BALTIMORE — While taking a break from watching the action in the Virginia Tech-Nebraska football game on Saturday afternoon in the visitors clubhouse at Camden Yards, Billy Wagner took the time to offer some high praise for his new Red Sox teammate, Jon Lester.
"Stuff-wise I haven't played with anybody as good as Jon — just his stuff," Wagner said, before referencing his former Houston Astros teammate Randy Johnson. "Randy had a height advantage, plus he threw really hard and had the fastest slider. But stuff-wise, I'll take Jonny. He's got a plus-fastball, with a nasty two-seamer, he's got a cutter, a slider, he's got a changeup. He's got so many weapons to choose from."
That's the BEST stuff. Better than Johnson. Better than the pitcher Wagner just left behind in New York, Johan Santana.
"It's not a knock on Johan or Randy. [Lester] could go out today and get crushed, but that wouldn't change my opinion of how he goes out there, competes and his stuff," Wagner said. "His stuff is probably the best I've seen in the league. I've watched Halladay and other guys ... as far as stuff. How does he get hit? How does he give up a run? Josh [Beckett] and [Clay Buchholz] are the same way. You just say, 'How do they ever get hit?' "
Lester didn't exactly get "crushed" in the Red Sox’ 11-5 win over the Orioles (recap), but Saturday night certainly wasn't the kind of shining example of Wagner's analysis. The Sox lefty first saw his scoreless streak end at 17 innings thanks to a first-inning run by the O's, and he went on to allow single runs in three of his first four innings.
He would finish having allowed three runs on 10 hits over six innings, throwing 101 pitches. It was the first time since May 9 that Lester surrendered that many hits. Still, despite a somewhat bumpy start, the outing did nothing to dissuade anybody's opinion heading into the season's final few weeks.
All you have to know is that Lester still hasn't had a start in which he has allowed as many as four runs since July 30. And that four-run outing remains the most offense totaled against him dating back to May 31.
"I just think watching his stuff, how well he can locate his stuff, when he has to step on the gas pedal he can," Wagner said. "He just has a lot of weapons to choose from. If one or two aren't working he has two others that he can still control a game with. It's always easy to say when guys are rolling, but even when he hasn't been he has seemed to make that tough pitch."
Bottom line: Lester came out of the start still better than good, a fact that Wagner and his teammates have no problem pointing out.
“He’s been great,” Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. “When he seems like he gets into trouble, he gets out of it. We obviously have relied on him a lot this whole year, and he’s brought us success the whole season.”
And then there were four more things we learned in the Red Sox' 10th win in their last 12 games, on a night when the Magic Number for the wild card berth dropped to nine games.
GONZALEZ MAKING HIS PRESENCE FELT
Alex Gonzalez entered Saturday night with a “zone rating” (dividing the number of plays a fielder makes by how many balls are hit into his zone) of .827 since joining the Red Sox. Among big-league shortstops that is middle-of-the road, and just one point more than what Nick Green accumulated up until Gonzalez was traded to the Sox.
Evidently, this is a case where numbers might not be telling the entire story.
Gonzalez once again exhibited his well-respected defensive acumen, this time via the start of a pivotal 6-4-3 double play that ended the seventh inning. On the play, the shortstop had to range to his right on Cesar Izturis’ grounder, go into a slide, scoop up the ball and fire a dead-on toss to second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who threw to first baseman Casey Kotchman.
When looking at the final score it might have seemed inconsequential. But considering the Red Sox were only holding a three-run lead at the time — with reliever Billy Wagner already seeing his usually micromanaged pitch count at 14 — its importance didn’t go unnoticed by the uniformed personnel.
“Oh, it was unbelievable,” Lester said. “Obviously we’ve seen that before from him, in ’06. But it was just an unbelievable double play. It’s nice to have him out there playing for us again and doing stuff like that.”
It was a hard play, that Gonzalez made look easy, an illusion that has become a familiar trait for the shortstop.
