyday Sox shortstop since Lowrie landed on the DL in mid-June, suggested that he is unconcerned with his playing time.
“C’mon, man. C’mon man. We’re just trying to win games here,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who’s in the lineup. We’re just trying to win games. We just have to win, we don’t care.”
FOR DANIEL BARD, CHANGING SPEEDS IS A BIT … DIFFERENT
It is the life of a reliever. Daniel Bard had encountered a degree of failure on Saturday, permitting a homer to his nemesis, Mark Teixeira — the fourth time that the Yankees first baseman had taken him deep.
But success out of the bullpen necessitates either a short memory or a yearning to enact revenge. Bard had the latter when he was called into the 10th inning of the series finale against the Yankees.
“I really wanted to pitch tonight coming off [Saturday],” Bard said. “I love facing the guy that got me the night before, just for personal reasons.”
Bard got ahead of Teixeira, pumping three straight fastballs for a ball, called strike and foul ball before Teixeira fouled off a 1-2 slider. Bard then missed the strike zone with a pair of 99 mph fastballs before unleashing a pitch that was extraordinary for two reasons.
First, it was a changeup. According to TexasLeaguers.com, it was the first changeup that Bard had thrown all year in 41 offerings with a full count. Secondly, while it was a changeup, it still registered at 93 mph, a velocity that exceeds the average major league pitcher’s fastball. But the pitch dove cruelly below Teixeira’s bat, resulting in a swing and miss.
“That may be a little firmer than what he normally throws,” pitching coach Curt Young said. “But when he’s 98, 90 is usually a pretty good difference in velocity. When you throw that hard, any little bit off is going to make it effective.”
“It's kind of how it's been the last few outings, but I think that one had a little better depth to it,” Bard said of the velocity of his offering. “I didn't know that I hadn't thrown one 3-2 all year long. But it worked. I'm glad it worked.”
Bard went on to make quick work of Robinson Cano (2-1 grounder on a fastball) and Nick Swisher (full count strikeout looking on a slider), and when his clean inning was followed by the Sox’ rally in the bottom of the 10th, he claimed the victory.
SPEAKING OF THE BULLPEN …
It nearly shaped up to be a bad night for the Red Sox relievers. After Josh Beckett authored the latest chapter in his dominant year against the Yankees, Matt Albers came on in the seventh, left a slider up against Brett Gardner and watched the New York left fielder send a missile whistling over the Red Sox bullpen for the go-ahead homer.
After Albers hit Derek Jeter with a pitch, Franklin Morales came on and initially got himself into serious trouble, missing the strike zone with eight straight pitches to walk both left-handed hitting Curtis Granderson and switch-hitter Mark Teixeira to load the bases. But after spinning a curveball in the dirt against Robinson Cano, Morales came back to fire a 95 mph fastball for a called strike and then got Cano to roll over on a big curve, a pitch that offered a reminder of his impressive stuff that he harnesses inconsistently.
Then Dan Wheeler came on and had a dominant inning, striking out the side in the eighth on 16 pitches. Jonathan Papelbon came on and worked around a Gardner single and steal to pitch a scoreless ninth before Bard’s excellent frame in the 10th.
The performances suggested a surprising strength of the Sox. Papelbon, despite a 3.28 ERA, is still considered a top closer. Bard ranks among the top relievers in the game. Albers (2.31 ERA), despite having allowed two homers in the last three games after having permitted just one in his first 35 contests, has been a revelation for the Sox while emerging as a key setup man. And Wheeler has now tossed 8 2/3 straight scoreless innings, helping him to a 1.63 ERA since he returned from the disabled list in mid-May.
Those four, plus the versatile Alfredo Aceves, have given the Sox a diverse group of late-inning options that can match up with virtually any bullpen in the league, including the Yankees, who entered Sunday with an AL-leading 3.07 relief ERA.
“I’d put us up against anybody — not just the numbers, but the depth. Everyone wants to pitch. I’ve been in bullpens where guys didn’t want the ball. We’ve got guys that’ll take the ball in any situation,” Bard said. “When it’s all said and done, I think we’ll be saying this is one of the better 'pens in the league and maybe that we’ve had in a while.”
JASON VARITEK DID NOT REGRET SWINGING AT A 3-0 PITCH
It hasn’t happened often. Jason Varitek had put just 10 3-0 pitches in play in his career, most recently in June 2010 (a flyout against Orioles pitcher Jeremy Guthrie), and before that, picking up a single against the Yankees in August 2008.
Counter to that history, Varitek decided to ambush a 3-0 offering with runners on first and second and one out against New York reliever Corey Wade in the bottom of the sixth inning. He got an 88 mph fastball but fouled the meaty offering to the catcher to help stifle the threat.
Varitek suggested after the game that he had the right idea but simply executed poorly.
“Got a good pitch to drive in that situation with somebody who doesn’t throw real hard. I had a good pitch to hit,” Varitek said. “I missed it. I popped it up.”
Of course, that poor outcome — on a night when Varitek was far from alone as a Red Sox hitter who struggled at the plate — has not been isolated. Instead, at a time when Jarrod Saltalamacchia looks increasingly like one of the best catchers in the American League, Varitek has been struggling.
After a horrific start when Varitek hit .091 with a .310 OPS through April 27, he enjoyed an excellent run over the next 10 weeks. By the All-Star break, he improved to .252 with a .773 OPS.
But since then, he has lost his approach at the plate. In the second half, he is hitting .139 with a .184 OBP, .306 slugging mark (thanks to a pair of homers) and a .490 OPS, while striking out 13 times in 36 at-bats.
On most nights, his offensive deficiencies have not been an issue. That remained the case on Sunday thanks to the Sox’ comeback.
Still, in the past, Sox manager Terry Francona has shown that he is willing to let player performances dictate the distribution of playing time. And while Francona, Saltalamacchia and Varitek have all said that the current balance of playing time has been helpful in allowing both catchers to remain relatively fresh at a time when most catchers are wilting, the two have appeared to be trending in different directions of late.
Nonetheless, the Sox also believe strongly that offense is truly a secondary consideration for catchers, and that it is far more important for a catcher to be an effective leader of a pitching staff. Toward that end, it is worth noting that the Sox are 33-14 (.702) in games started by their captain and 37-29 (.561) with Saltalamacchia behind the dish.