ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Look, no controversy. Just wins.
Billy Wagner pitched well. Jonathan Papelbon did the same. The Red Sox won, 8-4, over the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday night at Tropicana Field (recap), and all was right with the world.
Heck, if you listened really closely back in the trainers room you might have heard the two actually sharing a “guffaw” after the game.
Through all the chaos and controversy, the biggest lesson learned was that the presence of Wagner and Papelbon in the same bullpen, with each firing baseballs with the kind of fury they both exhibited in the Sox’ latest biggest game of the season, is a difference-maker.
Wagner, 385 career saves and all, came on in the seventh inning, faced three batters, struck out two, tossed 13 pitches (9 of which were strikes) and called it a night.
It was just the 10th time he had seen the seventh (compared to the 671 appearances in the ninth), but no matter. The lefty has adjusted to life in such situations, and it seems to be translating just fine.
“I’ll never be back there,” said Wagner in regards to the question of whether he was close to recovering completely from extensive arm surgery. “I’m just happy to be able to get out there and just throw strikes. I’m not worried about going out there and worry about my velocity. I just want to go out there and compete and keep it as simple as possible. That’s helped me get back a little bit. Just staying simple and trying to make pitches instead of overpowering people.”
About 30 minutes after Wagner exited yet another nifty, one-inning outing, it was Papelbon’s turn.
With both command and luck clearly not on Hideki Okajima’s side (bunt, walk, single, followed by two bloop hits into right field) Papelbon was called upon to take a stab at the first two-inning regular-season save of his career. The Red Sox carried a three-run lead, but this was no easy save situation, since the the bases were loaded with nobody out.
“I told him I’m glad it’s him, not me,” said Wagner. “I hate that. Those two inning things, that’s for young people. Not for me.”
Yet, if this season’s history is any guide, the situation fit Papelbon like a glove. Coming into the game, the Sox’ closer had faced 12 batters with the bases loaded this season, struck out nine of them and allowed just a single hit.
This time, the trend immediately continued as Papelbon fanned B.J. Upton. The next batter didn’t go down quite as easily as centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury had to make a diving stab of Jason Bartlett’s sinking line-drive (more on that later). But when Carl Crawford lofted a 3-2 fastball into foul ground in left field for the inning’s final out, the Red Sox’ plan was back on track.
“I think for me, when you get in situations like that it just boils down to focus,” said Papelbon of his success this season with the bases loaded. “It’s that simple. Trying to focus on what your job is at hand and make pitches. It’s a focus thing.”
However the Sox’ closer approaches it, the results are inarguable.
“It was very impressive,” said Wagner after witnessing his new team close out the win thanks to Papelbon’s flawless ninth inning. “I told him that was great. It was a lot of fun to watch. I know the nerves, what’s going on out there. One bad pitch, you look like a goat. He was great tonight. That was fun to watch.”
What Tuesday night showed is that the Red Sox can, indeed, win in Tropicana Field (remember, it was just the third time the Sox had won in St. Pete in their last 17 tries), and that Wagner and Papelbon might be finding themselves in the right place at the right time.
Since coming back to the big leagues, Wagner has made four one-inning appearances, allowing just a single hit, one walk, and no runs, while striking out nine. His pitch count has been managed (14, 19, 16 and, Tuesday night, 13), and when he has been called upon to warm up, it has always led to an appearance and not a seat back in the bullpen.
“I feel fine,” the 38-year-old said. “I have a luxury. Pitch a day, day off. It’s a luxury I'd rather not have, but nonetheless it’s something I have to build up to… That’s something I wanted to do, show them I could throw strikes and compete. I’m not what I used to be but I can still go out there and compete.”
Wagner has also been privy to a pretty good Papelbon.
Some of the inconsistencies that the reliever had earlier in the season seem to be diminishing as October draws closer. Papelbon is coming off an August in which he went 5-for-5 in save opportunities, allowing just two runs in 10 appearances.
“I think now’s the time where I’m going to start focusing really on my body and prepare every day for this type of situation because it’s just that time of year,” he explained.
And while the late-season success shouldn’t come as a surprise considering we are talking about a pitcher who has yet to give up a run in 25 postseason innings, the symbiotic nature Papelbon seems to be sharing with the “other” closer in the Sox’ pen might take some off guard.
“It’s funny, he’s a whole lot like I am,” said Wagner of Papelbon. “It’s out there in the open. How he feels is what he says and that’s the way it should be. He goes out there and pitches with his heart on his sleeve. He takes his beatings, he goes out there and gets the job done, and when you’re good you can do that.”
Then there was that other pitcher, which leads us to a few more things we learned Tuesday night…
LESTER HAS LEARNED A LOT
It has become the norm. Jon Lester pitches well – in this case in the form of a six-inning, two-run outing – and strikes out a bunch – in this case nine Rays.
And the fact that such outings have become so ho-hum might offer the lefty his highest compliment considering each and every one of these gems is anything but run-of-the-mill in the mind of the main participant.
“I feel like it’s August, or September now,” he said. “Last year everything was eye-opening. Everything was made out to be bigger than it was because I had never been through it before. This year I’ve learned to take the bumps and bruises of this long season, learned how to pitch when you're not 100 percent. I’m better prepared this year than I was last year, but that being said it’s still a lot of innings and it’s a long season.”
