David Ortiz, in his quest to leave Fenway Park after two wins and 17 innings of baseball behind him, was simplistic in his analysis.
"That's what you need this time of year,” he said, “for those guys to step up and do their thing.”
Billy Wagner, balancing numerous bags of ice with the satisfaction of throwing in his first ninth inning since Aug. 2, 2008, was significantly more dramatic.
"I haven't played on a team that's had this type of quality 1-2-3, and I mean, they can shut you down," said the reliever of his new team’s top of the rotation — Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz. "They're electric when they're out there. What makes it even better is they're young, and when they step on the mound, they put their foot on the pedal and they roll."
And of all the things that transpired throughout a day that resulted in wins of 3-1 and 4-0 over the plummeting Rays on Sunday, it was the recognition that these three are doing their thing, while putting their foot on the pedal and rolling, at the most opportune of times.
This time, less than 24 hours after Beckett’s latest reemergence into dominance, it was Buchholz and Lester’s turn to highlight what has become a newly fastened security blanket.
Buchholz was first, allowing one run on five hits over seven innings, with 15 swings and misses. The run, coming in the seventh, was the first he has allowed in 15 innings.
“Right now he’s clicking on all cylinders. As a pitcher, if you can go out there and do that, you’re going to be successful,” said Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon after Buchholz got a no-decision in the early game. “He’s taken a load on his shoulders and said, ‘I want to be the guy — I want to be the guy in this rotation.’ You’ve got to love that about him. You have to love the way he’s gone about his business.”
Lester was next, doing his thing, which is dominating. This time it was eight innings of two-hit, shutout ball, making Tampa Bay pay for its patience with 17 called strikes.
"That roll Josh was on is the roll that Lester is on now," said Red Sox left fielder Jason Bay. "The last three months or whatever, maybe even four months, I don't know, I think if you took out his first month or two, the stats, I don't know them, but I'm sure they'd be pretty good. I think it's kind of gone unnoticed because we didn't get him a lot of runs early on, so the won-loss record isn't as fancy as some other guys.”
To set the record straight, Lester now has 13 wins. But, much like Buchholz — the righty who a year ago was finishing up at Triple A after trying to uncover a solution to his problems through a new arm angle — the reality of the pitcher’s existence isn’t in the numbers. It is in images like the ones being portrayed on the Fenway mound on Sunday.
It took a while, but the Red Sox have found the top of the their rotation.
“I didn’t show up today saying I was going to pitch better than Josh or better than Clay,” Lester said. “I don’t work that way. In the back of your mind, you know you have a job to do. Go out there and hopefully put up zeroes and keep your team in the ballgame. I think all three of us have done that. That’s all we try to do with our offense. Keep it within reach, and we’re probably going to win the game. As far as competitive nature or anything like that, no, I’m not trying to come in here and outdo those guys. They threw the ball really, really well. I’m just trying to pitch my game and execute pitches.”
Give the organization credit. There were some bumps in the road on the way to arriving at this point. The kinds of which might suffocate some playoff-potential pitching staffs.
Beckett was penciled in, but some believed Lester’s pitch count from the year before (3,309) would be the roadblock standing between the lefty and the excellence he displayed heading through the playoffs. Well, here it is at pitch No. 3,031 and the results couldn’t be much better.
Lester hasn’t surrendered a run in 17 innings and is now 10-2 with a 2.02 ERA in 19 starts since May 31.
As for Buchholz, he was supposed to be the backup to the backup.
Some raised eyebrows when the Red Sox spread the word throughout the Winter Meetings that the righty wasn’t being traded, even for such value as a potential starting catcher of the future the likes of Texas’ Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
The No. 3 initially was going to be Daisuke Matsuzaka. A few months in, he found himself in boot camp at the team's minor league training facility in Fort Myers.
Then came Tim Wakefield, who was good enough to make the All-Star team but saw his road to the rotation’s upper echelon derailed by a herniated disc and pinched nerve.
