And, oh, yeah – there was a baseball game.
A very important baseball game.
Had the Red Sox lost, the sense of panic surrounding the club in what felt like its most devastating week since 2006 – yes, beating even the madness of Manny-gate one year ago at this time – may have gained irreversible momentum.
The off-field news (David Ortiz’ positive test for performance-enhancing substances, Daisuke Matsuzaka’s challenge to the Red Sox’ training regimen, the trade deadline) had been brutal. The on-field play (a post-All-Star break record of 3-8 since the All-Star break) had been worse.
The Sox took an early 1-0 lead, keyed by a rocket Ortiz hit off the Wall on the first pitch he saw in the bottom of the second. But Sox starter Jon Lester was afforded no further margin, and so when the A’s pounced for four runs in the sixth and then – after the Sox rallied for two to bring the game to 4-3 – another in the seventh, the situation looked grim.
The deficit against the lowly, last-place Athletics offered grounds for a perfect storm of pessimism.
“There are certain parts of the season where you say, ‘Hey – this could take a big turn in a negative direction,’” said Lowell. “We’re still searching for that consistency. We’d only scored one run, and then they put four on the board – that’s a big uphill climb.”
But climb the Sox did, a verb appropriate given the statements of Manny Ramirez to reporters earlier in the day.
“Me and David,” said Ramirez, “we’re like two mountains. We’re going to keep doing good no matter what.”
And that is precisely what Ortiz did. He seemed very much the calm eye of the storm when he stepped into the box in the bottom of the seventh against A’s reliever Craig Breslow with two on and two out. Ortiz stepped into the box, took a slider for a ball fouled off a fastball in, took another fastball up and then, on a 2-1 pitch, unloaded on a fastball.
The missile sailed far towards right-center, clearing the Red Sox bullpen and sailing just to the right of the triangle. The ball traveled a good 420 feet, giving the Sox a 6-5 lead en route to a huge 8-5 win. (Recap.)
“That kind of changed the momentum of what this team has had in the last games,” said Varitek. “It woke up the crowd, woke up the team, because our big fella hit probably the biggest home run we’ve had so far. ”
The blast offered two key signs to the Sox. First, those who wondered whether the disclosure would sabotage Ortiz on the field had their rebuttal. Ortiz’ 14th homer of the year was his first to give the Sox a lead in the seventh inning or later since April 30, 2008, and his first to allow his team to wipe out a deficit since a two-run walkoff homer against Tampa Bay on Sept. 12, 2007.
He did not merely hit the homer. Ortiz felt loose enough that he was able to predict his shot when Breslow entered the game.
“He actually called it from the on-deck circle. I was next to him. He told me he was going to hit a home run,” said Lowell. “I told him, ‘Remember when Pedroia hit a home run off Betancourt in Game 7 (of the 2007 ALCS) and he jumped into him like a teddy bear? I want you to do that to me. He didn’t. He probably would’ve killed me. I thought that was a great moment...
"He’s always been the same upbeat and team oriented guy. That didn’t change today. He’s probably, offensively, the biggest key to our team. He’s that one bat that you definitely fear. If he gets going, our offense really seems to put up runs."
Perhaps more importantly to the Sox’ 2009 fortunes, the team showed a kind of life that had been lacking during its dreadful post-All-Star stretch. Rather than face another disheartening defeat on top of the Ortiz revelations, the team had a victory to savor as it left Fenway Park for a nine-game roadtrip.
“We found a way to claw back a few, we gave one back, but didn’t let that affect our motivation or our desire,” said Lowell. “I think today was a huge victory for us. I really do.”
A few other things we learned about other than Ortiz’ positive test in 2003:
DANIEL BARD IS PITCHING WITH BOUNDLESS CONFIDENCE
You can see it in the way he finishes his pitches. When Daniel Bard snaps off a slider to a right-handed hitter, he knows that it won’t be hit, just as he seems all but certain that his high-90s fastball can overpower opposing hitters.
You can see it in the way he attacks the strike zone. Bard, a pitcher who walked roughly a batter inning in the minors in 2007, has not walked a single hitter in 13 innings and 11 appearances in July. He has struck out 21 batters while allowing all of four baserunners. His 2.08 ERA – and 0.00 ERA in July – suggests increasing mastery.
Bard seems certain of the outcome of his devastating arsenal. He is overpowering hitters at the major-league level, as if he is simply playing catch and the hitter is not there. For that reason, it is understandable that word has surfaced that he has achieved untouchable status in negotiations with other clubs.
