NEW YORK—At Fenway Park on April 24, in the first game between the Red Sox and Yankees this year, the Sox took a 5-4, 11-inning victory that they had no business claiming. Down to their last out with a two-run deficit and Mariano Rivera on the mound, Jason Bay crushed a two-run homer that tied the game, and Kevin Youkilis eventually won the contest with a walkoff homer in extra innings.
On Monday (and early Tuesday, thanks to a 137-minute rain delay prior to the first pitch), the Yankees were looking to return the favor. For most of the night, New York had been unable to do anything against Sox pitching.
Jon Lester was overpowering for most of his seven innings, racking up a career-high 10 strikeouts. Jonathan Papelbon featured perhaps his most lively fastball of the season. And the Sox had jumped on Yankees starter Phil Hughes for runs in each of the first four innings. It was a formula that seemed like it should guarantee victory.
But for some choice moments that were needed to inject the proper degree of drama into the first game between the Sox and Yankees at the new Yankee Stadium, the outcome was suddenly, shockingly in doubt. In the fifth, New York jumped on two of Lester’s only mistakes of the night, with Johnny Damon (two-run homer) and Mark Teixeira (solo homer) ripping homers on back-to-back fastballs that stayed over the middle of the plate.
Bay tacked on two vital insurance runs with a seventh-inning homer off the foul pole, but the Yankees kept coming. Teixeira hit another homer in the eighth, this time against reliever Ramon Ramirez, who had previously pitched 15 innings in 13 games as a Red Sox without giving up a run.
The game was slipping from the Sox, and so manager Terry Francona made a bold play. With five outs to go, he summoned Papelbon from the bullpen, the first time this year he had asked his closer to record more than four outs.
A cynic would say that Papelbon authored a cardiac save. In the eighth, after inheriting a runner on first, he gave up a single that put the tying runs on the corners before claiming an inning-ending pop-out.
Then, in the ninth, he loaded the bases on an infield single, a hit batter and a walk. Papelbon had put the tying and winning runs on base, and was a double away from giving back a lead that seemed as airtight as the one that Rivera had blown 10 days earlier.
But it didn’t happen, because in a season when Papelbon’s fastball movement has sometimes seemed less explosive than in the past, he rediscovered the late, explosive life of both that pitch. For what seemed like the first time this year, Papelbon stayed behind the comets that he hurtled towards the plate, and the pitches exploded through the strike zone.
The most dramatic illustration came against Teixeira, who stepped to the plate with two on and one out in the ninth, the game very much up for grabs. Papelbon blew a two-seam fastball past Teixeira, then got two more swings and misses on four-seamers that he elevated in the zone.
That strikeout offered a template for the one that ended the Sox’ 6-4 win. Papelbon did not mess around with his splitter or his slider when Robinson Cano batted with the bases loaded and two outs. He poured gas, and the Yankees had no answer.
The Yankees swung 15 times, and missed on six of those occasions -- a 40 percent frequency that was roughly twice what Papelbon had gotten in his prior outings this year. The Sox seemed elated by the timing of Papelbon’s return to his signature form.
“I thought Pap tonight had as good of stuff as he’s had,” said Francona. “I thought his fastball had good finish.”
The Sox and Papelbon alike enjoyed a good finish to a new beginning against the Yankees in their new ballpark. Along the way, here are five things we learned from the Sox’ 6-4 victory on Monday:
BRUCE HURST IS ON NOTICE
On 23 occasions, a Red Sox pitcher has amassed 200 or more strikeouts in a season. The list is an illustrious one that includes the likes of Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Luis Tiant and Cy Young.
But none of those season has been recorded by a left-hander. Bruce Hurst currently owns the franchise mark for punchouts by a left-hander with 190, a total he reached back in 1987.
Lester stands a solid chance of erasing Hurst’s mark and, in the process, becoming the first Sox left-hander ever to notch 200 punchouts. On Monday, while pouring in seven innings and allowing three runs on just six hits, he racked up 10 strikeouts, matching a career high.
“His stuff was terrific -- as good as we’ve seen this year,” said Francona. “His stuff was explosive. He had a good cutter. I was really happy with the way the game went.”
Lester has now recorded at least seven punchouts in each of his last four starts, and has 43 K’s in 37 innings this year. His arsenal has always been one of the swing-and-miss variety -- a fact that was made evident when he struck out the side in his first major-league outing -- but his strikeout totals haven’t always reflected that.
Lester struck out 152 batters last year, or 6.5 batters per nine innings, a mark that ranked 22nd in the American League. This year, Lester is converting his mid-90s fastball, biting cutter and Bugs Bunny curve into strikeouts in volume.
