Just before 11 p.m., some spice was added to an already flavorful series over at Fenway Park.
Just moments after the Red Sox beat the Yankees for the eighth time in as many tries this season – this one a 4-3, come-from-behind thriller (recap here) – John Henry jumped on his Twitter account.
The Red Sox' majority owner's online message: "the MT Curse?"
It wasn't a huge leap of faith to assume in writing "MT" Henry was referring to Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, who chose to sign with New York over the Red Sox in the offseason.
A few hours after the post, Henry emailed WEEI.com to make sure it was understood that the digital declaration was tongue-in-cheek, stating, "Purely entertainment. Nothing more. I don't believe in curses."
Fair enough. But perhaps a curse would be a much more palatable explanation for the Yankees in regards to what has transpired between the teams thus far this season.
This time there was plenty of insult to injury for the New Yorkers, led by a pitcher who has transformed himself from seemingly expendable to a potential rotation anchor. With six shutout innings – which included a fastball in the high-90s – Brad Penny suddenly isn't the guy everybody wants to part ways with.
"That's the kind of (expletive) that wins in the playoffs," said Red Sox starter Josh Beckett after watching his rotation-mate allow six hits while striking out five, walking one and throwing 117 pitches. "It's over-powering. It's here it is, hit it, you can't do anything with it.”
So what does Beckett think when he hears the trade rumors regarding Penny?
"I don't like it," he said. "I know what we're trying to do, and I know what our front office is trying to do. They’re trying to win a World Series. I don't get paid to make those decisions, but I know when I've been successful in the playoffs is because I throw hard and I locate my fastball, the stuff that he does."
While Penny's recent run has been fairly steady, with the starter compiling a 3-2 mark and a 4.10 ERA in his last eight games, Thursday was undeniably a defining moment in the 31-year-old's resurgence.
The subtle adjustments, such as moving from the first-base to the third-base side of the pitching rubber, have paid off. But what has been most gratifying for Penny has been the payoff from a commitment to the team's strength and conditioning program.
"I felt great today," said Penny, whose fastball topped out at 98 mph. "I think it's all the stuff they've got me doing with the workout program. I've come a long way since last year. I'm just happy to be able to go out there and pitch. Tonight was the strongest I've felt."
The start was the final one before Penny can be traded without his consent. And by the time he pitches again John Smoltz also figures to be integrated into the rotation, one way or another.
So, as the five days unfold, the guessing game will continue. When asked if he thought moving to the bullpen was a viable option, Penny was definitive, saying, "I don't want to do that. Where are you going in this bullpen?"
But if not the pen, then what? Beckett yelled over to his buddy that he better pack a bag big enough to stay in Philadelphia in case he was traded while the Red Sox are in the City of Brotherly Love. That, however, doesn't seem like an acceptable result for those jumping on the pitcher's bandwagon after the Sox' latest win over the Yanks.
"No idea," said Penny when asked what was going to happen with another starter potentially added to the mix. "I've just got to go out there and keep working every fifth day. We get a guy like Smoltz, it's definitely going to help us. I've just got to go out there and keep pitching."
And pitch Penny did. Not only did he feature an explosive fastball, but he also proved able to command both his curve and his change, most notably when he dropped a full-count change to catch Hideki Matsui looking at a called strike three to finish his outing.
It was a reminder of the 2006-07 Penny that the Sox were hoping might reappear when they signed him to a one-year, $5 million deal this winter. Though he received a no-decision, Penny demonstrated on Thursday that he is capable of recapturing the dominance of those back-to-back 16-win seasons.
Here are four other lessons from yet another win over the Yankees:
FOR DAVID ORTIZ, THE CORNER HAS BEEN TURNED
David Ortiz’ fourth homer of the year – and third in five games – was his most impressive. The Red Sox slugger jumped on a 94 mph fastball from Yankees starter Carsten Charles Sabathia, and sent a rocket over the Green Monster.
The swing offered yet another key sign in Ortiz’ change of course. In crushing a powerful fastball to the opposite field against a death-on-lefties southpaw with a Cy Young award in his pocket, Ortiz gave his latest indication that he is done being a zero in the lineup.
“I’m coming along,” Ortiz said afterwards. “When I hit the ball oppo like that, it’s a sign that I’m waiting on the ball good, I’m trying to stay through the ball. I’m not just trying to pull the ball in. I’ve been feeling a lot better at the plate.”
Ortiz went 2-for-3 with a walk on Thursday and is now hitting .296 with a 1.033 OPS and a team-leading three homers in June. Hitting coach Dave Magadan says that the slugger now looks like a different hitter than the one who was so lost at the plate through the season’s first two months.
“He’s looking like he’s got some confidence. He’s consistently hitting the ball hard. His outs tonight were loud outs,” Magadan said following Wednesday’s game, one night before Ortiz took Sabathia deep. “He’s getting his pitch and he’s exploding on it.
“He’s just looking very hitter-ish up there,” said Magadan. “He’s got a little bit of a swagger going. Hopefully sooner than later he’s going to start becoming his old self.”
It now appears that time might have come.
Red Sox fans at Fenway are giving Ortiz rousing ovations even after loud outs, and demanding curtain calls when the slugger goes deep. The Sox are forcing him to accommodate the fans, but the curtain call – a rare phenomenon through Ortiz’ first six years with the Sox – remains slightly awkward.
That being the case, the Sox hope that Ortiz will get enough experience with the practice that the awkwardness goes away.
“You can tell the fans get a kick out of it,” said Francona. “I hope there are, like, 35 more.”