Lester’s 11th win of the season was a reminder of both how little comes easy this time of year, and what kind of rewards await.
The obstacle came in the form of a nagging groin ailment, which led Red Sox manager Terry Francona to take out the lefty after 97 pitches. When you’ve thrown the seventh-most pitches in the major leagues (2,909) a year after tossing 3,309 offerings, bumps and bruises are going to be unavoidable.
As Lester explained, the measure of a pitcher comes with how he fights through aches, and judging by the nine strikeouts, the Sox hurler is fighting off the adversity just fine. Oh, there is also that record the starter broke as well Tuesday night which might just help paint the portrait of dominance so many seem to take for granted when it comes to the 25-year-old.
With a second-inning strikeout of Upton, Lester found himself with 191 strikeouts for the season, one more than Bruce Hurst’s 1987 campaign, which, until this year, marked the most strikeouts in one season by a Red Sox southpaw.
“It’s something that’s cool,” said Lester of the record. “It’s something that’s nice, but I’ve always said I’d trade strikeouts for wins.”
A GOOD PROBLEM TO HAVE
Putting out the lineup he did was no lay-up for Francona. Catcher Jason Varitek had a .462 batting average against Tampa Bay starter Andy Sonnanstine, while designated hitter David Ortiz had totaled just a .162 clip against the Rays’ starter.
But with Lester having had some success throwing to Victor Martinez, Francona went with the Varitek-less batting order, which meant Jason Bay was at No. 6, Mike Lowell would be in the seven spot, while J.D. Drew was hitting eighth.
It worked out, as it has more times than not.
Bay hit his 30th homer (the fourth time in his career he has accomplished the feat), and Lowell went 2-for-3 with a pair of runs and an RBI. And Drew launched his 19th homer of the season.
Regardless of the situation with Varitek, who will be in the lineup Wednesday with Josh Beckett pitching, Bay will be in there. But there is a question in regards to the usage of Lowell.
Since coming off the 15-day disabled list July 17, Lowell is batting .351. And he is coming off his third multi-hit game in the last week. Yet he is not scheduled to be in the lineup (once again) Wednesday night.
“I think the (Synvisc) shot did wonders and I’ve been able to stay with the program, although I did tell Tito I’ve gotten more days off than I want,” said Lowell with a smile. “But I know the situation as well.
“I want to (make it tough for Francona to decide), absolutely. I like playing, especially when you’re hitting good. You want to play. It’s tough enough when you have to go out there when you don’t feel good.”
As for Drew, it would seem he really, really likes hitting eighth.
The outfielder has now manned the No. 8 spot seven times this season, hitting six homers while compiling a .474 batting average, .583 on-base percentage, and 1.421 slugging percentage.
Yet when Varitek rejoins the lineup against Tampa Bay starter Matt Garza (whome the catcher is 2-for-13 against), Lowell won’t be in there, and Drew will find himself somewhere other than eighth.
ELLSBURY IS PLAYING WITH CONFIDENCE
Before the game, the debate raged on – who would win in a race around the bases, Jacoby Ellsbury or world-class sprinter Usain Bolt? For some (believe or not) it was debatable.
As for whether or not Bolt would have a chance at pulling off what Ellsbury did defensively Tuesday night, that conversation doesn’t even get started. In fact, few major leaguers are playing with the kind of confidence the Sox’ centerfielder is carrying out to his position these days.
First came a diving catch on a sinking, fourth-inning liner off the bat of Pat Burrell. But then, in the eighth, with Papelbon weaving his way out of a bases-loaded predicament, Ellsbury truly stepped up.
The Red Sox’ outfielder got enough of a jump on Bartlett’s liner that he found himself in a good enough position to dive and pop up to thwart any chances of base advancement. The ball actually landed in the heel of Ellsbury’s glove thanks to outstretched arms he later described as “Go-Go Gadget Arms.”
“That’s one of those plays where you have to catch it,” he said. “If it gets by me, it’s probably an inside-the-park home run, maybe, at best, a triple. It’s one of those plays you have to make it. I got a good jump on the ball and I knew I could make it off the bat so I went for it. As I’m sliding, I tried to get my body in position to throw the ball thinking Pat’s going to tag.”
Ellsbury also displayed his legs via a triple, giving him nine for the year, which ties the Royals’ David DeJesus for the American League lead.
Some of the debates will continue, such as who is the fastest runner on the Red Sox now that car-jumping Joey Gathright is on the team. But few can argue how Ellsbury has been able to merge his confidence and athleticism to make plays most likely not in his repertoire even a year ago.
“You get the best of him in those situations,” said Francona.
MADDON WASN’T HAPPY
Despite what was at stake, the Tampa Bay fans didn’t step up, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by Rays manager Joe Maddon.
“I was a little disappointed quite frankly in the numbers,” said Maddon, whose odd evening included using eight pitchers. “It’s a big series. But those that are there for us, definitely are there for us. Just come on out. We play them two more nights here and then we play the Tigers right after that, so show up.”
The crowd of 17,692 was the smallest for a Rays-Red Sox game at Tropicana Field since Aug. 21, 2007. In 2008, the smallest crowd for a Rays-Red Sox tilt in St. Pete was 29,772.