“I’m not surprised,” said Lester. “When I was young, I threw harder than everybody. I was used to striking guys out in the minor leagues. You kind of have to relearn how to do that. I think towards the end of the year last year, I kind of did that, somewhat.
“I think I’m executing somewhat better. I understand what we’re trying to do, setting guys up,” he continued. “(The mindset on Monday was), ‘Make that quality pitch, and no matter what you throw, they’re not going to hit it.’ That bulldog mentality. I think it definitely helped tonight. Hopefully it will carry over to my next start.”
Lester struck out the side in the first inning of yesterday’s game against the Yankees, the sixth time in his career (and fourth time of the young season) that he has done so. If he sustains his current strikeout rate, he will leave Hurst in his wake and smash his way into the Red Sox’ 200 Club.
“That’s a lot of effort, a lot of pitches. The guys who strike out a lot (of hitters) throw a lot of pitches, have long at-bats, have some foul balls,” said Lester. “It’d be cool (to strike out 200), but I’d rather come out on top that strike out 12 guys every night. I’d rather win some games than strike out 200, or put my team in a position to win a lot of games.”
Of late, he is doing both. In his current four-outing run of at least seven punchouts, he has gone 2-0 with a 3.46 ERA, and the Sox have won all four of those starts.
IT’S NOT TOO FAR-FETCHED TO IMAGINE JASON BAY IN PINSTRIPES … IS IT?
Johnny Damon is the Yankees’ starting left fielder. He is a free-agent following this season. He would like to remain in New York but it remains to be seen whether the Yankees want to keep a 36-year-old left fielder in the mix as an everyday player.
The Yankees might look to get younger, and to shore up their lineup with a power hitter. Many have speculated that the team will make a run at Athletics slugger Matt Holliday. But there is another player who might fit that description, and he currently occupies left field for the Red Sox.
Bay has made clear his preference to remain with the Red Sox. But while the club shares that interest, the two sides tabled negotiations in spring training in hopes of taking more time to figure let the landscape of a rapidly changing market settle.
It seems fair to wonder whether the Yankees might make a run at Bay if he does reach free agency. Bay and A’s slugger Matt Holliday are the two power hitters who will be in the primes of their careers when (if) they reach free agency this winter.
Unlike Holliday, Bay has already demonstrated an ability to play amidst the heightened scrutiny of one of the toughest markets in the majors. And on Monday, he offered a hint that his power could play in Yankee Stadium.
After the Yankees narrowed the Sox’ lead to 4-3, Bay blasted a two-run homer -- the biggest blow in a three-hit night -- through the teeth of a stiff wind blowing straight in from left. The insurance runs ultimately provided the Sox with their margin of victory in a 6-4 win.
The ball clanged high off the foul pole down the left field line, perhaps abetted by the body English Bay exhibited as he tilted to his right while jogging down the first-base line. It was yet another starring moment for Bay in games between the Sox and Yankees, continuing a trend this year. He is hitting .600 (9-for-15) with two homers and seven RBIs in contests between the clubs this year.
“I enjoy the atmosphere of these games. It’s second to none,” said Bay. “But whether it’s the Yankees or Orioles or anyone else, it’s the same approach.”
Given that Bay has shown no difficulty in his transition to life with the Red Sox, one can only wonder if the possibility exists that, in a year’s time, he might be saying the same thing about playing on the other side of the A.L. East’s signature rivalry.
YANKEE STADIUM SEEMS A GOOD PLACE FOR DAVID ORTIZ TO FIND HIS STROKE
In 2003, David Ortiz began his Red Sox career with an entirely unexpected power outage. Through 83 games (just over half a season), he had only five homers, and his teammates began to call him “Juan Pierre” -- a spray-hitting speedster who, at that time, had three career homers.
But Yankee Stadium proved a career crossroads. In back-to-back games, Ortiz announced his presence as one of the most ferocious power hitters in the game, clubbing two homers on July 4 and 5 that year to establish his slugging credentials. The talk of Juan Pierre stopped that weekend.
Ortiz’ slump to open this season has been different and deeper.
“I ain’t never been in this kind of funk,” Ortiz said before last night’s game, which he entered with a .208 average and .600 OPS.
Ortiz met with Francona before the game to talk at length about his struggles. Francona’s message, as relayed by Ortiz, was one of unqualified support.
“I don’t see Terry as my coach anymore. I see him as my dad. He’s been so great to me that everytime he talks, I’m nothing but ears,” said Ortiz. “(Francona’s message was), ‘Relax. You’re trying to do too much. We’re going to go down together if you go down. I’ve been with you for years. I’ve got to suck it up if something bad happens. Don’t worry -- just go ahead and play the game and forget about it.’”
