NEW YORK — It wasn't hard to conjure the worst-case scenario.
The line drive rang off of the inside of Jon Lester’s knee, and the pitcher instantly crumpled on the pitcher’s mound. The agony was obvious, and suddenly a pitcher who was viewed as a key component of the Red Sox’ path to postseason glory represented a question mark.
A pall was cast over the Sox. The team needed only look to last year, when an injury to Josh Beckett during a bullpen session in the final weekend of the regular season left the club with an impaired ace in October. As recently as spring training, members of the Sox lamented that their loss in the American League Championship Series might have ended differently had Beckett been at full health.
It was easy to imagine a similar scenario with Lester, whom the Boston Herald revealed on Friday to be the Sox’ scheduled starter in Game 1 of the American League Division Series. Though the pitcher made his worst start in four months in Friday’s 9-5 loss to the Yankees (recap) the team had good reason to want to lean on a pitcher who had been undefeated in 11 starts since July 25, and whose 2.13 ERA since May 31 was the second best in the majors.
When the ball — more accurately, “a bullet,” according to David Ortiz — clanged off Lester and ricocheted all the way to the third-base foul line, members of the Red Sox had two universal concerns: first, that Lester might be seriously injured; and second, that the team’s playoff chances had just taken a disastrous hit. Boston's postseason hopes flashed before its players' eyes.
“I’m pretty sure everyone was focused on that,” Ortiz said. “You don’t want to see one of your aces going down like that, especially when you’re going into the playoffs.”
“He’s a huge, huge part of our team,” echoed Jason Bay. “You hate to see it happen to anybody, but especially at this point in the season and where we’re going to need him ultimately in a couple of weeks. It was scary.”
And so just as that sentiment was shared by nearly all the Sox, so, too, was the one that followed shortly thereafter: Instead of suffering a potentially catastrophic injury, perhaps even a fracture, the line drive off the bat of Melky Cabrera had instead caught enough muscle and flesh that it softened the blow to the bone. There was no fracture. There were no bone fragments.
Though the liner had carried sufficient force that it left Lester writhing in pain on the ground for a couple of minutes (”It hurt — it was going about Mach 7,” said Lester), the news for the pitcher and his club could not have been much better.
Indeed, the Sox think there is a decent chance that Lester could remain on turn to make his next start, likely a final regular-season tuneup prior to the ALDS. That determination will be based on how the pitcher responds in the coming days, but assuming that the bruising and swelling does not become too much more severe than it was on Friday night, the pitcher might be able to make his next scheduled start next week. All things considered, the Sox felt immensely fortunate.
“When it first happened, I think it looked terrible. It sounded terrible. He was in a lot of pain,” Sox manager Terry Francona said. “You know what? He’s going to be OK. … I think it caught enough meat and muscle where it wasn’t just a direct blow on that bone. He got X-rays and they came back clean.”
“I actually think from talking to Dr. [Larry] Ronan and our trainers, he might be right on turn, which, the fact we are even talking about that is good news. We’ll see how he shows up tomorrow and the next couple of days and try to figure out the right thing to do and how healthy he is. After what we saw, that was kind of a big sigh of relief.”
If Lester does prove sore, and needs to have his start pushed back or even canceled, it is unlikely that it would affect the Sox in terms of their quest to reach the postseason. Though Boston lost and the Rangers won, keeping the Sox’ magic number to clinch a wild card berth at 3, the team will likely punch its pass to the playoffs regardless of whether Lester makes his next start.
Even so, Lester said that it is important to him that he does make another regular-season start. The left-hander feels that it is important that he remain fresh as he prepares for a playoff appearance.
“I would like to start. I would like to start,” said Lester. “That amount of time off between your next start, regardless of how many simulated games or bullpens you can throw, it doesn’t get the full effect of seeing live hitters and getting that adrenaline rush and all that. I would definitely like to throw again, regardless of when it is or how long we have to wait.”
Still, it would be slightly premature to declare the pitcher completely out of the woods. Last year, the team pronounced Beckett healthy heading into the postseason, but it quickly became apparent that the pitcher was a shell of himself.
