“Buckle up ladies, this might get exciting!”
The words could originally be found in the trailer for the Dukes of Hazzard movie a few years back, but they fit fairly well in the Red Sox’ clubhouse after their 6-5 win over the Blue Jays, Friday night at Fenway Park.
Maybe that’s why that orange t-shirt adorning the logo of the 1970’s television show seemed to fit Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon as he got ready to call it a night.
Scoreboard-watching. Plays at the plate. Late-inning heroics. Papelbon fist-pumping his way into the Sox’ sixth straight victory over the Blue Jays at Fenway.
Luke Duke might have said it first, but the light-hearted declaration certainly seemed to mesh with the closer and his compatriots quite nicely as August prepares to turn into September.
“It’s the time of year that I love,” said Papelbon after picking up his 31st save. “It’s the time of year that gets me excited. Playoff race and postseason, this is what it’s all about. This is where it’s going to start getting down to the nitty-gritty.”
The thrill of the chase – which currently has the Red Sox up by 2½ games in the Wild Card, in front of Texas – was epitomized by Papelbon once again.
This time the heart rates were elevated in the ninth inning when the Jays got back-to-back, one-out bloop singles from Lyle Overbay and Vernon Wells, respectively. Then things really got interesting when Papelbon grazed the jersey of Randy Ruiz to load the bases.
Evidently, it was right where the Red Sox’ closer wanted them.
Papelbon proceeded to strike out both Rod Barajas and Travis Snider to punctuate the Red Sox’ eighth win in their last 11 games. It also extended an amazing streak for the reliever with the bases full: With the sacks full this season, Papelbon has now allowed just one hit in 12 at-bats, striking out eight in the process.
“I think it’s just a matter of digging a little deeper and focusing a little bit more on what the job is at hand and not try to lose focus on, ‘Hey, they got a couple of hits on me, or a broken bat here.’ None of that,” he said. “I just stay focused on what my approach is and what my game-plan is.”
In the long list of names the Red Sox will be needing to produce as they face the regular season’s final 34 games, Papelbon is near the top of the list.
He has thrown 981 pitches, just 70 away from his total of last season, while his batting average against is just one point higher than a year ago (.224-.223). Those are some of the similarities from his 2008 campaign.
And there are differences from a year ago as well, such as a ground ball/fly ball ratio that has completely flipped around, with Papelbon getting exponentially more fly outs this time around.
Yet, there is one big difference in comparing campaigns, according to Papelbon – he feels better.
“I feel really good, man,” he said. “I think for me this year has been the best year body-wise. I think I’ve gotten to the point now in my career I kind of realize when to push the gas pedal and when to let off and things like that. For me my body has been feeling phenomenal.”
Of course, there were four more things we learned in the Red Sox’ Friday night win…
VARITEK IS MORE THAN A ROAD BUMP
Watching the play was like Christmas for Gary Tuck.
There was the throw, the catch, the tag, and, finally, the result. But what really brought a smile to the Red Sox’ catching instructor’s face was the image of Travis Snider.
In a flash, the burly Blue Jays baserunner had turned from the potential game-winning run into a flat-on-his-back, helpless, spinning victim.
All thanks to Jason Varitek.
“It was textbook,” Tuck said with a bit of a grin.
What he spoke of was the play in the eighth inning when Red Sox left fielder Jason Bay gathered in a John McDonald hit in the left-field corner, threw it to relay man Alex Gonzalez, who flawlessly turned it around as fast as humanly possible to Varitek.
The Red Sox catcher gathered in the throw seemingly too late to get the baserunner, Snider, but then it became clear there was a chance because of Varitek’s left leg. He had planted his shin guard in front of home plate, resulting in Snider’s slide into home getting cut short.
“He’s a warrior, man,” said relielver Daniel Bard, the pitcher on the mound at the time of the play. “He’s intimidating when you see him walking out in his full gear and that’s exactly why. He’s a competitor and that’s the reason the Red Sox still want him here, because he does stuff like that for the team. That’s not going to show up in the stats or be in the box score tomorrow, but that’s as big a play as you could ask for tonight.”
The play might have saved the game, and undoubtedly reinforced a reputation.
“He’s one of the best I’ve seen at doing it,” said Tuck of Varitek’s plate-blocking acumen. “Just one of the things he’s the best at.”
BECKETT TOOK HIS OWN ADVICE
Two years ago, one of the Red Sox pitchers struggled through a start, yet the team still won. Even with the victory, the hurler didn’t stick around to address his outing with the media, bailing before a question could be asked.
The next day Josh Beckett reiterated to his teammate the importance of not giving the appearance that the personal setback was bigger than the team’s triumph, and that the pitcher’s disappointment shouldn’t overshadow the big picture.
