Suddenly, air seemed in short supply.
The Red Sox had enjoyed a comfortable journey through the first six innings of their Wednesday night game against the Yankees. Tim Wakefield had been anything but overpowering. Even so, in his own words, he “was able to spread hits around” to limit the Yankees to just three runs in his six innings. With Chien-Ming Wang imploding in the early innings, the Sox enjoyed a comfortable 6-3 advantage.
But Ramon Ramirez, whose season to date had been nearly flawless, proved very, very flawed. Brought in for the seventh, the pitcher who had held left-handers to an astonishing .116 average endured a dose of humility. He gave up back-to-back homers to Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira, and after recording a pair of strikeouts, allowed a ringing single up the middle to Jorge Posada.
The tying run on first, the Sox had to turn elsewhere. The team wanted its most trusted bullpen option (non-closer edition) in the game. The choice was clear.
Hideki Okajima’s scoreless innings streak may have ended at 16.1 on Sunday when he gave up a homer to Nelson Cruz of the Rangers, but his run of mastery remains compelling. That was still the case on Wednesday, when he delivered the biggest outs of the game in the Red Sox’ 6-5 win over the Yankees. (Recap here.)
“By far, no questions asked, Hideki was our star of the game. He came in and basically took over the ballgame,” said Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon. “That’s the big reason we won the ballgame. No doubt about it.”
Okajima entered with Posada, representing the tying run, on first and two outs. He worked to a full count against former Tokyo Giants teammate Hideki Matsui, then dropped his split-change for an inning-ending swing and miss.
Then, after putting a runner on second with one out in the eighth, he struck out both Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon to navigate the Sox’ one-run lead to the ninth-inning safety of Papelbon’s hands.
On Sunday, manager Terry Francona said that the key to Okajima’s remarkable run has been nothing more than command. His high-80s fastball still stands no more than a 50-50 chance of breaking a windowpane, but he locates the pitch -- as well as his change -- so precisely that he owns the complete trust of his manager.
Before the season, it seemed as if Okajima might get pushed down the totem pole in the bullpen thanks to the emergence last year of Justin Masterson and earlier this year of Ramirez, as well as the signing of free-agent Takashi Saito. Instead, for now he has once again re-established himself as the key (and often final) piece of the bridge to closer Jonathan Papelbon.
The typically stoic Okajima proved, at least for him, exuberant. He slapped his glove and sprinted from the mound in a fashion befitting a man who prepared for this season by running the Honolulu Marathon.
“I wanted to show what I can do. I was able to get hitters out. I’m very, very happy about it,” Okajima said through translator Jeff Yamaguchi. “I was so excited because I was able to get out of a jam.”
That Okajima has such a well of emotion was but one of many lessons absorbed during Wednesday’s game. Here are four others:
KEVIN YOUKILIS CONTINUES TO DO THINGS HE’S NEVER DONE BEFORE
The ball was well struck. Kevin Youkilis jumped on the Phil Hughes offering -- a 94 mph fastball up and away -- and smoked it.
The ball headed towards the gap in right-center … where it kept carrying and carrying. When the shot finally landed, it left a crater in the middle of the Red Sox bullpen. Youkilis’ two-run homer was unlike the prior nine he’d hit this year, or, for that matter, the prior 75 of his career.
“I think that’s the first time I’ve ever driven a ball to the opposite field into the bullpen,” Youkilis admitted afterwards.
Indeed, he had twice before gone deep to the opposite field at Fenway, but both were (in relative terms) cheapies in the vicinity of the Pesky Pole. This was something else -- an opposite-field blast over the distant bullpen fences that only the strongest right-handed hitters can reach.
Of course, Youkilis qualifies for that designation.
“He’s strong as hell. His shoulders are like this,” hitting coach Magadan said, stretching his arms wide. “When he lets that ball get deep and he uses the whole field, he’s very capable of doing that.”
Because Youkilis is so strong, in one sense, it’s unsurprising to see him crushing the ball with such authority. Yet the fact that he is diversifying his game, and continuing to develop new facets as a power-hitter, is extremely rare.
So how, exactly, does a player develop into a power hitter as a 29- and 30-year-old, as Youkilis has done since the start of the 2008 season?
“He takes very good care of himself. He trains hard in the offseason and during the season. He keeps himself in really good shape. He’s strong as hell. He wants to get better,” said Magadan. “It’s like (Raul) Ibañez. These are guys that get older and get better. They take pride in getting better. They realize that it takes a lot of hard work.
“You can continue to get better after you’re 30,” Magadan continued. “There’s no reason you can’t. I’m not surprised. He got to the big leagues knowing how to hit, being a line drive hitter, being a guy that knew the strike zone. He realized there was room for him to hit in the middle of a very good team’s lineup.”
For his part, Youkilis seems relatively unimpressed when he adds new elements to his game. Instead, he prefers to spend less time marveling at the first time that he drives a ball into the Fenway Park bullpen and more thinking about when he might do it again.
“You’re trying to do that. I’ve come short a couple times. The other day, I hit one off of (Rangers starter Kevin Millwood) that had a chance, but the wind was blowing straight in,” said Youkilis. “Hopefully it’ll happen again. Hopefully it’ll happen more.”
QUALITY, THY NAME IS WAKEFIELD
The standards for a quality start are hardly unreasonable: at least 6 innings pitched, no more than 3 runs. By definition, the quality start is one in which the pitcher has a 4.50 ERA or better while logging a sufficient number of innings to give his team a fightin’ chance to win.
