Ultimately, it was a series of three games that embodied why meetings between the Red Sox and Yankees have long been considered must-see events. The weekend was rich with moments that had never been seen before and may never be seen again by most who bore witness to them.
The signature moment of Sunday night’s 4-1 Red Sox victory over the Yankees at Fenway was a straight steal of home by Jacoby Ellsbury. A perfect storm of circumstances permitted the event:
--With the bases loaded, Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte worked out of the windup rather than the stretch, leaving his time to home plate in the vicinity of 3.5 seconds.
--Angel Berroa, who had all of two games of big-league experience at the hot corner prior to Sunday, was playing third. Rather than hold Ellsbury, or even cheat back towards the bag to keep the baserunner honest, Berroa had ventured far from the bag. As such, Ellsbury could open a huge lead down the line.
--A left-handed hitter, J.D. Drew, stood in the box, meaning that he was in position to see Ellsbury take off for home and step out of the batter’s box to get out of the way of his teammate.
--Finally, because Pettitte is a southpaw, his back was to third, and so Ellsbury was able to get a tremendous jump before the pitcher had any idea what was taking place. Pettitte -- who had been warned before the play by teammate Jorge Posada that he needed to keep an eye on Ellsbury -- realized what was happening too late. He did accelerate his release, but by that point Ellsbury (despite a stumble that preceded a head-first dive across the inside part of the plate) had already crossed the plate, and claimed his prize.
“The biggest thing is getting the courage to go, I guess,” Ellsbury beamed after the contest. “In that situation, bases loaded, you’ve got to make it. It could be one of the worst baserunning mistakes if you don’t make it. But I was pretty confident that I could get in there and make it, so that’s why I went.
“It enters my mind all the time, thinking, ‘I think I can make it.’ But this time I was confident. I was like, ‘I know I can make this one.’ … It was exciting for me, never doing that before. And going in the dugout, the teammates’ reactions to it was pretty special.”
Ellsbury’s steal -- the first straight steal of home by a Red Sox since Billy Hatcher did it against the Angels on April 22, 1994 -- was the culmination of three games that had already seen history in the making. On Friday, for the first time in the nearly 2,000 games between the clubs, the Sox had a game-tying homer in the bottom of the ninth (against Mariano Rivera, no less) and a walkoff homer in extra innings against the Yankees.
On Saturday, the Sox wiped out a 6-0 deficit en route to a wild 16-11 victory. It was the largest hole that they had escaped in a game against the Yankees in 41 years.
With those dizzying victories, the Sox completed not only a three-game sweep of the Yankees (their first since April 2007), but also a nine-game homestand in which they were undefeated.
“I don’t know how many 9-0 homestands you guys have been a part of,” said outfielder Jason Bay afterwards, “but I know that I haven’t been part of many.”
The Sox have won 10 in a row overall, their longest winning streak since 2006, and their longest April winning streak ever. Amidst all of these unprecedented happenings, it’s not hard to identify five things we learned on Sunday:
1) JACOBY ELLSBURY IS A PLAYER UNLIKE ALMOST ANY OTHER
It is a treatment typically reserved for sluggers. There are certain players -- David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez come to mind for the Sox in recent years -- whose trips to the plate keep fans in their seats rather than at concession stands, hopeful that they will see something they’ve never seen before.
That is what Jacoby Ellsbury has become on the bases. Those who turn away might lose out on the chance to see something incredible.
Ellsbury certainly does his best to plot those sorts of rare moments. Over the past couple of seasons, he has pestered Red Sox third-base coach DeMarlo Hale with the idea that he would steal home. And before Sunday’s game, he was musing about the possibility of swiping the plate, and how he used to execute the tactic as a Little Leaguer.
The steal of home was merely the icing on the cake for an incredible weekend of baserunning, and of baseball in general for Ellsbury. The swipe of home was merely one of several “only Ellsbury” moments on the bases during the series against the Yankees:
Ellsbury started running amok in the first inning on Friday. He singled against Joba Chamberlain to open the game, and then the Yankees’ right-hander balked while rushing on a pitchout. Ellsbury then kept applying the pressure, stealing third and -- when Jose Molina rose out of his crouch too soon -- continuing home to score from second on a wild pitch.
“You think about his capabilities: he did that before last year, where he came home from second on a wild pitch,” said Sox third-base coach DeMarlo Hale. “That’s nothing new. That’s his instincts. He knows he’s a base stealer.”
On Saturday, the Yankees had him dead to rights on a pitchout. Ellsbury still swiped the bag.
On Sunday, he stole second against Pettitte (a left-hander with one of the best moves to hold runners at first in the game), and then the threat of his speed at second led the beleaguered Berroa to commit a key error.
