NEW YORK – It was the sort of game that made it seem as if the season hung in the balance.
The Red Sox had lost the first game of their Sunday doubleheader with the Yankees by a 6-2 count, and with the Rays having won their game against the Blue Jays, the ever-narrowing margin in the wild card race had dwindled to just one-half game.
With a loss in the nightcap, the Sox would fall into a once-unthinkable tie in the competition for the last remaining American League postseason spot, their formerly robust lead of nine games over Tampa Bay in the month’s early days being whittled to nothing.
And so it was that the Sox were willing to empty their competitive reservoirs in the second game. The Sox fell behind early, fought back, took a lead, gave it up and then held serve, and held serve, and held serve.
From the eighth through 14th innings, the Red Sox pitching staff held the Yankees off the scoreboard, with extraordinary performances coming from the likes of Jonathan Papelbon (2 1/3 scoreless innings, his longest outing since last May) and previously unheralded left-hander Franklin Morales (two scoreless innings) before, finally, the Red Sox broke through in the top of the 14th inning.
The Sox bullpen performed a high-wire act without a stumble, recognizing that a single run would mean not just defeat but also another chapter in what has become an unbelievable collapse. And so, instead, the Sox were left to enjoy a rare celebration in the postgame clubhouse, enjoying a 7-4 victory over New York that represented a potentially pivotal moment in the wild card race.
“That was a fun game to be a part of,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “Obviously, the outcome makes it that way, but it was like that game we played here back in ’04 [the Yankee Stadium contest in which Derek Jeter busted his nose while diving into the stands] when we lost. Just so many good things happened with so many good players doing some extraordinary things.”
The Sox departed after midnight for Baltimore, knowing that their fate remains in their own hands. If the Sox sweep against the Orioles, they will be in the postseason. In that knowledge comes empowerment.
“This was a huge win,” said Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury at the conclusion of a day that saw him launch a pair of homers to become the first Red Sox member of the 30/30 club in the first game and that witnessed him blasting the game-winning three-run blast in the second. “It allows us to control our own destiny. We know if we win out, we’re in. So we don’t have to scoreboard watch or anything like that. It was definitely a huge win for us.”
But the victory fully define what had happened over three games in the Bronx during which the Sox led for a grand total of two half-innings. Nor was it the end for the Sox.
The Sox now have three games in which they can either fight with the relentlessness that they demonstrated on Sunday night or in which they can continue a month-long swoon that characterized their performances on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Over the next three nights in Baltimore, the Sox will determine how their wild road through 2011 will be defined.
“Everybody contributed tonight, from top to bottom. Now we’ve got to go ball in Baltimore. That’s what we’ve got to do,” said closer Jonathan Papelbon. “You’ve got to grind through the season, and if you want to shine, you’ve got to grind. That’s why you’ve got to grind to shine.
“This is grinding season. And now we’ve got to go ball in Baltimore. If you don’t like this, you ain’t got blood going through your veins. Right? If you don’t like this, if you’re not going to play tired, if you’re not going to play hurt, and you’re in this clubhouse, you ain’t got blood running through your veins. Hopefully we’re back here [in Yankee Stadium] in a couple weeks. That’s where we’re trying to go.”
Before the Sox contemplate a potential return to Yankee Stadium this month, it is worth re-examining some of the major events of the weekend, while also taking stock of how things must transpire if the Sox want to keep playing in October.
--LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE MOST VALUABLE POSITION PLAYER
Jacoby Ellsbury may have ended any question about whether he is the most valuable position player in the American League. He slammed a pair of homers in Game 1 of Sunday’s doubleheader, boosting his total for the year to 30 longballs to go with his 38 steals. That, in turn, made him the first 30/30 player in Sox history, while also giving him 100 RBI for the year.
Yet that served merely as the prelude to what he did in the night game on Sunday, when Ellsbury finally allowed the Sox to break through in the 14th inning with a three-run homer off of Yankees reliever Scott Proctor. The blast added to what has become an incredible September in which the leadoff hitter is now hitting .368 with a .409 OBP, .679 slugging mark, 1.088 OPS and seven homers.
