It was prior to one of the weekend games in Toronto and Terry Francona still hadn't tasted his 500th career win as the manager of the Boston Red Sox.
His team wasn't scoring runs. His designated hitter wasn't hitting. And his shortstop was somebody different than the organization's master plan had originally suggested. In short, Francona was in the midst of what he does best -- managing.
"I learn something new everything single year," said Francona while watching his team stretch out on the field before him. "It never stops."
Tuesday night that education paid off, not only with a much-needed 5-1 win over the Tigers, at Comerica Park in Detroit, but also with that milestone -- the 500th victory with the Sox. Now, when it comes to winning as a Red Sox manager, Francona only stands behind Joe Cronin (1,071) and Mike Higgins (560).
"From a personal standpoint, I guess it's a little anticlimactic because I thought it was about three weeks ago," Francona told reporters after the game. That's how much I've been paying attention to that.
"I think what it means is that I'm really lucky to be part of an organization with a lot of players that have really been good, and do it with a staff that probably helps me more than I help them. That's probably what it means to me."
First off, Francona's assertion might be questioned by some of his coaches, who has witnessed such generosity from their boss as the manager demanding that the staff be included in his most recent shoe contract.
But Francona is sincere when speaking of his appreciation of the people who helped him get so many wins within his 862 regular season games as a Red Sox manager. While in recent days he clearly was focusing on the here and the now instead of this milestone moment, the imminent accomplishment did allow for a chance to reflect on the most influential people in molding him as a manager.
When asked for the top five personalities who helped shape him as a manager, these were the ones identified by Francona (in no particular order):
1. His father, TIto Francona: "He taught me how to respect the game and compete."
2. Buddy Bell, who gave him his first major league coaching job: "I learned about how to feel about the game."
3. Former University of Arizona baseball coach Jerry Kindall: "A lot of guys go to baseball in college, but there aren't always taught how to play the game the right way. Jerry taught it the right way."
4. Pete Rose, who Francona played with and under when Rose became the Reds' manager: "I learned more from him as a teammate. Just watching how he approached the game was something."
5. Robin Yount, who played with Francona as a member of he Milwaukee Brewers: "Just the ultimate teammate."
Francona's path didn't hurt either, understanding the life of baseball's elite as a first-round pick out of Arizona in 1980 (one pick before Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane), having been named the MVP of the College World Series his Wildcats team won, before settling into the utility role as a major leaguer.
Then there was a minor league coaching career, stints as a big league coach, an initial foray into major league managing with the Phillies, another stretch as a coach, and, finally, his current 500-victory stint with the Red Sox.
It was most likely refreshing for Francona to be able to stop and take stock in his lot in life thanks to the 500th win. But he was also offered another reminder with the latest win -- there are plenty of more decisions to be made, and learning to be done. Such as these four things...
DAISUKE'S SEASON CAN START NOW
Getting a win was clearly weighing on Daisuke Matsuzaka. For instance, this is what he said, through translator Masa Hoshino, about the subject Sunday:
"The one thing right now is that I haven't been able to get wins in my starts and as a starting pitcher wins are very important, but I also think getting that first win, no matter who I prepared or the exact context of how am pitching, is very important. Mentally, getting that under my belt is something I would really like to do. I'm not going to obsess over that first win, but it is very important."
Well, Matsuzaka has his win.
"For a starting pitcher, getting that first win is so important, because it kind of marks the start of the season in a way," Matsuzaka told reporters through Hoshino. "I was finally able to get my first win today, and I'm finally able to feel like I can get the season going."
The outing was the pitcher's best of the season, lasting five innings and including one run on six this, six strikeouts and three walks. He threw 96 pitches.
For some it still won't be good enough, with the lack of pitch efficiency (now standing at 19.7 pitches per inning) and maddening approach to some hitters ruining the viewing experience. But for the pitcher and his team it was plenty good enough.
This was, after all, a far cry from his last time pitching at Comerica Park, when Matsuzaka turned in the kind of performance which highlighted what makes watching the pitcher sometimes so uneasy. On that day -- May 5, 2008 -- Daisuke gave up just one run on two hits in five innings, but walked eight in the process.
