It was a great story. An unbelievable story. The kind of story that still makes us remember the name of Jeff Stone, the minor league journeyman whose RBI single on Sept. 28, 1990, helped lead the Red Sox to the playoffs that season.
Good for pub trivia. Good for restful New England slumbers. Good for escaping reality.
The diversion this time came courtesy of Darnell McDonald, the 31-year-old former first-round pick whose first big league home run didn't come until last season, and whose third went a long way in helping the Red Sox to a come-from-behind, 7-6 win over the Rangers Tuesday night at Fenway Park.
Ten or 20 years from now, those hat-on-backwards, 40-year-old trivia buffs will be whipping off, "Name the player who tied the 2010 game against the Rangers with a two-run homer in the eighth, and then a walk-off, bases-loaded single in the 10th." That, of course, would be McDonald, the first player to notch a game-ending RBI in his debut with the Red Sox since the 'RBI' stat first came into existence in 1920 (according to Elias).
Or maybe it will go down as the game that Dustin Pedroia conferred upon his team's newest folk hero the moniker previously reserved for a Detroit Pistons shooting guard, saying after the Sox first win since April 14, "That's his new name. Instant offense. There's no more Vinnie Johnson. Darnell McDonald. The Microwave."
Hold on to that if you wish. But there is a slap in the face here that suggests you might want to look at this as something else.
There is no question that the right buttons were pushed by Terry Francona this time around. He pinch-ran for Victor Martinez in the seventh, which led to Jason Varitek leading off the eighth with a double, which led to McDonald pinch-hitting for Josh Reddick, which led to the virtually unknown outfielder's first wave of heroics -- a game-tying homer off of Texas lefty reliever Darren Oliver.
There was also pinch-hitting Mike Lowell in the seventh for David Ortiz, marking the first time Francona had ever pinch-hit for the designated hitter in a situation that mattered. In fact, Ortiz hadn't been pinch-hit for in a meaningful spot in exactly seven years, having last experienced the move when Grady Little pinch-hit Manny Ramirez for him back on April 20, 2003, against Toronto's Trevor Miller.
And even calling on the right members of the sometimes-maligned bullpen to pick up where Tim Wakefield left off proved key, with the combination of Manny Delcarmen (returning to his mid-90s velocity), Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon finishing off with three innings of scoreless relief.
But the way things are going, those kind of buttons are going to become a fleeting memory for Francona. Tuesday was a reminder for the Red Sox how sweet a walk-off win can be. ("A lot of us are used to winning so when you lose a few in a row it gets tough.") But it also offered hints at how tough a job the Sox manager has himself currently immersed in.
So while there will be plenty of hip-hip-hooray's to go around, here are a few things that might have been covered up by the biggest two hits of Darnell McDonald's life:
THE RED SOX HAVE A CATCHING PROBLEM
Tim Wakefield was partly correct when he blamed the nine Texas stolen bases on his approach to the plate. The fact that the Rangers tied a club record with eight stolen bases even before the game was an hour and a half old suggests there was plenty of blame to go around.
But even before coming into Tuesday, the Red Sox had surrendered more stolen bases than any team in baseball, and Wakefield had been on the mound for just one of them.
Now the Red Sox have allowed 31 of 32 runners to succeed on attempts of stolen bases (poor Robinson Cano), and at the heart of that issue is the other part of the battery.
The knock on Victor Martinez from his days of catching in Cleveland was that his throws weren't accurate. But some suggested the more he got behind the plate the better the execution would be. A new problem now, with the steals piling up, appears to be Martinez' confidence.
Some throws are on target, others aren't, but it also hasn't gone unnoticed that even tosses back to the pitcher have gone astray more than one should expect. While Martinez loves to work on his craft, and enjoys the intricacies of being a backstop, such trends are leading the Red Sox down a path they can no longer afford.
The problem for the Red Sox is there is not a clear-cut solution.
You need Martinez' bat in the lineup. He is one of the few middle-of-the-order options on a team that isn't currently dripping with run producers. But first base is occupied by your other meat-of-the-order slugger, Kevin Youkilis, and there is already a long line for at-bats in the designated hitter role. And if you wanted to go that route, giving Martinez more time at DH, there remains the problems in upgrading the catching defense.
Jason Varitek has also been run on at will this season, having allowed eight steals in as many attempts. And if the Sox wanted to try and implement their best defensive catching prospect, Mark Wagner, into the equation they better start getting offensive production from a lot more places than they are now. In Triple-A, Wagner has been nothing more than mediocre with the bat.
STOPPING THE STEALS
Before the game Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein attempted to debunk a myth that surmised his team didn't care about the opposition running wild against the Sox.
“Some have speculated that we don’t care about [stolen bases], that we just want to always want to make the pitch and don’t worry about the baserunner,” said Epstein. “That’s not true. I almost wish that were true. We care about it. We definitely recognize the importance of stopping the running game and thus far we haven’t been able to do it. it was an emphasis throughout spring training and thus far we haven’t got the results. We need to continue to work at every aspect of it and it’s multi-dimensional. We need to do what we need to do to improve because we’re giving the opposition an unnecessary advantage right now in that area.”