Friday night, Beckett was forced to heed his own advice.
“I was happy we won,” the Red Sox starter said in a post-game press conference he clearly wasn’t ecstatic to execute. “Besides that I’m obviously not impressed by myself. We ended up pulling it out and that’s the good thing about being a good team.”
Then, after finishing each comment with the reminder that winning was the most important thing, Beckett allowed for some personal analysis, and his continued quest for answers.
“I don’t know about searching, but I’m tired of stinking, that’s for (expletive) sure,” Beckett said. “I don’t think search is the right thing. I’m continuing to do the same things I do every time out and every time in between starts, and right now the results suck.”
Listening to, and watching, the Red Sox starter following his team’s win Friday night, it wasn’t difficult to decipher how much he is “tired of stinking.”
The line this time was: Five innings, five runs, five hits, and, most notably, five walks. (Oh, and there were the nine strikeouts that contributed to the Red Sox’ 17 punch-outs, the most for a Red Sox staff in a nine-inning day since April 8, 2001.)
It was only the third time in Beckett’s career that he had walked as many five batters, having not accomplished the feat since Sept. 16, 2006.
With homers by Aaron Hill and Rod Barajas, he has surrendered 12 long balls over his last four starts after not giving up a single one in his previous five appearances, and just 10 in his first 22 starts overall.
Red Sox manager Terry Francona could see improvement, especially in the life of a two-seam fastball that had propelled him to the run through June and July. Beckett didn’t seem to share his manager’s optimism.
In fact, the only positive outlook the pitcher could seem to muster was in regard to that win.
“We’ve been working on a lot of things,” he said. “You leave balls down the middle of the plate and they get hit hard. That happened tonight on two main pitches and obviously walks led to the one home run by Aaron Hill being a little bigger than it probably should have been. Like I said, I’m happy we won.”
COULD BECKETT HAVE KNOCKED DOWN HIS FUTURE TEAMMATE?
The Red Sox tried getting Blue Jays Marco Scutaro at the trade deadline, but couldn’t quite pull it off. That doesn’t mean they’ve given up.
Scutaro is a free agent at the end of the season (projecting to be of ‘Type A’ classification), and the fit in regards to the Red Sox continues to be too good to ignore.
He has the best fielding percentage of any shortstop in the American League, having made just four errors in 549 chances. He leads the American League in plus-minus, having made 22 more plays than the average shortstop, according to John Dewan's system. And while Derek Jeter will probably combine reputation with a solid season to win the Gold Glove, many believe the award should go to Scutaro.
The 33-year-old has established himself as one of the game’s best leadoff hitters, having scored the third-most runs of any top-of-the-order batter in the big leagues, while drawing the second-most walks.
Simply put -- depending of course on the return of Jed Lowrie, or the willingness to sign up Alex Gonzalez for another stay – Scutaro is what the Red Sox need, a reality he showed in his brief stint Friday night.
To lead off the game he singled through the hole at second base, and then in the second inning Scutaro walked, which resulted in one of the runs during the Blue Jays’ three-run frame.
Scutaro’s night would come to a crashing halt when Beckett hit the Toronto batter near his head with a fourth-inning pitch, leading to the shortstop’s exit from the game and a contusion. But the damage wasn’t so bad to suggest he wouldn’t be back before the weekend series was over.
In the short-term, the Red Sox might not be hoping Scutaro will be back at Fenway. But for next year, that’s another story.
DREW IS HEATING UP
Remember June of last season? You aren’t going to find too many better instances of a hitter carrying a team than the image of what J.D. Drew did after David Ortiz was forced from the lineup with a wrist injury.
The numbers: .337, 12 home runs, 27 RBI, .462 on-base percentage, and an .848 slugging percentage.
It’s starting to feel like Drew might be at it again.
Friday night the outfielder’s presence was felt in the eighth inning when Drew went into the left-centerfield gap for a double, moving Ortiz to third. Then, after an intentional walk to Jason Varitek (his sixth of the season after collecting just three last year), pinch-hitter Casey Kotchman’s grounder allowed for the Sox’ DH to come in with the decisive run.
Drew’s second hit of the game not only told the tale of how well he’s been hitting the ball, but how he’s been doing it. Toronto coaches, who were one of the first groups to implement a shift on the Sox’ lefty hitter, noted how well Drew has been attacking the alignment, going the other way more than in the past. (They still said it wasn’t going to stop them from continuing the shift.) Friday night their analysis was only reinforced.
Since returning from his groin injury, Drew has hit .364 with a .462 on-base percentage and five home runs. The Red Sox’ record during that stretch? Eight wins, three losses.
“We saw last June when he did that, we were a different team then,” Francona noted, “and when he swings the bat like this, we can be a different team now.”