Dustin Pedroia chopped a grounder to third, where Berroa seemed distracted by the need to hold Ellsbury at second -- rightly so, since as soon as Berroa threw the ball, Ellsbury took off for third -- and skipped his throw to first.
Berroa’s second error of the inning put runners on the corners with one out. David Ortiz capitalized, lifting a fly to medium depth in left field -- plenty deep enough for Ellsbury to race home with an unearned run, the Sox’ first of the game.
“He affects us offensively,” said Hale. “He puts pressure on the defense. No question, he affects the defense because you have to be aware of him.”
While the baserunning was naturally the focal point of Ellsbury’s weekend accomplishments, his work at the plate should not be overlooked. The 25-year-old hit .385 (5-for-13) with a homer (his first of the year), double and two walks in the three games against the Yankees. Over the homestand, he hit .375 (15-for-40) with six steals.
2) THE QUESTIONS OF MASTERSON’S FUTURE ARE CHANGING
Justin Masterson was an effective starter last year. Nonetheless, he was clearly a different and more dominant pitcher out of the bullpen.
The short bursts of work allowed him to show a more powerful pitching arsenal. His fastball velocity ticked up from the 88-92 range to the mid-90s, and his sinker dropped with the force of an anvil.
And so, from that comparison, many talent evaluators concluded that Masterson’s greatest value would lie in a future out of the bullpen. But this year, the 24-year-old right-hander might be forcing some reconsideration of that notion.
He has learned to apply his bullpen form to his starts. His fastball is now exploding through the zone at 94-96 mph. As such, in his two starts, he’s been capable of generating both strikeouts and groundballs, a combination that lends itself to dominance as a starter.
“The one thing I think has been impressive as a starter, he’s held his velocity,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “I know that’s not the end-all, but I think that’s the thing maybe you can expect the drop-off. He’s really maintained the sharpness to his fastball.”
In earning his first career win against the Yankees Sunday, Masterson struck out four in 5.1 innings. He now has 14 punchouts in 16.2 innings, and has recorded 21 groundball outs as compared to 15 flyball outs. Of the 17 hits he’s allowed this year, 16 have been singles (the other was a double).
Masterson has pitched at least five innings and allowed four or fewer earned runs in all 11 of his major-league starts. He is 6-3 with a 3.31 ERA as a starter.
He’s still all but certain to get a ticket back to the bullpen when Daisuke Matsuzaka comes off the disabled list. (Matsuzaka will throw a couple bullpen sessions on the roadtrip that begins on Monday as a prelude to his next step, presumably a rehab start.) But now, that is more a reflection of team needs, rather than a definitive statement about where he has more value. Increasingly, that matter appears to be up for debate.
3) THE SOX HAVE A SOLID OFFENSIVE LINE
The baton was passed: No. 63 to No. 62 to No. 64. Not exactly the types of numbers that one would expect to see on the backs of pitchers who shut down the Yankees.
Justin Masterson (No. 63) earned his first career win over the Yankees in no small part due to the relief efforts of one pitcher (Hunter Jones, No. 62) who was making his second big-league relief appearance, and another (Mike Bowden, No. 64) who was making his second big-league appearance, and first as a reliever.
That Jones and Bowden would be pressed into duty for the Red Sox (and that Mark Melancon would make his major-league debut and pitch two shutout innings in a tight game for the Yankees) was a testament to the grueling nature of series between the Sox and Yankees.
By the time a third game of a series between the two teams arrives, the tendency of both teams to grind at-bats results in bullpens that are, in the words of New York manager Joe Girardi, “shot.” That makes the challenge of managing in those final games unique.
“You just might manage it a little different, knowing that you don’t have your normal pieces you would go to if you were winning a game,” said Girardi. “You know going in what you have.”
That was the case for the Sox, who had ruled out Jonathan Papelbon, Ramon Ramirez and Manny Delcarmen on Sunday due to their recent workloads. That led to both Jones (called up from Triple-A less than two weeks ago) and Bowden (a one-day call-up yesterday) to record eight crucial outs.
Jones retired both batters he faced, and got his first career strikeout in the process. Bowden followed by going six-up, six-down in his two innings of work, finishing his night by striking out Derek Jeter in the top of the eighth.
“I thought about that when I was walking off the field: ‘I struck out Derek Jeter -- one of the best players ever to play the game,’” said Bowden. “That’s awesome.”
It was a day of pride for several members of the organization. The fact that farm products Masterson, Jones and Bowden pitched the Sox to a win, coupled with the dynamic performance of Ellsbury, offered a chance for members of Boston’s scouting and player development departments a chance to see the impact of the team’s depth.