In 2006, David Wells was smoked on the knee by a line drive. He crumpled, but the Sox breathed a sigh of relief when they determined that there was no fracture, and instead “just” a contusion, which was alternately described as a deep bruise. Yet the pitcher’s time on the sidelines was anything but brief. He missed the next two months with the injury.
That being the case, while it would be premature to give a singularly rosy view of Lester’s condition, the prevailing relief in the Sox clubhouse gave a pretty significant indication that Friday night’s setback was far from the worst-case scenario.
“I don’t know what the exact diagnosis is, but it kind of sounds like he’ll live, he’ll make it,” Bay said. “We dodged a big bullet there.”
Here are four other lessons from the game:
LESTER IS HUMAN
Though Lester’s actual performance on the mound on Friday became a secondary consideration to his health, the left-hander did have one of his worst — perhaps even THE worst — outings of his season.
He came into the game having turned in quality starts in 18 of his last 20 outings, and having allowed four or fewer runs in each of those starts. Even before the injury, he had no shot at such an outcome on Friday.
The Yankees touched Lester for eight hits and five runs in his 2-1/3 innings. He struggled, too, with his command and control, issuing three walks and consistently missing his targets, either resulting in balls or hard contact. The Yankees managed to work Lester for 78 pitches in his brief outing, and he may have been on his way out of the contest anyway, as evidenced by the fact that Hunter Jones was already up in the bullpen at the time that the liner careered off of the Sox starter.
“I left a couple of balls up. Some of the other hits, I felt like I made good pitches,” Lester said. “That’s what you get with that lineup.”
“Every time he made a mistake, they really made him pay for it,” Francona added. “They made him work real hard, throw a lot of pitches. When he left balls over the plate, they hit them pretty good.”
THE CATCHING COMPARISON IS NO CONTEST
Since Aug. 1, when Victor Martinez joined the Red Sox, 322 major league players have at least 75 plate appearances.
Martinez, who has split time between first and catcher, has been one of the best. After going 2-for-4 on Friday with a homer off of Yankees starter Joba Chamberlain, Martinez is now hitting .335 with a .403 OBP, .505 slugging mark and .908 OPS. He has been a star at the plate. He currently has a career-best 24-game hitting streak, the team's longest since 2006.
Jason Varitek, meanwhile, has the worst average (.124) among the 322 players with at least 75 plate appearances since Aug. 1. He is second to last with a .210 OBP, second to last with a .202 slugging mark and last in the majors with a .412 OPS.
Varitek, however, suggested that the approach has not been as bad as the results for the most part.
“I think, minus today, at times, I think I’ve had good at-bats. I had good at-bats in Baltimore, I had good at-bats in [Kansas City],” said Varitek. “Outside of today, and a couple of other times, I’ve had good at-bats. Not necessarily always results.
“I’m not going to quit on it,” he added. “I’ll continue to go out there and do the work we’ve been doing every day. Today I didn’t have as good of at-bats. I’ve got to try and stick with the process as much as I can, and help this team when I can.”
He had a particularly dreadful night on Friday, going 0-for-4 with a pair of bad strikeouts, a double-play grounder and a foul-out to third. The Yankees also stole seven bases in as many attempts against the Red Sox captain, meaning that Varitek has now caught just 7.8 percent of attempted base-stealers this year.
Varitek and Francona both pointed out that the Yankees were, by and large, running on first move with a left-hander (first Lester, then reliever Hunter Jones) on the mound. Even so, Varitek’s playing time has been slowly ebbing ever since Martinez arrived, the Sox apparently having concluded that they are typically better with the newcomer in the game.
Since Martinez joined the Sox, the team has a 31-20 record: 17-8 (.680) with Martinez as the starting catcher, 14-12 (.538) with Varitek behind the plate. The reason for the disparity, unsurprisingly, appears to be that the lineup is more powerful when Martinez is catching with Mike Lowell playing third and Kevin Youkilis playing first. On days when Varitek catches, one of those three players has to sit.
The Sox have scored an average of 6.7 runs per game when Martinez has been the starting catcher, and 5.1 runs per game in contests started by Varitek since Aug. 1.