Given that he has also played well above-average outfield defense, and Ellsbury has now made a compelling case as the most impactful position player in the American League this year. There is a strong case to be made about whether a pitcher such as Tigers ace Justin Verlander is worthy of the award, but purely among position players in the AL, Ellsbury is performing peerlessly right now.
“He’s been MVP for us, and should be MVP of this league as far as I’m concerned,” said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “He came through for us again.”
What has to happen
Ellsbury needs to continue to shoulder the load. Obviously, one player alone cannot carry an offense – indeed, even at their peak, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez found that there were times when two elite players could not handle the entire burden of a club’s offense – but it is Ellsbury more than anyone else in the Sox lineup who seems capable of injecting life into the Sox offense.
Right now, this is Ellsbury’s team. As much as any single player, he is the dynamic force who is ready to serve as the Red Sox catalyst.
In late-August and even early-September, there was a lively debate about the identity of the Red ox’ team MVP. Ellsbury was, of course, in the mix, but he hadn’t separated himself from teammates Adrian Gonzalez or Dustin Pedroia or even (though not often mentioned in the conversation) David Ortiz.
The debate has faded during the month, as have Ellsbury’s teammates. Gonzalez has had a quietly excellent month, hitting .292 with a .361 OBP, .585 slugging mark, .946 OPS and four homers, but he went 2-for-12 over the weekend, during which the Yankees were comfortable challenging him, and he remains limited by his calf injury.
Ortiz is hitting .272 with a .385 OBP, .358 slugging mark and .743 OPS; he’s gone deep just once this month, and he went 1-for-12 with a single, no runs and no RBI during the weekend in the Bronx. His struggles included an 0-for-6 performance on Sunday night, the first time since the infamous “Papi Stinks” game against the Angels in May 2009 that Ortiz had gone hitless in a game where he hit at least six times.
Pedroia is hitting .270 with a .288 OBP, .450 slugging mark and .738 OPS in September, though he was slightly more impactful than the sluggers who hit behind him during the weekend in the Bronx, going 5-for-14, albeit with all five of his hits being singles, and without scoring or driving in a run.
What has to happen
When Ellsbury, Pedroia, Gonzalez and Ortiz are all hitting, the Red Sox lineup is a force to be reckoned with. When two or three of those offensive pillars is removed (at a time when Kevin Youkilis is unavailable), the Sox are prone to significant lineup inconsistency.
At some point, the Sox will need their other All-Stars to perform in a fashion worthy of that title. Otherwise, opposing teams will simply pitch around Ellsbury – particularly given that his running game has been held largely in check in September, a month in which he has just two steals while having been caught four times.
--THE LINEUP SHUFFLE
After a rainout on Friday night, the Red Sox elected to engage in one of their bigger lineup shakeups in recent memory. Even though the personnel remained unchanged from the previous night’s game, the team repositioned six of its nine regulars for Saturday’s game.
The chief domino was the move of Carl Crawford from the bottom half of the lineup to the second spot. That move bumped Dustin Pedroia down to the third spot and Adrian Gonzalez from third to fifth, behind cleanup man David Ortiz.
The reconfigured lineup, however, did little to change the Sox’ fortunes. To the contrary, the Sox managed just 10 runs over the three games, with Ellsbury accounting for five of those on Sunday with his three homers.
What has to happen
The offense needs to show up. Given the month-long performance of the Red Sox pitching staff, particularly the starters, the Sox simply cannot assume that they can win anything aside from a slugfest.
The offense needs to score often and, perhaps, early, given that the Sox have seen their opponents draw first blood on the scoreboard in 14 of their last 15 games. Otherwise, the Sox will continue to either be blown out or face more games like Sunday’s in which they must claw desperately for wins.
Crawford, in particular, must either produce or find himself dropped back down in the batting order, something the outfielder acknowledged when asked if he could flip a switch on his season as soon as he was placed in a new batting order position.
“It better,” Crawford said, “or I’ll probably find myself back in the seven hole again. Hopefully it will come back quick.”
He went 3-for-15 during the three-game set from his new perch, and after declaring his hope that he would be able to create more “havoc” from a higher position in the lineup, he did nothing of the sort, at least not in the fashion intended. He did misplay a couple balls in left, and he did get caught stealing on Sunday.
