For a while, it seemed that everything had vacated the premises at Fenway Park. The buzz, the fans, the players — everything was gone.
Though the Red Sox had mounted a hard, late-inning charge in their effort to erase a six-run deficit, they came up just short. The team plated five in the eighth, then stranded the tying and go-ahead runs when Kevin Youkilis was frozen by a fastball from Blue Jays closer Jason Frasor, the final out of Boston’s 8-7 loss. (Recap.)
And so, the Sox did not have a chance to celebrate with their fans, who filed for the exits. The players soon followed, though they recognized that their night might not yet be over.
“Don’t forget my goggles,” slugger David Ortiz shouted to a clubhouse attendant on his way out the door.
It was an odd confluence of circumstances. The Sox had lost, continuing a trend of poor baseball. The team’s losing streak had stretched to five games, the second-longest skid of the year. Over the course of nine games against the Royals, Yankees and Blue Jays, the Sox had dropped seven contests.
Nonetheless, there was the sense of anticipation and possibility. Thanks to the Rangers’ futility in recent weeks, the Sox found themselves with a magic number of just 1, and so even though the team had failed to punch its own ticket to the postseason with a victory on Tuesday, the possibility of a party remained thanks to the potential for a Texas loss in Anaheim against the Angels.
But because the game was on the West Coast, there would have to be a wait. Victor Martinez suggested that he was going home, perhaps to sleep. Dustin Pedroia left the park to put his newborn son to bed. Jason Bay stepped away to grab a drink with his agent. Several other players went to their nearby homes to monitor the Rangers-Angels tilt.
As the game progressed, and the Rangers showed little life, the players trickled back. And when, at 12:50 a.m., Rangers first baseman Hank Blalock was caught looking for a game-ending strikeout, one small section in an otherwise dark and nearly empty Fenway Park celebrated unapologetically.
Obviously, the team would have loved to have taken the final step to the postseason under its own power, and at a time when the joy could have spilled from the clubhouse onto the field and into the stands, with tens of thousands of fans.
Even so, the Sox were not about to seek anyone’s permission to rejoice after having worked so hard to win 91 games and earn a sixth trip to the postseason in seven years. After fulfilling the relentless expectations of its fan base, the team felt that it had earned the right to enjoy the fruits of its accomplishments, no matter the path to the postseason.
“It’s a little different because we didn’t do it on the field, but I don’t think that takes away the joy we have. It’s still a great accomplishment for us,” third baseman Mike Lowell said. “Not every team gets to go to the playoffs, and I know my first five years in the big leagues I was home right after the last day of the season, so any time I have to celebrate a great team accomplishment, I think we should.”
And so, the Sox enjoyed a moment to themselves, without intruders. The clubhouse celebration remained closed to all but the team’s employees, with the concession made of a few appearances by players who popped out of the clubhouse door and addressed the couple of dozen members of the media in the otherwise-empty Fenway Park concourse.
It was a different sort of celebration than any that the club had enjoyed before. But then, it was a different sort of entry into the postseason than ever before, and a reminder that change has been a common denominator in the team’s perennial postseason appearances.
Perhaps, after the Sox had taken five days to trim the final three days off their magic number, there was as much a sense of relief as there was of exuberance. Even so, in this town, especially, there is no such thing as an easy ride to the postseason. That being the case, even though its advance came on a night of defeat, the Sox felt no need to subdue their festivities.
It did not matter to the club that its postseason spot was secured on the night of a loss. Nor was it material that the team had entered as the wild card instead of the division champion. A clubhouse filled with players who have been to the postseason before understood that the opportunities to enjoy the fulfillment of a preseason goal are too precious to ignore.
“You play an entire season, spring training included, to get to this point. One night, you get to throw champagne around and have a little bit of fun,” Bay said. “I think that everyone is entitled to that.”
Here are four other things that we learned in the hours leading up to the after-midnight celebration at Fenway Park:
BUCHHOLZ HAS “GOT A WAY TO GO BEFORE HE’LL BE DOC”
Before his team played the Red Sox on Tuesday night, Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston was asked to reflect on both Roy Halladay and Clay Buchholz.
The two will be linked for some time, thanks to the fact that the Sox offered Buchholz as the centerpiece of a prospect-rich package that they put on the table in an effort to acquire Toronto’s ace at this year’s trade deadline. That being the case, it had been somewhat fascinating to monitor the performances of both pitchers since the deadline.