There also was hope in the months of May and June that Brad Penny and his 98 mph fastball might do the trick in the No. 3 spot. July and August came and that notion quickly dissipated with a flurry of inadequate starts. (Although, after yet another quality start from Penny as a member of the Giants — this one in the form of a seven-inning, two-run gem on Sunday — those initial thoughts have been resurfaced.)
Then came Buchholz.
With the advent of a two-seam fastball that has cut down Buchholz’ pitch count significantly, along with the omnipresent options of swing-and-miss curveballs and changeups, the 25-year-old has entered into the club.
Compare the 1-2-3 of the Yankees (C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte), Angels (John Lackey, Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders/Scott Kazmir) or Detroit (Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson, Rick Porcello), and the Beckett/Lester/Buchholz combo matches up favorably.
There are no runaways, but the Red Sox have to like their position, especially after Sunday.
Here are four more things we learned on the day the Rays extended their losing streak to 11 games, now officially the longest in the majors this season …
PAPELBON HAS FIGURED SOMETHING OUT
Did you know that Jonathan Papelbon had an issue tipping his pitches at the tail end of the 2007 season? He did, it was fixed, and he went on to pitch 10-2/3 scoreless innings in the postseason, finishing up by claiming the final out of the ’07 season.
Papelbon hasn’t had an issue tipping his pitches this time around, but he has had some issues. As some brought up following the closer’s 36th save of the season in his team’s Game 1 win, one look at the numbers (just three blown saves and an 1.92 ERA) might suggest a Cy Young-esque campaign, but Papelbon would be the first to admit this ride has been the rockiest of his career.
It has, as he points out, been his most gratifying as well. Why? Because just like back in ’07, he has figured it out.
“As he has gotten his delivery and timing in sync, we’ve seen the guy who has been able to command a well-above-average fastball,” said Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell.
What we’ve seen is a dominant closer.
The latest example of Papelbon’s momentum came in the ninth inning of the doubleheader’s first game, when he struck out the side. The swings and misses were back for the closer, as the last month has suggested.
Over the past 30 days (encompassing 11 appearances) he has averaged 12.4 strikeouts per nine innings, while allowing just one run and piling up eight saves.
This time it was a long-lost friend — his splitter — that came to the rescue. According to STATS Inc., Papelbon has thrown the pitch half as many times to right-handed hitters as he did a year ago. Sunday, however, he used it with great effectiveness to get four key swings and misses.
“I think finally for me I’m able to decipher what’s able to work and what’s not at this point and time,” Papelbon said. “For me it’s coming down to that part of the season where it’s going to be key for me to be able to go out there day in and day out and repeat my delivery.”
THIS ONE WAS LEGIT FOR PEDROIA
The end result was the priority — a game-deciding, two-run, opposite-field home run that broke a 1-1 tie in the eighth inning of Game 1 — but the bragging rights were a close second.
When Dustin Pedroia deposited a Matt Garza 94 mph fastball over the right field fence and into the Tampa Bay bullpen, it marked the first time in the second baseman’s life he had hit a legitimate homer to the opposite field.
You might remember that Pedroia did go the opposite way earlier this season, barely clearing the Yankee Stadium right field fence Aug. 6 against Joba Chamberlain. But even he will admit that was simply the warmup to this moment.
"I hit one in New York, but that's a short field," said Pedroia, whose homer Sunday plated pinch-runner Joey Gathright. "I was just trying to hit the ball in the air, and they've been throwing me away a lot. I just got a pitch a little up, and I just drove it."
Pedroia had experienced some troubles against Garza, having gone 5-for-30 with a homer in the regular season against the righty heading into Sunday. But he had gone deep vs. the hurler both in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series and earlier this year.
Both of those, however, weren’t the test of strength this one represented.
“You know what, I’m not going to put limitations on what he can do,” said Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan. “I think that’s always been kind of a dream of his. It was legit today. There was no wind blowing, there was no short porch. It was a legitimate opposite-field home run. It was kind of a perfect storm. He got a pitch with some velocity. He got a pitch up in the zone. Everything worked out for him.”
