ANAHEIM, Calif. — From the beginning, the whole thing seemed a bit … off.
As the Red Sox took to the field during pregame introductions, their manager was nowhere to be found. Terry Francona spent a “tough day” fighting what seemed a losing battle against a meal at Del Taco, a local chain restaurant that left him with a case of food poisoning. Once the game got under way, he surely felt no better.
The playoffs typically demand the highest level of play, as single mistakes can turn into glaring deficiencies due to the diminished margin for error between top teams. That being the case, it came as little surprise that the Sox suffered a 5-0 defeat (recap) in which they seemed, at times, out of sorts against the Halos in Game 1 of the ALDS.
On the mound, Angels starter John Lackey was spectacular. He allowed just four hits, all singles, in his 7-1/3 innings, mixing up his pitches to leave the Sox consistently off balance.
Boston had a chance early in the game, when Angels catcher Jeff Mathis was charged with catcher’s interference to prolong an inning and put two on and two out. But the Sox couldn’t capitalize, and had just two other runners in scoring position during the game. As a result, the Sox were shut out in the postseason for the first time since a Game 2 loss in the 1995 ALDS, ending a run of 69 straight playoff games with at least one run.
“It wasn’t like a game of missed opportunities. We really didn’t have any. It was one of those games where he was better than us tonight,” outfielder Jason Bay said. “By and large, we’re a pretty good offensive team. Lackey shut us down. Four singles and three errors isn’t going to win too many ballgames. … I think we can be better.”
The same was true of starter Jon Lester. The southpaw walked four batters, his most since matching that season high on July 19, a span of 14 starts. More significantly, he made one major mistake with a strike.
With two on and one out in the bottom of the fifth, Lester threw a two-seam fastball that he hoped Torii Hunter might hit for a double play. Instead, the 95 mph offering remained belt-high and over the middle of the plate. Hunter unloaded on the pitch, sending it crashing into the rock pile behind the fence in left-center for a three-run homer, the first that Lester had allowed with more than one runner on base since May 26.
“I think the whole game was a battle,” Lester admitted afterward. “I was trying to execute a two-seamer down and away and it was more middle up and he put a good swing on it. … I felt like that was the right pitch to throw, trying to get a double play. I elevated it a little and he hit it out. What can you do?”
Lester was not the only one to struggle with his execution. Defensively, the Sox seemed unusually disjointed.
Even the two workout days in Southern California prior to the start of the series had offered some puzzling sights. Sox infielders botched routine grounders. Pitchers’ fielding drills turned into fiascos, with pitchers and infielders colliding while trying to pick up balls or figure out who was covering first.
It is not clear whether that sloppiness carried over to Game 1 of the best-of-five series. But what was clear is that the messy play continued.
On Thursday, the Sox were throwing the ball carelessly against an Angels team that thrives on mistakes. Though two of the errors would have been outs but for blown calls by first-base umpire C.B. Bucknor, it was odd to see Alex Gonzalez, Mike Lowell and Bay were charged with errors.
Since they committed four errors in Games 1 and 2 of the 2004 World Series, the Sox had gone 30 straight games in the postseason without committing more than one error in a game. In 2008, the Sox committed just one error over their entire 11-game October.
“It’s definitely not our style. One way or another, [the errors] led to a couple runs,” Bay said. “Ultimately, I don’t think it was the errors that did us in. I think it was more offensively. Granted, the errors aren’t great, but offensively, we just didn’t get much done.”
In all facets of the game, the Sox simply lacked the necessary precision that is often necessary to win playoff games, where mistakes often are punished with defeats. It was an unusually off-key note on which the team opened the series, ending a five-game winning streak for the franchise in postseason series-openers that dated to the start of the 2007 playoffs.
If the Sox hope to bounce back, they will need to execute with greater precision — and, perhaps, to avoid any more untoward incidents with fast food. Here are four other lessons from Game 1:
THE SOX WILL NOT WIN BY THROWING THEIR HATS ON THE FIELD
Game 1 was viewed as pivotal in some ways. If the Angels lost, they would have to face what has become a tired refrain, namely the suggestion that the Sox have their number in the postseason after having taken nine of 10 ALDS games this decade.
Instead, the Angels were permitted a measure of defiance. Los Angeles could assert that the game demonstrated that the past is irrelevant, particularly with Lackey (a pitcher who had taken losses in each of the previous three Game 1s between the teams) dominating and Lester (who held the Angels without an earned run in 14 innings in the ’08 ALDS) getting beaten.
“We don't really care about [the past]. We let you guys care about that. We just go out there and play the game, man,” Hunter said. “Sometimes you can read all that stuff and it gets in your head. I choose to stay away from it, you know. If you guys ask a question I try to answer the best way I can and try to explain to you guys that we really don't give a damn, but we just go out there and we played.”
The Sox, meanwhile, instead of being able to enjoy a position of comfort, secure in the knowledge that they could clinch at home, now face larger stakes in Game 2. The team insists that it is experienced enough in the postseason, that its members will not press, but at the same time, there was a candid acknowledgement of the need to leave Southern California with at least one victory.
“We’re not in panic mode,” Lowell said, “but obviously we would have preferred a different result.”
“If you don’t have much experience, maybe you might want to panic and come out and maybe try to do too much,” Bay added. “There’s no undue pressure. Everybody knew it wasn’t going to be easy. You try to get out of here with a split. I think going into another team’s ballpark and playing two games, that would be a pretty good outcome.”
THE SOX NEED A SPARK FROM ELLSBURY
He is supposed to be the catalyst. It is a role that Jacoby Ellsbury had seemingly grown into once he returned to the leadoff role on July 20. From that point through the end of the year, he hit .310 with a .368 OBP, .439 slugging and .807 OPS. He stole 30 bases in those 69 games, and frequently was a game-changing force.