That being the case, said definition of the quality start would do well to feature a picture of Tim Wakefield as its visual embodiment. Wakefield delivered six innings and allowed three runs on Wednesday. In running his record to 8-3 (the Sox are 9-3 in his 12 starts), he kept his ERA exactly where it was at the start of the day: at 4.50.
He has now produced quality starts in eight of his 12 outings this year, second on the Sox only to the nine quality starts turned in by Josh Beckett. He now stands exactly 20 victories shy of the Red Sox’ franchise record of 192 wins. Wakefield is giving every indication that William Roger Clemens and Denton True “Cy” Young are on notice for moving down on the team leaderboard by the end of next year.
Because of his wins total, and his longevity in the league, some wondered whether Wakefield might deserve consideration for the All-Star team this year. At 42, the knuckleballer would love to be selected.
“It would be huge. It’s one thing that you want in a career is to make an All-Star team,” said Wakefield. “We’ve won two World Series. Just add it to the list of things that you can say you’ve accomplished in your career. Obviously it would be nice to make a team, and hopefully I can continue to pitch the way I’ve been pitching and finally make one after 14, 15 years. It would be an honor. Hopefully I can be in St. Louis.”
Yet while it would be a compelling and remarkable story for Wakefield to be so honored this year, it would also likely be inappropriate. Though Wakefield is tied for second in the A.L. in wins (8), he ranks 30th in ERA (4.50) and 18th in innings (76).
Make no mistake, however. In embodying the principle of steady, quality starts, he has been invaluable to the Sox in 2009.
JASON BAY GOES CHA-CHING
It was not Jason Bay’s best night against the Yankees this year. Far from it. All the same, though he struck out three times in four at-bats on Wednesday, he also bounced a run-scoring single through the left side of the infield in the bottom of the first to give the Red Sox an immediate lead.
That hit merely added to an indelible impression that the Sox’ cleanup hitter is now making on the New Yorkers. Bay is now hitting .480 with a .606 OBP, 1.000 slugging percentage, three homers and 11 RBIs against the Yankees this year.
“He’s been a Yankee killer,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said before today’s game.
There is always a subtext, or at least a fascinating context, for such statements. Bay is a free agent after this year. Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui represent $26 million in free-agent money that could be coming off the Yankees’ books following this season. The Yankees should be in the market for a power-hitting outfielder. And every Yankees executive and every Yankees fan has seen Bay as nothing but a colossal wrecking ball, capable of decimating a pitching staff.
Bay has been a dynamo with the Red Sox, and last year showed an extraordinary ability to remain unperturbed by the potential upheaval of a mid-year trade in which he replaced Manny Ramirez. As such, any team that is interested in acquiring Bay’s services can have confidence in his ability to seamlessly integrate himself into a new clubhouse, city and environment.
“He’d fit in anywhere,” said Red Sox manager Terry Francona.
The drumbeat in New York suggesting that the Yankees should make a run at a player whom the Sox would love to retain grows ever louder.
SOME “THINGS” ARE GOING TO HAVE TO START “WORKING THEMSELVES OUT” PRETTY SOON
John Smoltz will take the mound in Triple-A Pawtucket on Thursday in what Francona said would be a “full-fledged outing,” likely the last of his rehab assignment. Francona said that Smoltz has already reached the necessary pitch and innings targets needed to leave him ready for entry into the rotation.
Jed Lowrie is ticking down the days to a rehab assignment. Activation before the end of the month seems a realistic possibility.
When asked about what will happen to make room for players who will be added to the roster, Francona will often suggest either that “these things have a way of working themselves out” or that “it’s a nice problem to have. But the Sox are closing in rapidly on a time when -- nice or not -- roster logjams will become an issue.
As such, the fate of the current members of the rotation (foremost Brad Penny) and the current Red Sox shortstops (Nick Green and Julio Lugo) will occupy near-constant prominence in the coming days and weeks.
Towards that end, Thursday represents a potentially pivotal day. Not only will the Sox get a gauge (potentially their last in the minors) on Smoltz’ ability to compete, but they will also have Brad Penny taking the hill in what could be a final audition for potential suitors. If he turns in a strong outing against the Yankees, it could do wonders for the Sox as they try to create a market for his services.
As for the shortstop issue, on Wednesday, Green further cemented his place as the Red Sox’ shortstop option of choice until Lowrie comes back. In recent weeks, Lugo had been starting behind Wakefield (a fly-ball pitcher). But yesterday, the Sox continued to go with Green and were rewarded for their decision.
In the second inning, Green ranged onto the grass behind short to pluck a soft liner, and then rocketed a throw to first to double off Nick Swisher. Francona referred to the play -- which completely changed the course of an inning where the Yankees had runners on first and third and no outs -- as “huge. It almost looks like in a basketball game, a slam dunk.”
The Sox were able to limit the Yankees to one run that inning; had they not done so, the one-run victory might never have arrived. The turn of events made it that much more difficult for the Sox to change course in their recent reliance upon Green as their everyday shortstop.
Lugo is clearly feeling marginalized, and with good reason. Multiple major-league sources have said that Julio Lugo is available to other clubs. But with $15 million remaining on his contract, the likelihood of finding a suitor for a player who has been relegated to the bench by a career backup second baseman seems extremely unlikely.