For the record, entering this year Pedroia said the only opposite field home run he ever hit actually was when the folks at PlayStation let him play MLB ’09: The Show as himself. First time up using his character he took Sabathia the other way, tossed down the remote and strolled away from the controller with a virtual walk-off.
The latest display of power allowed Pedroia to keep marching closer to his power numbers of a year ago, which at one point this season didn’t appear attainable. The second baseman now has 13 homers, four shy of his total last season, having hit three in his last four games.
So how does he compare to this time last year?
Sept. 14, 2008: 611 at-bats, 200 hits, 50 doubles, 17 homers, 78 RBI, 113 runs, 47 walks, 48 strikeouts, .327 batting average, .378 on-base percentage.
Sept. 14, 2009: 553 at-bats, 164 hits, 43 doubles, 13 homers, 63 RBI, 100 runs, 62 walks, 41 strikeouts, .297 batting average, .369 on-base percentage.
Another stat worth mentioning: The Red Sox had an 86-60 mark with Pedroia seeing action at this point in ’08, while the record currently stands at 81-54 this time around.
Bottom line: He isn’t that far off from that American League MVP season of a year ago, with Sunday’s milestone moment serving as his latest reminder.
‘HE’S ONE OF THE BEST IN THE GAME’
If they didn’t know before, they know now.
“He’s one of the best in the game [at blocking the plate],” said Red Sox catching instructor Gary Tuck of Victor Martinez. “Overall blocking the plate, he’s very good at it. His timing is good and he takes some chances, but he just let a runner slide straight into the plate and steered him right off.”
And because Martinez exhibited his merits as a human roadblock, the Red Sox were able to head into the dramatic last couple of innings of their early tilt with the Rays without having to play catchup. It was a dynamic that ultimately led to the Pedroia heroics.
The play Tuck, and many of those analyzing the Sox’ seventh straight win at Fenway, chose to highlight as a turning point came in the seventh inning, with the Sox leading 1-0.
With runners on second and third and two outs, Tampa Bay’s Jason Bartlett bounced a ground ball up the middle that second baseman Pedroia could only barely glove and fire to first in a desperate shot at getting the baserunner. But the throw sailed just wide of first baseman Casey Kotchman, allowing Gregg Zaun to score the equalizer and Gabe Gross to take a shot at plating the go-ahead run.
Kotchman, considered one of the best defensive first basemen in the American League, whipped around and threw a strike to Martinez. The catcher extended his left leg fully, forcing Gross’ lead foot to land directly in the side of Martinez' upper calf. The obstacle forced the baserunner away from his path to the plate, allowing Martinez to come in with the tag.
“He’s a big kid, too. That’s a hell of a play. You don’t see that much,” Tuck said. “You see sweep tags now and bail-outs. You don’t see men sticking their legs out there. He’s sacrificing himself for the team.”
As for Martinez, it appeared to be no big deal — both physically and otherwise.
“It was nothing serious,” said Martinez, who indicated Gross’ foot impacted just below the side of his knee.
“Casey made a good play, he got a good reaction, a good read. He gave a good throw that I could handle and I just blocked the plate.”
IT ALL EVENS OUT
Little changes for Jason Bay.
His old baseball coach at Gonzaga University shows up, this time with Zags legend and new Basketball Hall of Famer John Stockton, and he unloads bags full of hats, shirts and other doodads with the slugger’s alma mater’s logo all over them.
Oh, and he also finishes seasons with a batting average somewhere between .270 and .280 and 30-something home runs.
Right now, after sneaking his latest homer just inside the Pesky Pole in right field for a 302-foot blast, Bay stands with 32 homers (one more than last season), 101 RBI (the same as ’08), and a .261 average.
His average output for 162 games over his career? Thirty-two homers, 106 RBI and a .279 batting clip.
It was never going to be good as it was on April 28, when he found his average at .359, and it wasn’t ever going to stay at the depths he found himself on July 30, when he bottomed out at .250.