That sizable disparity has resulted in reduced playing time for Varitek (though he will end up catching two of three games in New York this weekend, with Martinez likely getting the nod with Daisuke Matsuzaka starting on Saturday). Despite the diminished playing time, however, Francona noted that Varitek remains committed to helping the Sox win.
“There’s a reason they put that ‘C’ on his chest. Even through maybe disappointment or a reduced role, he still exhibits a lot of leadership,” Francona said. “He’s helped Victor. He’ll continue to be very valuable.”
“He’s having a hard time,” Francona added. “It’s not always easy. You do the best you can. You keep plugging away. You know he’ll do that. You just keep plugging. He takes the brunt of a long season. We’ve talked about it so much. It affects him at the plate, the amount of catching he does. It’s hard to get around that when you catch that many games.”
It is worth noting that the team’s run prevention has been better with Varitek behind the plate than Martinez. Boston has given up an average of 4.3 runs per game in games started by its captain in the last two months, vs. 5.1 runs a game with Martinez catching.
BOWDEN CAN SPELL RELIEF … BUT FOR HOW LONG?
The Red Sox have given pitcher Michael Bowden a number of interesting tests this week. First, they had him come into back-to-back games against the Royals in Kansas City, recording shutout innings in both appearances. Then, on Friday, he was asked to enter in the middle of an inning with the Yankees featuring runners on first and third and one out.
Bowden came out of the shoot with guns blazing. Though Jorge Posada greeted the right-hander by bouncing a run-scoring single through the right side, Bowden recovered to elicit a double-play grounder from Robinson Cano to escape the fourth, and then came back to punch out the side in the fifth, recording all three with fastballs (two swinging, one looking).
But come the sixth, he seemed to be out of gas. His fastball lost either its deceptiveness (perhaps due to the Yankees’ increased familiarity with it), its life, or both. Bowden allowed a pair of walks in the inning as well as a couple of hits to the gap in right-center and another ball that was crushed by Mark Teixeira but tracked down at the wall by Jacoby Ellsbury.
Bowden’s usage in a variety of situations suggests that the Sox are taking the opportunity to evaluate him, whether to determine if he could be a candidate for a role as the last pitcher in the Sox bullpen in the playoffs or for the future. There have been talent evaluators who, after watching Bowden in the minors, felt that his big-league future was most likely as a reliever, though Boston officials across the board have suggested that they see the pitcher as a legitimate starter based on his consistent minor league track record of success.
EVEN THOUGH THEY HAVEN’T CLINCHED, THE SOX ARE TREATING THE REST OF THE SCHEDULE AS LITTLE MORE THAN A POSTSEASON TUNEUP
A comeback was not entirely out of the realm of possibility. Even though the Red Sox had trailed the entire game, they had shown signs of life at the plate starting in the middle innings, and had steadily whittled their deficit to 9-5 after plating a pair of runs in the top of the eighth.
But following a late night of travel, and at the end of a long night, the Sox did not try to push an unlikely (albeit not completely infeasible) comeback effort. In the bottom of the eighth, the Sox replaced six of their eight starting position players, giving a spring training feel to the proceedings.
That has been a common theme for the Sox in recent games, a function not just of the expanded September rosters and the absence of close games (the Sox have played seven straight games that were decided by four or more runs), but also of the team’s desire to leave their players refreshed for the end of the year.
For instance, the team made the decision to sit Lowell on Friday even though he had a .467 career batting average against Chamberlain. The Sox have also seemed intent on giving role players such as Casey Kotchman and Rocco Baldelli as many at-bats as pinch-hitters as possible so that they will be as prepared as possible to contribute in that capacity come the playoffs.
Francona acknowledged that, given the likelihood that both the Sox and Yankees will continue playing beyond the regular season, the consequences surrounding this weekend’s slate of games are vastly reduced.
“When the season is over, everyone will forget what happened on the Sunday before the season was over,” Francona said. “If we’re fortunate enough to keep playing when this is over, nobody is going to care what happened. You play one playoff game and the world is ending. That’s just the way it is.”
For a moment on Friday, when Lester lay on the hill, that statement nearly proved entirely hollow. However, with the news that the pitcher likely escaped serious injury, that is not the case.