Believe me, when the Rangers were stealing five bases in the third inning, the folks in the Red Sox' dugout cared. And for good reason.
Our man Alex Speier attempted to decipher exactly how much the stolen bases have affected the results of the Red Sox' games thus far. His conclusion (which can be read here):
A review of each of the 31 steals against the Sox reveals that the steals have played a direct role in either eight or nine runs*, depending on whether Rangers outfielder Julio Borbon would have been able to score from second on a single to left at Fenway on Tuesday, or whether he only scored because he had swiped third.
Of those runs, exactly two have played a direct role in the outcome of the game:
–In the Sox’ fourth game of the season, Willie Bloomquist stole second with two outs in the eighth inning, then crossed the plate with the winning run on a single in Kansas City’s 4-3 victory.
–In the Sox’ 10th game of the season, Carl Crawford stole second against Josh Beckett with two outs in the third inning. He then scored on a high chopper of a single that glanced off of third baseman Adrian Beltre. That was the only run the Rays would score in the first nine innings, resulting in a 1-1 tie through nine innings that the Rays went on to win, 3-1, in 12 innings.
That's two losses in 14 games. And if McDonald doesn't get all legendary, you can probably make that three.
So how does it stop? Fixing the aforementioned conundrum is one step, as is continuing to work on the basics that had become a priority for the Sox starting on Day 1 at spring training.
Francona is trying to make the most of what he has, as his team's major league-high six pitchouts would suggest. But considering five of the pitchouts have come on the first pitch, that would offer a reminder that it is a road not preferred to be taken by the pitching staff.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE LINEUP
The Red Sox could really use Ortiz and J.D. Drew, perhaps more now than ever. But neither is showing any signs of pulling out of their respective horrific slumps.
After going 0-for-4 with two more strikeouts, Drew is hitting .133 with 19 K's, the third-most in the majors. He is 1-for-14 against left-handers, and 2-for-17 with runners on base.
Francona put Drew at the No. 2 spot, hoping his ability to draw walks (7) would make up for a drought in run-production, but since the move he is 1-for-8.
The options: None right now. With both Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron on the 15-day disabled list the only viable replacement for Drew is off the table, as Jeremy Hermida is being called upon to man left field. Even if there weren't the injuries, asking Hermida to cover Fenway Park's spacious right field might be a reach. Perhaps McDonald gets a shot against lefties.
Then there is Ortiz …
Ortiz was dropped to the sixth spot in the order, yet not much changed. In fact, things only got worse. The DH struck out his first two times at bat, and popped out to third baseman Michael Young in foul territory in try No. 3 (resulting in his breaking of his bat over his knee).
It ultimately led to the kind of decision that Francona is being forced to make, regardless of the date on the calendar -- pinch-hitting with Lowell against the lefty Darren Oliver. The decision paid dividends in the form of two walks to Lowell in as many at-bats, the second of the intentional variety.
It would appear as though decision time is looming in regards to Ortiz, partly because of the Red Sox' need to figure out what they're going to do with Martinez. Sure, the Sox could go forward, hope that Martinez' throwing straightens itself out, and perhaps start implementing somewhat of a platoon with Ortiz and Lowell. (Towards that end, Lowell said that he will be starting on Wednesday against Rangers left-hander Matt Harrison.) But that's a big leap of faith in regard to Martinez' turnaround.
Unlike last year, there aren't the at-bats available to carry both Drew and Ortiz through these kind of slumps. Remember, it took a first-inning RBI single from Martinez to end the Red Sox' 0-for-32 drought with runners in scoring position.
Speaking of which, not one member of the Red Sox has more than three hits with runners in scoring position, coming in with a total of 20 (second fewest in the majors).
Again, Francona is doing his best to make adjustments, most recently moving Pedroia down to third, with Martinez offering Youkilis protection in the No. 5 hole. The result was fairly productive, with the trio combining for six hits and a walk in 14 plate appearances.
It also supplied the impetus for one of the best explanations about the proper goal of Red Sox hitters. That came from Pedroia when asked about his approach as the team's new No. 3 hitter:
"My job is to be a run-producer. When you're an offensive player and you got up to the plate, that's what you should try and do, produce a run," he said. "Whether it's hitting a double, stealing a base, walking. My view of being an offensive player is that you have to do everything to help your team win and do whatever you can to produce runs. If you walk a lot and you don't steal bases then you're clogging the bases. If you walk then steal a base. You have to produce a run. That's my overall view.
"I think we have to get back to that approach where when you step into the box your main the objective is, 'How am I going to touch home plate?' With your foot, not try and touch it with your bat. That's your job. We need everybody thinking in that manner and if we do that we'll be fine."
Thanks in large part to "The Microwave," the Red Sox were able to do that more than the Rangers. Now comes the hard part: Figuring how to do it again the next time.