Ortiz is treating his slump with candor, rather than pretending that everything is fine. The only solution, he said, is to try to clear his head of anxiety about the slump and to focus on doing the work necessary to return to his typical form.
“This game is not always going to be roses and flowers. There are tough times,” said Ortiz. “I’m going to keep fighting. That’s me. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. This ain’t the end of the world, like Manny said before. There’s always good days and bad days. You know what you need to do when bad days show up, right? Smile at it. Show your teeth. (Laugh) Keep fighting, keep working and good things are going to happen.”
Monday night may have been a first step in that direction. Ortiz lashed a pair of doubles, both on fastballs, off of Phil Hughes. In his second game with multiple extra-base hits this year (and first since April 20), he also walked twice (once intentionally).
“He kept his hands in, didn’t leap with his body and got to some really good pitches,” said Francona. “You could just see the look on his face. It was nice to see him having fun playing the game.”
THE SHORTSTOP SITUATION REMAINS UNDEFINED
Once again, Nick Green was the starting shortstop on Monday, and Francona said that he expected a reprisal on Tuesday. The manager is convinced that Julio Lugo still has work to do to build himself to the point where he can resume playing everyday while also giving the Sox the best chance to win.
“He came back quick. I don’t think he’s moving yet like he’s gonna,” said Francona, who met with Lugo prior to Monday’s game. “He will be better. I know that. So does he. In the meantime, I’ll try to balance it the best I can with our looking out for our guys and trying to win games.”
Though his surgically repaired knee is no longer an impediment, Lugo acknowledged that, after being out since last July with a succession of injuries, he’s still struggling to regain his timing and baseball reflexes. He feels like he is not yet comfortable in the field, a notion that has been borne out by his failure to catch a couple of throws on would-be double play balls in his first week of big-league action in almost 10 months.
As such, the shortstop was deferential to Francona’s decision not to play him everyday at this juncture.
“I think it’s good for me. It’s good for me to get my body in shape and then play instead of just going out there and blowing it out again,” said Lugo. “(Francona) knows what he’s doing. He’s done it before.”
That said, it will be interesting to monitor how the situation develops going forward. In spring training, Lugo made clear that he would be unhappy sharing the shortstop job, and so one might suspect that there is a half-life to his expressions of tolerance about sporadic playing time.
Lugo has now played just five games since his return, and so a snapshot judgment of his unimpressive statistics (.214 average, .527 OPS) would be unfair. All the same, it remains to be seen how long it will take for the Sox to conclude that Lugo represents a better option in the lineup and on the field than the surprising Green, whose defensive woes (6 errors in 18 games at short) have been overshadowed by his unexpected offensive contributions (.283, .791).
The situation will only become more complex when Jed Lowrie is ready to return from his wrist surgery prior to the All-Star break. For now, it will suffice to say that the Sox’ shortstop situation remains unsettled.
HIP LABRUM SURGERY COULD BECOME VERY POPULAR
The Red Sox’ season is now four weeks old. At this juncture, there are no reminders that Mike Lowell was debilitated as a player last year, and that last October he underwent a significant surgery to repair a torn hip labrum with a six-month timetable for recovery.
Francona noted the remarkable nature of Lowell’s return prior to Monday’s game, all but thanking a reporter who asked him about the third baseman’s contributions thus far this year.
“It’s worth bragging about him a little bit,” said the Sox manager. “He did have surgery. But he gets himself ready to play everyday. He doesn’t want to sit. He’s done a heck of a job.”
Lowell continued his remarkable work on Monday, jumping on a Phil Hughes first-pitch fastball for a homer to lead off the second inning and later dumping an RBI single to right. Lowell took great satisfaction in turning on a 91-mph fastball from Hughes and rip it into the left-field grandstand for the Sox’ first ever homer at the new Yankee Stadium.
“I’m not really a guess hitter. I just want to be ready for something hard and be able to adjust to soft,” said Lowell. “He put it over the plate and high enough that I could put good wood on it. It was a nice feeling to see it sailing over the fence.”
Already, Lowell has six homers this year. He ranks fourth in the American League with 26 RBIs, and is hitting .307 with a .924 OPS. His defensive contributions have been steady, and he has remained in the lineup on an everyday basis.
In short, Lowell and Phillies second baseman Chase Utley (8 homers, .346 average, 1.152 OPS) have been extremely impressive role models for anyone else who elects to undergo a surgical repair on his hip labrum.