In 11 starts, Halladay had been tremendous, forging a 3.29 ERA but — in an act of betrayal by his offense — forging a record of just 5-6.
Buchholz, meanwhile, had been even better, going 6-2 with a 3.12 ERA in his 11 starts (albeit while averaging roughly one run fewer per start). Moreover, against the Blue Jays this year, Buchholz had made like Bob Gibson, going 3-0 with a 1.35 in three starts.
And so, having seen Buchholz at his best, Gaston was asked to take stock of the 25-year-old right-hander.
“He’s got a good arm,” Gaston said. “He’s got a way to go before he’ll be Doc, but he’s still got a good arm.”
A couple hours later, as good as Buchholz had been, there was another reminder that he does not yet belong among the American League’s elite, this one occurring on the mound.
The Jays slammed Buchholz for seven runs (matching a season high) in five innings to deal the pitcher his first loss since Aug. 13, an eight-start run in which the right-hander was 6-0 with a 2.44 ERA. After yielding just one homer in his prior six starts, Buchholz allowed a stunning five long balls on Tuesday. The run-down on those blasts:
- Jays leadoff man Jose Bautista set the tone by blasting the first pitch of the game, a 92 mph fastball, over the Wall.
- Adam Lind, with a runner on first and no outs in the first, crushed a 1-2 changeup for a two-run homer to center.
- In the top of the second, Aaron Hill fell behind 0-2, then worked back to a full count before going deep to left on a changeup.
- In the top of the third, Kevin Millar fell behind 0-2, but sat on a 1-2 changeup that he drove out to left field.
- Finally, in the top of the fifth, Lind (who ended the game with a career-high three homers, the first such game a Fenway Park visitor since Frank Thomas accomplished the feat as a member of the White Sox on Sept. 15, 1996) smashed a 94 mph fastball on a 1-1 count.
So: two homers on early count fastballs, and three on late-count change-ups. The Blue Jays appeared to follow a blueprint in their fourth game against Buchholz, and they unloaded on his offspeed offerings with two strikes.
“They’ve faced him quite a few times this year. I thought they were sitting soft, especially late in the count. They got some change-ups up,” Sox manager Terry Francona said. “I thought they did a good job of picking out one speed with Buc and he was elevating a little bit and they hit it a long way.”
Buchholz threw 20 pitches with two strikes. Of those:
- Six were changeups (all in the first three innings). The Blue Jays blasted three homers on the pitch, took one for a ball, grounded out on one and lined out on one. They did not swing-and-miss at a two-strike changeup.
- One was a curveball, resulting in a single.
- Seven were fastballs: four balls, two groundouts, one strikeout looking
- Six sliders: two swings and misses, one called third strike, two balls, one foul
In other words, when Buchholz threw hard stuff (fastballs and sliders) in two-strike counts, the Jays primarily took the pitches. When they swung, they either missed or made poor contact.
When he threw offspeed pitches, namely his Bugs Bunny changeup and curve, Toronto swung at all but one pitch, and typically made hard contact.
“I felt like I did a pretty good job with the majority of the guys getting ahead in the count and two-strike counts. The execution of the two-strike pitches weren’t near as sharp as they needed to be,” Buchholz said. “Obviously, they had a game plan and they stuck to it and they beat me tonight.
“The home runs, or a couple at least, they were sitting soft with two strikes. All year I’ve been throwing my changeups with two strikes to get outs with. Even though a couple of them were in decent locations, they sat back on it. They did a good job of following their game plan and sticking to it.”
Of course, such a claim represents a potential danger with the playoffs soon at hand. Postseason opponents zero in on such vulnerabilities, and typically do a tremendous job focusing on a pitcher’s vulnerabilities.
That being the case, with Buchholz representing an almost-certain member of the postseason rotation, he will have to counteract the tactic. He has the tools to do so, namely the ability to change his pitching patterns by leaving opponents guessing as to what pitch will be thrown in what count, and by executing his breaking stuff so it disappears on two-strike counts, rather than staying thigh-high.
“When you throw up in the zone and pretty much in the middle, I think anybody can hit those kind of pitches, even with the stuff Clay has,” catcher Victor Martinez said. “I think it was one of those days he didn’t have his best stuff and they really made him pay.”
“There are other teams who have sat on [Buchholz’ slow stuff], too,” Francona added. “His change-up’s so good they don’t hit it. It’s just the ball was elevated a little bit [on Tuesday].”