Yes, a bit easier to watch.
BAY ENACTS HIS REVENGE
Jason Bay has only been to Comerica Park one other time in his career, for the 2005 All-Star Weekend. On that trip he participated in the Home Run Derby, failing to hit one out of the park while hitting behind that night's long-ball-hitting machine, Bobby Abreu.
It left such a mark that Bay has already said that if asked, he will not participate in this year's (or any other year's) contest.
Tuesday night the healing process began.
In his second at-bat of his first real game in Detroit, Bay turned around an 0-1 curveball from Detroit starter Rick Porcello and launched it well into the left field bleachers for a two-run homer. (For what it's worth, eight of Bay's 16 homers have now come on 0-0 or 0-1 counts this season.)
It was also a step in the right direction for Bay considering he is hitting just .077 on curveballs from right-handers, and totaled just a .244 batting average in the last two weeks of what is typically his most productive month, May. (He finished at .264 for the month, albeit with 10 homers, the third-most of any player in the season's second month.)
"Again, J-Bay gets one pitch," Francona told reporters. "He's so dangerous. They made some pitches, and then all of a sudden there's a ball that's up in the zone, and he just crushes it."
And, to top it all off, Bay is still leading all American League outfielders in the All-Star voting. Just don't expect him in Home Run Derby.
TRENDS DIDN'T HOLD UP
Kevin Youkilis had an RBI, getting hit by a pitch with the bases loaded. But he also was one of two members of the Red Sox' starting lineup not to get a hit. It was an odd sight.
Entering Tuesday night, perhaps no hitter not to have worn a Tigers uniform had a better track record at Comerica Park than Youkilis. In just 14 games at the home of the Tigers, the Red Sox first baseman had hit eight home runs to go with a .327 batting average. Last year alone, he notched four homers in as many games.
The other Red Sox starter who failed to claim at least one hit was Mike Lowell, who, if history was any kind of guide, was presented with a seemingly solid scenario in the seventh. Leading off the inning, Lowell was facing off with Detroit reliever Brandon Lyon, the former Red Sox who went to Arizona in the Curt Schilling trade and came into his reunion with his old team carrying a 6.43 ERA.
Lowell had only faced Lyon three other times in his career, but one was an at-bat he will never forget. That game when the third baseman was visiting Fenway Park as a member of the Florida Marlins in 2003. On June 28 of that season, after the Marlins had fallen behind the Sox, 9-2, Lowell completed the momentous comeback by launching a two-out, three-run, ninth-inning homer off then-Sox closer Lyon into the home team's bullpen in right field for the game-winner.
Not only was the homer notable for its timing, but also because none of Lowell's subsequent 35 Fenway Park home runs have found that part of the park since.
This time against Lyon, however, there was only a portion of an 0 for 5, a ground out to shortstop.
PAPELBON IS HAVING A STRANGE SEASON
Jonathan Papelbon got the job done Tuesday night. For the most part, he has gotten the job done whenever called upon this season.
It's just how he is doing the job that seems a bit bizarre.
This time Papelbon came on in the non-save situation, loaded the bases, and then proceeded to strike out the side, primarily thanks to a dominating fastball. It was a heater which Detroit's Josh Anderson clearly was having trouble with while toiling through an 11-pitch, nine-foul ball at-bat which ended with the first punch-out.
It appears as though the closer is having difficulty finding the right mix on the right day, with outings like Tuesday's, in which he had trouble with his fastball command, alternating with other appearances in which he can't find the best secondary pitch.
It was why Papelbon could be found Sunday morning in the bullpen Toronto mixing and matching with Red Sox pitching coach John Farrrell during a side session.
With nobody on base, hitters are totaling a .359 batting average. With nobody on and nobody out, the average is .450. But with runners on the number drops to .157, which dips even further with runners in scoring position (.114, 4-35) and runners in scoring position with two outs (.063, 1-16).
And then there is Papelbon with the bases loaded -- no hits in five at-bats with four strikeouts.