ANOTHER JUNE, ANOTHER EXPLOSION FOR J.D. DREW
J.D. Drew paused to contemplate the statistic. From last July 2 until Thursday, CC Sabathia was holding left-handers to a .186 average (16th lowest in the majors, min. 100 plate appearances) and .226 slugging mark (4th lowest).
He had gone 26 straight starts, from last July 2 to this May 24, WITHOUT PERMITTING A SINGLE EXTRA-BASE HIT TO LEFT-HANDERS, and even with a slight let-up in his last three starts, had still permitted just two extra-base hits (a double and homer) to left-handers in almost a year.
“Well,” Drew smirked, “there was two tonight. That’s pretty good.”
One, of course, was the homer by Ortiz. The other went unnoticed in many corners. But not all.
“You see that ball (Drew) drove off the Monster?” asked outfield reserve Mark Kotsay. “Flipping the wrists, man. That’s a professional hitter.”
In the bottom of the first, Drew lined an 0-2 pitch – a 95 mph fastball – off the base of the left-field scoreboard for a double. Then, in the eighth, he lined Sabathia’s 0-1 slider up the middle and into center to plate the first Sox run of the three-run inning that ultimately proved decisive.
Drew’s 2-for-4 night against Sabathia was impressive enough. But the night continued a run of brilliance this month.
A year ago, Drew exploded in June, hitting .337 with a .462 OBP, .848 slugging mark and 12 homers. This June, though he has not replicated the power numbers, Drew has been nearly as good, hitting .391 with a .576 OBP and .696 slugging mark.
He has reached base in a staggering 19 of 33 plate appearances, and has gotten on base at least twice in six of his seven games this month. In the process, he has been the ideal table-setter who has been nearly perfect for the No. 2 spot in the batting order that he now occupies.
THE RED SOX ROTATION IS STARTING TO PRODUCE CONSISTENTLY
Penny's outing was just the latest in a dominating run by Red Sox starters. The Sox rotation is now 7-2 with a 2.71 ERA in its last 11 contests, averaging better than six innings an outing. Perhaps more impressively, the team's pitching against a formidable Yankees lineup has been dazzling.
New York leads the majors with an average of 5.6 runs per game. Given that fact, the Sox' run of five straight quality starts against the Yankees qualifies as a legitimate accomplishment. The Sox are now tied for second in the American League in quality starts with 31.
JULIO LUGO IS NOW VERY MUCH IN THE SHADOWS AT SHORTSTOP
Even on a night when he did not play (an increasingly frequent turn of phrase), Julio Lugo could not avoid being the subject of his teammates’ scorn.
“That,” said one, “is the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”
“He looks like Waldo,” said another, observing Lugo’s bright red dress pants, red-and-white striped shirt, and light blue blazer.
Lugo exchanged friendly barbs with members of his team, seemingly in good spirits on his way to Philadelphia with his club. His mood seemed unbroken even though it is now glaringly apparent that he has ceded the starting shortstop job completely to Nick Green, and that his future with the Sox is murky at best.
The Sox had been slotting Lugo into the starting lineup behind Brad Penny, a fly-ball pitcher for whom infield defensive range is at slightly less of a premium. Prior to Thursday, Lugo had started in seven of Penny’s previous eight outings. Similarly, before Wednesday, Lugo had been the starter for four of knuckleballer Tim Wakefield’s last five starts.
But it was Green who was in the lineup behind both pitchers in the final two games of the series against the Yankees. It has now been a full week since Lugo last appeared in a game on June 5, when his limited range torpedoed Penny’s outing.
Green, meanwhile, has been steady to excellent at shortstop. Behind Wakefield on Wednesday, he ranged into shallow left to spear a soft line drive and then fired a missile to first to complete a double play. On Thursday, he turned in perhaps his best play of the year.
On a grounder by Derek Jeter to lead off the ninth against Jonathan Papelbon, Green ranged far up the middle to glove the ball, then did a pirouette as he crossed the second base bag and delivered a rocket to clip Jeter by a step.
“I don’t know how many shortstops would have made that play,” said Francona. “A lot of good things went into that play—the timing of it, leading off the ninth. That was a pretty special play.”
Green, whose shortstop defense seemed for much of the first seven weeks of the season like it was barely adequate, seems to have grown into the position quite a bit over the last three weeks.
Clearly, his teammates are starting to enjoy having Green at the position.
“I think he’s been tremendous,” said Mike Lowell. “He has a lot more range than people give him credit for and he has an absolute bazooka for an arm. It’s unreal.”
Green is aware of his arm strength, and loves getting the opportunity to use it. As such, he seems to be embracing the chance to play at a position that can highlight his most noteworthy tool.
“I feel better everyday (at short),” said Green. “I’ve always loved shortstop. It’s fun to be able to throw.”
Green – who also delivered a key single to start the Sox’ game-winning rally in the eighth – will seemingly continue to get that chance until Jed Lowrie returns. And when Lowrie does return, Green’s value has been such that the team will be unlikely to remove him from the big-league roster.
A shortstop crossroads is coming. Lowrie is scheduled to go to Lowell to work out and face live B.P. from Sox minor leaguers on Monday and Tuesday. After that, barring a setback, he will either head to Florida to play in extended spring training games or report to a minor-league club for a rehab assignment. Lowrie estimated that he would need roughly a two-week assignment, a timetable that would have him returning around the end of June.
“I think I'm right on schedule. I'm happy where I'm at,” said Lowrie. “(The wrist) is not where it needs to be, but it's almost there."
And when he is ready, then the Sox will have to decide whether to keep Lugo or Green since, as Francona said before the game, “we can’t have 26 players on the roster.”
Right now, there’s not really much of a question about who deserves to stay.
Alex Speier contributed to this article.