“It’s not easy,” he chuckled. “I just try to make the play. I was ready for any ground ball, to me or third base. It was a big play. … I’ve been down so many times on that play, it’s just reaction.”
Gonzalez said after the game that his surgically repaired left knee hasn’t been a concern since executing a similar slide in spring training, and he now focuses solely on executing the kind of plays that left an impression throughout New England three years ago.
“My knee feels good,” Gonzalez said. “I can’t be scared about my injury last year. I can’t go out to the field and think about my knee. It was a big injury, but that doesn’t come into my mind. If I have to dive for the ball, I dive. I don’t want to think about my knee. I just go out there and do the best I can.”
LITTLE THINGS MADE A BIG DIFFERENCE
The Red Sox scored eight runs in two innings. But how they jump-started the whole process was what truly should be noted.
Out of the gates in the seventh was Pedroia’s single, stretching his hit streak to 11 games. The run has exemplified the No. 2 hitter’s adjustment to the opposition pitching him in a manner not seen until the tail-end of last year.
“Mainly it’s been everything away, especially the teams in our division,” Pedroia said. “Fastballs away, breaking balls away. That’s been the plan all year for them, and it’s still the way it’s going.”
Then came the next adjustment — getting back on the base-stealing bandwagon.
Pedroia hadn’t attempted a stolen base since Aug. 24, but he figured with the score tied at 3 and his run representing the go-ahead score, it might be a good time to go for No. 18. So, after watching a few pitches from Baltimore reliever Matt Albers, Pedroia jumped for second well before the pitcher had even begun his motion to the plate.
“I timed him up the first couple of pitches. I thought he was going to go the same amount of seconds,” said Pedroia, who hasn’t been caught stealing since Aug. 7. “It was good that he didn’t throw over because I would have been out.”
After a well-executed ground ball to second base by Victor Martinez, Pedroia found himself standing at third with one out.
“It was good baseball,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “Thankfully, [Albers] didn’t step off. Sometimes Pedey thinks he’s invisible. Pedey does that and Victor gets him over. It’s good baseball.”
That set the stage for the run producers' chance at producing runs … and that they did.
A single from Kevin Youkilis, a double by David Ortiz, another base hit by J.D. Drew and, finally, the second of what would be three hits for Mike Lowell resulted in a three-run frame that would offer the difference for the Sox.
“Those are the type of at-bats you’re looking for,” Lowell said. “Lay off pitches, exploit the 2-0 mistake, battle with two strikes, get a run in from third with less than two outs — that’s my favorite situation anyway. I feel good.”
The next inning brought the Red Sox’ sixth back-to-back home runs of the season — from Drew and Brian Anderson — leading to five runs and the impetus for the Orioles fans' exit.
The Red Sox now have scored 92 runs in September, the fourth-most in the majors, while hitting the second-most homers (23) for the month. Oh, and by the way, they also have won 15 of their last 20 games.
COULD MARTINEZ CATCH BECKETT IN THE PLAYOFFS?
The question was posed to Francona prior to his team’s win Saturday night: Will Josh Beckett throw to Victor Martinez at some point before the end of the regular season in preparation for a potential connection during the postseason?
“You know, I don’t know. It’s not a bad question,” Francona said. “I don’t know. That’s the answer. I just don’t know. It’s a legitimate question. To be honest with you, I know the numbers with 'Tek are phenomenal, and I believe in that. I also think that the night that Victor caught Beckett [in Toronto] was a crazy night.
“I just — again, I’m very aware that when Victor catches, our lineup is more potent. Also, our goal is to win that game. That’s where we probably have to sit down at some point and think about … I just don’t know the answer. I certainly don’t think it’s a bad question. I just don’t know the answer.”
Beckett (who had the day off from throwing and will execute his bullpen session Sunday thanks to an extra day of rest) had a similar response when addressing the subject.
“It will work itself out,” he noted.
The entire subject — and subsequent reaction — surfaced the possibility that Martinez might be linked up with Beckett in a postseason game, after all. For some time it was believed that Varitek was cemented as the ace’s batterymate, yet with the Red Sox’ success using the lineup with Martinez at catcher, a different approach may now be considered.