Bard has not heard about the reports that suggest that the Sox have no interest in trading him. Nonetheless, he is starting to feel comfortable in his Boston apartment.
“I didn’t hear (the suggestions that he was off the trading block) but I think you feel some security as far as, ‘Yeah, I’m a part of this team,’” said Bard. “I feel like I’m helping the team win some games but I think that’s probably how a lot of players feel right before they get traded probably too. At the same time that’s how I’m going to feel until something actually happens.
“I’m not going to sit here and worry about it, what’s there one day left [until the trading deadline]? I’m going to go about my business the same way and honestly the only time I’ve thought about the trade deadlines is when reporters come up and ask me about, it so it hasn’t been too much of an issue.”
JASON VARITEK MANAGED TO HAVE ONE OF HIS BETTER DAYS OF THE YEAR
Playing in a day game after a night game, Jason Varitek skipped batting practice on Thursday. Didn’t matter. The catcher had one of his best games of the year at the plate, even though it didn’t feel that way to him.
Batting right-handed in the second, he gave the Red Sox their first run of the game by lining a bases-loaded single to left. After turning around to bat left-handed against reliever Dennis Springer, he ripped a single to right in the sixth to plate another run. Then, finally, he drove a run-scoring double to left-center while batting left-handed against Santiago Casilla.
The three hits and three runs batted in were both season highs. Any explanation?
“I don’t know. I was trying to move the runner over, hit a groundball to first and hit one to left center, so don’t ask me,” Varitek said, alluding to his double.
THE DAISUKE MATSUZAKA SITUATION SEEMS TO HAVE SETTLED
The Red Sox initially expressed ire in the wake of Matsuzaka’s quotes to a Japanese reporter that the team’s shoulder program was jeopardizing his health and productivity. But the issue now largely seems to have been settled.
Part of the reason for the team’s distress was that the comments came in the wake of a July 24 meeting between Matsuzaka and several club officials that was meant to get all sides on the same page. Manager Terry Francona sought the pitcher’s input – often in writing, to make sure he understood precisely what was meant – about his concerns about his training methods and usage with the Red Sox.
The meeting was considered immensely productive by all sides. Then, three days later, the article by Taeko Yoshii came out and completely undermined the sense of progress.
But after the anger subsided, Matsuzaka spoke with club officials and assured them that the two sides were indeed moving towards a better understanding of each other. The conversations with the reporter – which were intended to remain private, Matsuzaka suggested in a statement issued on Thursday – took place over a lengthy period of time, in some cases well before the July 24 meeting. Yesterday, Matsuzaka’s statement seemed intended to dismiss notions of a rift with the team:
I spoke to Tito on the phone (Wednesday), and I’m very glad that we had a productive conversation.
As for the reports from the past several days, I want to correct some misunderstandings. I did not go public with any complaints and I regret that some of my private conversations were made public without my knowledge or consent.
Also, I never said in public or in private conversation that: ‘If I’m forced to continue to train in this environment, I may no longer be able to pitch like I did in Japan.’
I had no intention of criticizing the team and we are, in fact, working together to communicate, to exchange ideas, and to try to understand one another’s baseball culture as we move forward.
The team and I have had many meetings and conversations, and after shaking hands with the general manager, manager, and coaches on the 24th, I was able to resume my training in a good state of mind.
My goal is to put myself into a position where I can contribute to this team.
I look forward to rejoining my teammates and playing in front of the fans at Fenway Park.
FAREWELL TO NOMAR?
The moment came and went quietly. Nomar Garciaparra banged out his third single of the game, and trotted off the field in favor of pinch-runner Eric Patterson in the seventh. There was mild applause as he exited the field.
Yet the moment may have been more significant than anyone realized, for Garciaparra may have been leaving the diamond at Fenway for the final time.
The A’s do not return to Boston this year. And it remains to be seen whether there are future seasons for the 36-year-old, a fact that he acknowledged in a reflective interview with Joe Castiglione on the Pre-Game Show.
“I contemplated retirement in the offseason last year, and here I am, fortunate enough to be able to put on a uniform, and I’m grateful for that,” said Garciaparra. “I’ll cross that road and re-evaluate, but right now, I’m going out, trying to continue to win ballgames and teach the younger guys.”
Garciaparra, after going 3-for-4, improved his career average at Fenway Park to .338.