THE (PITCHING) STARS ARE ALIGNED
Tim Wakefield, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett all appear set to make their scheduled starts during the next turn of the rotation.
Wakefield went so far as to head down to the bullpen on Monday night, when starter Michael Bowden was getting hammered in the early innings. The knuckleballer will take the ball for the first time since Sept. 21 to close out the series.
Lester experienced “no repercussions from throwing,” according to Francona, and so he is in line to make the start for the series-opener against the Indians, a development that seems almost miraculous given the force of the line drive off the side of his right knee last Friday. Finally, after Daisuke Matsuzaka pitches on Friday, Beckett will make his final start of the regular season on Saturday.
Beckett proclaimed himself “80 percent” better on Tuesday than he was on Monday, when spasms in his upper back forced him to get scratched from his scheduled start. The right-hander said that he would be capable of making a start if needed in the coming days, but that he will instead wait for his next scheduled turn on Saturday in order to keep the rotation aligned for the postseason.
He attributed the discomfort to “three crappy beds on the road and getting in [after traveling] at 5 in the morning.” That being the case, the right-hander thought that the condition was anything to be worried about as he heads toward the playoffs.
“Absolutely, I think I’ll make my next start. I don’t think we’re going to need this, but I could go sooner if I needed to than Saturday. But I think right now, we’re kind of looking at Saturday to set things up [for the playoffs],” Beckett said. “It was just something that you wake up with. It wasn’t like I felt anything when I was throwing. You wake up and you’re locked up.”
Beckett told WBZ-TV that he received three cortisone injections in his back to control the discomfort, but the pitcher also said that he didn’t foresee the issue being a chronic one.
Of course, the right-hander might be able to avoid the issue in the future if he simply paid homage to a literary immortal by traveling with his own bed.
J.D. DREW IS THE SOX’ HOTTEST HITTER
Quietly, J.D. Drew is hammering the ball on his way to the regular season’s finish line. He’s hitting .338 with a .438 OBP (sixth in the AL) and .603 slugging mark (fifth) in the month of September.
He continued his recent torrid pace on Tuesday, going 3-for-4 and propelling the Sox back into the game with a three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth that brought Boston within a run. Thanks to his recent run, Drew is hitting .276 with a .391 OBP and .508 slugging mark.
His .898 OPS ranks second among AL outfielders (behind only teammate Jason Bay). He also has set Red Sox career highs with 22 homers and 66 runs batted in.
“All night he took good, aggressive swings,” Francona said. “When he puts good swings on the ball it’s as pretty as you’ll ever see.”
KEVIN YOUKILIS DID SOMETHING HE’D NEVER DONE BEFORE
The Red Sox were surging back into the game, looking for a way to take care of their own business.
The team had been knocked down and back almost as soon as the game had started, with Clay Buchholz allowing four runs in the first inning — more total runs than he’d given up in any of his previous six starts. But down by an 8-2 count in the bottom of the eighth, the team suddenly exploded.
With two outs, the team plated five runs, starting with a run-scoring double by Kevin Youkilis, followed by a David Ortiz run-scoring double, then a Jason Bay walk and, finally, a J.D. Drew three-run blast.
That Youkilis had delivered a big two-out hit came as no surprise. With runners in scoring position and two outs, after all, he entered the day hitting .373 (fourth best in the AL) with a .519 OBP (third), .644 slugging (fifth) and 1.164 OPS (third).
Given that success rate, the Sox were no doubt thrilled when Youkilis returned to the plate in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, Jacoby Ellsbury on second and pinch-runner Joey Gathright behind him on first. Simply put, the team has no better options for such a moment.
But somewhat shockingly, Youkilis was frozen by a Jason Frasor fastball of all pitches. Frasor’s 94 mph full-count fastball painted the outside edge of the plate for a game-ending called strikeouts.
Eight previous times, Youkilis had struck out to end a game. But never before had the corner infielder been caught looking in such a moment.
And so, the Sox absorbed their one-run loss to the Blue Jays, resulting in the team’s wait to celebrate. All the same, a bit more than two hours after that game-ending punch-out, that moment was surely forgotten.
“I know it wasn’t the ideal thing and you’d probably much rather do it on the field after a victory, but, you know, we battled hard all year to get to this point. I don’t care how it comes,” Mike Lowell said. “We deserve to celebrate just like the other teams that have made the playoffs. We’re excited to be here. This is hopefully Step 1. I think we’ve got our team where we want it to be and we’re excited.”