That seemed to answer any questions about whether he could handle the leadoff role. All the same, while he is now entrenched atop the Sox lineup, Ellsbury did little to separate himself from the slump that led to his benching at the end of last season during the American League Championship Series against the Rays.
Ellsbury finished last postseason on an 0-for-17 jag, dating to Game 3 against the Angels. On Thursday, he went 0-for-4, reaching base on catcher’s interference (which is charged as an error on the catcher), and stretching his hitless streak to 21 at-bats.
Ellsbury credited Lackey with making the big pitches when he needed them, suggesting it was a “tip-your-cap” affair. The 26-year-old offered the analysis calmly, without any sense that his hitless night weighed on him (though Ellsbury did review video of his at-bats in the clubhouse before leaving the park).
Even so, an a night when the Sox struggled to mount an offensive threat, it was easy to wonder whether the offense might have assumed a different shape had Ellsbury found a way to get on base.
“He’s a guy — it’s well-documented — who can get on base and torment a pitcher,” teammate Jed Lowrie said. “It didn’t happen tonight, but a perfect example is a guy like John Lackey. If he gives up a cheap hit, he’s [ticked] off. If you steal off of him, he’s even more [ticked] off. It didn’t work out tonight, but his abilities can play mind games with people.”
THE WORK OF THE UMPIRES GOT FAR MORE ATTENTION THAN SHOULD EVER BE THE CASE IN A PLAYOFF GAME
C.B. Bucknor’s reputation (such as it is) is safe … for now … kind of.
Voted Major League Baseball's worst umpire in Sports Illustrated polls in both 2003 and 2006, Bucknor could have had his reputation savaged during and after Game 1 of the ALDS. But a sympathetic administrator at Wikipedia disabled edits to the umpire’s entry "due to vandalism."
That became necessary after Bucknor made two calls on Thursday that proved sufficiently egregious that even sickly Sox manager Terry Francona summoned the energy to scream at him.
The first came in the fourth inning when Alex Gonzalez’ throw drew Kevin Youkilis off the bag, forcing the first baseman to make a swipe tag on Angels baserunner Howie Kendrick. Replays showed that Youkilis did tag Kendrick in the chest well before the second baseman reached first, but Bucknor didn’t see it that way.
“He said I tagged him, but he said he was on the base when I tagged him,” Youkilis said. “I didn’t think that was possible.”
The second instance also came on a grounder off the bat of Kendrick, who this time led off the sixth by hitting the ball to Lowell at third base. Lowell tossed the ball wide to Youkilis, who scurried back to get his foot on the bag before Kendrick arrived, a notion later supported by replays. Again, Bucknor saw it differently.
“I thought they both were out. C.B. disagreed. So I’ll just move on go from there,” Youkilis said. “I can’t really do anything.
“It’s not a big deal after the game. It didn’t really have anything to do with us losing. I’m not really worried about it.”
After the game, crew chief Joe West was asked about those controversial plays at first, as well as a third that appeared to be correctly called when Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia gathered a wide throw from pitcher Jon Lester after a Chone Figgins bunt and snuck his foot back to the bag in time for the out.
“They were three bang-bang plays at first base. It seemed like two of them went against the Red Sox, one of them went against the Angels. I mean, they’re all bang-bang plays,” West said. “From where I was, it’s the kind of play, they hit the bag at the same time. I’m sure that the camera slowed everything down and they deciphered it the way they did.
“These are professional umpires, and they get in the best position they can to make the call,” West continued. “[Bucknor] was in great position on all the plays. If he got blocked out, he got blocked out. He was there to make the call. It didn’t appear that any of them were real routine plays, either. Those were all tough plays. They were all bang-bang plays. And tomorrow, there are going to be some more.”
Bucknor is scheduled to be behind the plate for the second game of the ALDS. His work will receive immense scrutiny, something that had already been anticipated in some quarters. Curt Schilling, for instance, wrote that he expected Bucknor and fellow crew member Greg Gibson to have an impact on the series, then went on to say on The Big Show on Thursday that the two umpires “suck. They're horrible. Horrible.”
BOBBY ABREU HAS MADE THE TASK OF ATTACKING THE ANGELS VERY DIFFERENT
While Lackey was the Angel who deserved the lion’s share of credit for sending Lester to a defeat, the Halos lineup also delivered the types of grinding at-bats that have characterized the Sox at their postseason best. In particular, Bobby Abreu — who drew three walks in as many plate appearances against Lester, and tied an ALDS record with four total walks in the game — helped his team to drive up the left-hander’s pitch count, and put him in position where a mistake would mean multiple runs.
Indeed, Abreu walked immediately in front of Hunter’s homer, and the outfielder was running on the pitch that was driven out of the park. Lester said that Abreu was not a distraction by taking off for second, but he did credit his opponent for his impact.
“The four walks not only would have led to the pitch count where Jon Lester had to work hard to get to that part of the game, but also [set] the table, passing the baton to [Hunter] or [Vladimir Guerrero] or whoever it's going to be,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “Bobby does that as well as anybody ever has. It was critical to our lineup to get somebody like that. That's why we assigned Bobby. And tonight, not that he's always going to go out there and draw four walks, but that's the plate discipline that he has.
“Not only tonight, but for our whole season Bobby set a tone that I think has gone more than what his numbers show. He's brought some great numbers to us: the on-base percentage, hitting [with] runners in scoring position, the amount of runs he's scored, the amount he's driven in, the way he's run the bases. He's brought a lot.
“But I think there's some spillover to other players. I think that over the course of the season we had a lot of guys that were around Bobby that had terrific seasons, and that's not an accident.”