An unexpected thing happened during the weekend series. Of the three weekend starters for the Red Sox, John Lackey was the one who showed up. The big right-hander allowed three first-inning runs, but then settled down to dominate the Yankees for much of the night.
Between the second and sixth innings, Lackey went through a stretch in which he faced 14 hitters and recorded 14 outs, blanketing the corners with a fastball that he threw with confidence.
That, in turn, likely helped the Sox to answer one mystery. If the team needs a starter for a one-game playoff on Thursday to determine who will claim the wild card, Lackey – even though he would be pitching on three days’ rest – looked like the Sox’ best option on the strength of a six-inning, four-run (three earned) performance.
Of course, uncertainty remains about how Jon Lester might perform on three days’ rest in the scheduled series finale against the Orioles on Wednesday. The left-hander, who was clubbed for eight runs in 2 2/3 innings on Saturday, has allowed 16 runs in 13 innings in his last three starts.
Meanwhile, Tim Wakefield lasted just four innings while allowing five runs (three earned) in what may have been the last start of his Red Sox career. Even with Lackey’s solid work on Sunday night, which resulted in the fourth quality start from a Sox starter in 24 September contests, the ERA of the rotation for the month now stands at 7.17.
What needs to happen
At various points in their careers, Josh Beckett, Erik Bedard and Lester have all been regarded as aces. Those three (or at least Beckett and Bedard, the scheduled starters for Monday and Tuesday; the Sox have said that if their season hangs in the balance, they can bring back Lester on three days’ rest) must perform in a fashion worthy of that characterization in Baltimore.
Beckett’s outing on Monday may be particularly significant, on a night when the Red Sox bullpen is running on fumes. Alfredo Aceves threw 19 pitches on Sunday night; Daniel Bard logged 28; Papelbon, in his longest first appearance that spanned parts of three innings since last May, threw 29 pitches; and Morales set a season-high with 44 pitches.
All but Morales will be available on Monday, but the Sox are in danger of burning out their bullpen amidst this crucial stretch. Clearly, the Sox would benefit significantly if their starters can manage to work deep into games to minimize the tax on the relievers on any given night.
Perhaps it was just the circumstances of the doubleheader, but the Red Sox ended up dusting off some seldom-used position players in the second game of Sunday’s day-night affair, and they served as surprise catalysts.
Jed Lowrie had started just twice in the past two weeks, ceding shortstop to Marco Scutaro and third to Mike Aviles. However, on Sunday night, he was back in the lineup and delivered a double and triple while also driving a ball to the wall.
J.D. Drew, meanwhile, surprised the Sox by stating that he was ready to be activated from the disabled list – where he’d resided since mid-July – for Sunday night’s game. He played the first 13 innings and delivered a key RBI single (after a Lowrie triple) to put the Sox on the board on Sunday night and commence the comeback.
Morales, of course, offered the Sox a huge lift with his performance out of the bullpen, and Felix Doubront ended up coming on for a clean 14th inning to record a save.
What needs to happen
If the Sox are to be worthy not just of claiming two or three wins in Baltimore (something that would either guarantee that they clinched a postseason berth or, with two victories, at least forced a one-game playoff with the Rays for the right to advance), they will need to continue to enjoy a diverse array of contributions from a broad cross-section of the roster.
Sunday night offered a template.
“That’s what you call tonight’s win, a top-to-bottom win. That’s what it was,” said Papelbon. “Everybody contributed tonight, from top to bottom.”
If the Sox are able to follow that pattern going forward, then their flirtation with September disaster could soon be forgotten. That said, it is worth noting that the victory represented the exception, and not the norm. The Sox are 6-18 this month for a reason. It is up to them to prove the Sunday night was not an aberration in their string of poor play but instead the catalyst for a change of course.
In one respect, it is a daunting thing for the Sox to face the need to sustain the elevated intensity of Sunday night’s marathon. On the other hand, the challenge is the sort of fuel that the players crave.
“It’s just going to be that way from here on out,” said Papelbon, “and if you don’t enjoy that, if you don’t like that, I don’t think you have blood running through your body.”