Martinez and Beckett have worked together just one time this season, the seven-run outing Aug. 18 in Toronto in which the Sox starter didn’t find out Varitek was forced to the bench with a bad neck until two hours before first pitch. He also has thrown to George Kottaras three times this year, allowing an opponents batting average of .400.
Speaking on the subject a few weeks ago, Beckett didn’t downplay the importance of Varitek, but he also didn’t sound like a pitcher who would flounder if the connection was broken up.
“I’ll throw to whomever they put back there,” Beckett said. “We’ve just got to figure things out. We’re adults. We’re grown-ups. We have to figure [expletive] like that out. You can’t just go about your life hoping things work out, because if you’re going about your life hoping things are going to turn out they’re [expletive] not.
“It matters. Don’t get me wrong. It matters,” he said of working with a new catcher. “Jason Varitek is very special to me because we end up getting in a rhythm very, very quickly. But the bottom line is that it’s your fault. If you can’t execute a pitch and you give up a hard-hit ball it’s your fault. Anybody who tells you different is probably a [wimp].
“For me the thing is that I throw so many pitches. For somebody new it’s very difficult to remember everything I throw because I throw everything to both sides of the plate. I might want that pitch, but they might set up to the wrong spot, which, like I said, is still my fault. I need to shake until I get what I want.”
Beckett fully understands the challenges that come with truly developing the kind of relationship he has grown into with Varitek. When the two first started working together in 2006, it took three months into the season before the pitcher finally broached the subject of wanting to throw his changeup more, as he had done while with the Florida Marlins.
“It’s weird because they’re trying to figure you out and you’re trying to figure them out,” he said. “Neither of you want to step on each other’s toes. It takes time.”
SAITO IS LIVING UNDER THE RADAR
In his appearance Wednesday against the Angels, Takashi Saito pitched one inning, and for the 12th straight outing didn't allow an earned run. In the process, the reliever made $500,000 as a bonus for appearing in 50 games this season. Few took note.
Saturday night, Saito completed yet another seemingly innocuous frame, stretching his streak of appearances without an earned run to 13 games while lowering his ERA to 2.49. Because it took place in an 11-5 whitewashing of the Orioles at Camden Yards, it seemed of little consequence.
Yet, as his latest inning showcased in the Sox' 11-5 win over the Angels, Saito has established himself as one of the organization's best offseason acquisitions.
The entire story of Saito's emergence into the heart and soul of the Red Sox bullpen — which has included a .179 batting average against left-handers — is made even more intriguing by the fact that back when he inked his deal with the Sox there were doubts whether or not his injured right elbow would survive another major league season.
Saito chose to enact a procedure that injected plasma into his injured elbow to push along the healing the process instead of getting Tommy John surgery, an option many suggested he take.
"The decision really came down to a choice between literally not being able to throw for a year — and at this point in my career, sacrificing one year and trying to make it back — as opposed to the route I took which was to throw right away, with the rehab, of course," Saito said through translator Masa Hoshino. "So, that was the choice I was faced with at the time and it was really hard to say which was the right choice, but looking back at it now, with the fact I have been able to pitch, it wasn't necessarily a bad decision.
"Even if surgery had gone well and rehab had gone well, I would still be a 39-year-old pitcher who just had Tommy John surgery in the eyes of the teams."
As the season has progressed Saito has put the minds of the Red Sox brass increasingly at ease, getting to the point where back-to-back appearances (which he has handled four times this year) have become a viable option. Saito also has shown the ability to serve in a variety of roles with nary a hiccup, having pitched in the sixth inning (three times), seventh (10), eighth (21), and ninth and beyond (22) all with fairly comparable success.
"I think I have recovered well," Saito said. "I think the fact I have been able to pitch healthy throughout this whole season really proves something. It's hard to say exactly how things will play out, but if I'm able to pitch at this healthy.”