The players were equally enthusiastic about the phenomenon.
“It was great that Hunter Jones and then Mike Bowden got to get in there and did a tremendous job. That was pretty cool,” said Masterson. “You almost didn’t feel like it was a 4-1 ballgame. They were just slicing and dicing when they came in and then Saito coming in for the save. It was really tremendous.”
4) NEXT UP: JULIO LUGO
The Red Sox will activate Julio Lugo on Monday in Cleveland, and so the team will once again tweak the personnel at its most unstable position.
On Sunday, Lugo completed a four-game rehab assignment with Triple-A Pawtucket following the March 17 surgery on the torn meniscus in his right knee. He went 4-for-17 during his rehab assignment in Pawtucket, but all four of those hits came in 11 at-bats over the last two days.
Lugo’s return spells the end of Nick Green’s run as the starting Red Sox shortstop. Among the early-season storylines in Boston, perhaps none has been more surprising than the emergence of Green as an everyday shortstop.
Through the early weeks of spring training, he was only playing second base, consistent with a career in which he’s been primarily and almost exclusively at that position. He wouldn’t have made the Opening Day roster but for the injury to Lugo, and he was pressed into duty as a starting shortstop only because Jed Lowrie required wrist surgery.
All of those scenarios occurred, and so Green will made 12 straight starts at shortstop, the most starts he’s ever made at the position in a major-league season. His performance was everything the Sox could have hoped and then some.
Green went 1-for-4 on Sunday, and is hitting .302 with a .375 OBP and .488 slugging mark. His defense has included some outstanding plays (mostly on flyballs behind the infield), albeit with a few errors sprinkled into the mix.
He was good enough that the Sox will have little reluctance to put him back at short in place of Lugo when he needs a rest, and going forward, Green will likely see time as a utility player who can back up at second, third and short.
For obvious reasons, Green would rather be a starter than a backup. But he’s been thrilled with the unexpected opportunity that he’s had, and will adapt to whatever role the Sox give him when Lugo is activated on Monday.
“It’s one of those things you always strive for. Ultimatley, you want to be in the big leagues and you want the opportunity to play everyday. I’ve been fortunate to have it for a couple weeks,” said Green. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to play everyday for a while. It’s always something you want to do, and I want to keep doing it. Ultimately, it’s out of my hands.
“We’re going to be getting Julio back,” Green added. “He can be a valuable part of the team. Anytime you can get him back, it’s helpful. I just do whatever they tell me to do.”
Green felt no pressure to perform. The role was a comfortable one for him thanks to both the clubhouse in which he is operating and the fact that his current job is something of an exercise in playing with house money.
“I’m not making 10 million bucks. I’m not hitting third in the lineup. I’m kind of in the background, is the way I look at it. I don’t feel like there’s any pressure on me,” said Green, before smirking, “If I were making 10 million bucks, I’d be pretty pumped up.”
(Green, for what it’s worth, is making $500,000 this year.)
The team believes that Green will continue to be a meaningful contributor while spelling Lugo as well as second baseman Dustin Pedroia and third baseman Mike Lowell. Lugo’s health and strength, naturally, will be the key determinant of playing time in the coming days and weeks.
“Some of it is going to depend on how (Lugo) feels,” Francona said. “We’re not just going to turn him loose and just because he’s on our roster and hurt him. We’ll use some common sense.”
5) J.D. DREW’S HEALTH WILL BE MONITORED
J.D. Drew had a pivotal sequence during the fifth inning. He had the game sense to step out of the box so that Jacoby Ellsbury’s path home would be uninterrupted on a steal. Drew then jumped on a Pettitte offering, slamming a ground-rule double down the right-field line for another insurance run that gave the Sox the 4-1 lead that they carried to victory.
But in the top of the eighth, Drew departed in favor of defensive replacement Jonathan Van Every. Drew, who had tightness in his left quadriceps, will not be in the starting lineup on Monday, as the Sox instead turn to Jeff Bailey against Indians starter Cliff Lee.
“J.D. had a tight left quad and was getting concerned about it,” said Francona. “Rather than lose a guy for a month, probably won’t play him tomorrow and probably play (Jeff Bailey) in right. Just trying to take precautions.”
Drew hit .280 with nine walks during the just-concluded homestand. So long as his time on the sidelines is limited to one game, the effect on the Sox will be minimal, since Drew was likely to sit against the left-handed Lee.
But, if it turns to something more, then the Sox could face some issues. The team’s outfield depth at this point in the season appears limited, though the situation may be improved in roughly a week, when Mark Kotsay will likely be ready to return to the Sox.