So, how exactly did this happen?
The particulars of what took place after the shadows encompassed the pitching mound at Fenway Park late Sunday afternoon seems even more unbelievable as you get further away from it. As it transpired, the impression is simply that of a flurry of hits followed by a quick, 1-2-3 home half of the ninth inning and, ultimately, the Angels celebrating their 7-6, series-clinching win.
But as there is time to slow down that ninth, its construction becomes almost unbelievable.
Two outs, the Red Sox leading by two runs, and Jonathan Papelbon — not only one of the game’s best closers, but a pitcher who had retired all but one of the last 17 batters he faced (having hit Toronto’s Adam Lind on Sept. 29) — jumping out to an 0-2 count on Los Angeles’ No. 9 hitter, Erick Aybar.
But then the improbable started showing its face.
First, Aybar turned around Papelbon’s 97 mph, 0-2 fastball for a single. The fact that the shortstop jumped on the pitch in the zone shouldn’t have come as a surprise considering he only took a called third strike twice in 158 0-2 pitches this season and had hit a reputable .222 when putting pitches on that count in play.
Papelbon also had thrown a remarkable high percentage of strikes on 0-2 pitches this year, tossing balls on just 35 of his 93 offerings with such a count.
The Red Sox closer proceeded to come back from a 3-0 count to the next batter, Chone Figgins, and work a full count. At this point, it was clear Papelbon was bring the hard stuff and nothing else, pumping in all four-seam fastballs. But the seventh pitch to Figgins sailed high, resulting in the pitcher’s first free pass since Aug. 24 when he walked Chicago’s Paul Konerko.
That was 56 at-bats and 263 pitches without a single walk until Figgins came around.
Up next was Bobby Abreu, the hitter who had reached base eight times in 12 plate appearances in the series. Above and beyond any other hitter Papelbon has had to face, Abreu had a talent for working the count against the closer, having drawn more walks vs. Papelbon than any other major league hitter (5). But when there wasn’t a free pass involved, the hurler usually had the upper-hand, having retired Abreu in all but one of his seven official at-bats in the matchup.
This time Abreu took the first pitch for a ball before fouling off three straight pitches. Finally, the outfielder got a fastball to his liking, lining it sharply off the left field wall to draw the Angels within one.
Now Figgins stood at third with the tying run, with Abreu representing the go-ahead score at second and Torii Hunter at the plate.
Hunter entered the game 3-for-8 against Papelbon and was coming off an at-bat in which he was showered with chants of “Torii, Torii” prior to striking out against reliever Billy Wagner.
Hunter was perceived as a good clutch hitter, having totaled a .305 batting average this season with runners in scoring position and two outs. He also had hit .353 in “close and late” situations entering the showdown.
The choice was made by Red Sox manager Terry Francona: Walk Hunter and take your chances with Vladimir Guerrero, he of the 2-for-12 history against Papelbon.
The downside of such a decision was that Papelbon had little room for error, and had thrown all fastballs to that point, both facts that weren’t lost on Guerrero. The numbers kept piling up — the cleanup hitter had hit .351 when putting the first pitch in play this season, with Papelbon issuing just two walks (and three hits) in 38 career plate appearances with the bases loaded.
Bottom line: If Guerrero was going to get a good pitch out of the gate he was going to swing at it. He did, and he did. The result was a line drive that center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury didn’t have a prayer at reaching, leading to another black mark in Red Sox playoff lore.
“It hurts just as much as any other postseason loss. You can’t sit there and classify how much this one hurts than any other. … In postseason play, my job is to, when I get called upon is to get all the outs I’m called on to get,” Papelbon said. “I think things happened quick, more than anything. I wasn’t able to stop the bleeding. Your team fights and puts you in that situation, to call upon you, and you let them down. Your team expects you to pull through and preserve that win for you and then you don’t, it’s definitely not a good feeling.”
There was a bunch more we learned on the day the Red Sox’ season died, some having to do with Sunday’s turn of events, and others in regards to what lay ahead …
THERE WAS A PROBLEM IN BOSTON
Following the Guerrero single, Papelbon was taken out of the game by Francona and replaced by Hideki Okajima. As the closer walked to the dugout, a smattering of boos infiltrated the stunned silence, the likes of which weren’t lost on many of the Red Sox players.
In his teammates’ eyes, Papelbon didn’t deserve his first-ever negative Fenway Park reaction.
“I don’t think he deserves for them to do that,” pitcher Jon Lester said. “Obviously it wasn’t everybody, you could tell that. But the few people that did I personally think it was uncalled for, but that’s the way it goes sometimes, I guess. Hopefully we can come back next year and do better.”
Did the fans’ reaction come as a shock to Lester?
“Absolutely,” he said. “I think it surprised everybody.”
The lefty clearly wasn’t alone in his take.
“The one thing I didn’t agree with was a little bit of the fans kind of booing toward the end. Everything he’s done here I think he deserves a little more respect that,” reliever Manny Delcarmen said. “You normally don’t see that.”
Added outfielder Jason Bay: “Yeah, I understand everyone’s frustration, but at the end of the day Pap didn’t lose that game on his own and didn’t have any part in losing the first two,. I think it was a culmination of everybody’s frustration, and I’m sure they will be the same people the first save he makes next year they’ll be on their feet. Understandable I guess, but from my angle a little disheartening.”
THEY FORGOT WHAT PAPELBON DID THE INNING BEFORE
With pinch-runner Reggie Willits representing the tying run at first base and two outs in the eighth inning, Papelbon drew on an old friend to get him out of the jam. For the third time in his career he picked a runner off first base.
It was also the second time Papelbon had delivered with a pickoff at a monumental moment, having nabbed Colorado’s Matt Holliday in Game 2 of the 2007 World Series. And like that one, much of the credit has to go to bench coach Brad Mills, who called the execution of the play.
“Terry and I had discussed it and he said, ‘Go ahead and do it here,’ but I already had the sign up so I didn’t have to do anything,” Mills explained. “We just thought it was a good time.”
Papelbon has worked diligently on improving his ability to hold on runners, having thrown over to first base 25 times this season, 15 more than a year ago. He has also learned to mix things up, as it was also just the third time this year he has executed a pickoff attempt on an 0-2 count.
Coming into the game, the Angels had three stolen bases this season against Papelbon, the most vs. any Red Sox pitcher other than Tim Wakefield.
ABOUT THAT EIGHTH INNING
Coming into the eighth the Red Sox were holding a 5-1 lead with Wagner on the mound. The first batter, Abreu, hit a seemingly harmless grounder which ate up first baseman Kevin Youkilis, bouncing into the photographer’s pit for a leadoff double.
The play could have been ruled an error on Youkilis, who had already made one fielding miscue on a pickoff throw from Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz earlier in the game. He has never made more than one error in any game throughout his career.
After getting Hunter to strike out, Wagner walked Guerrero on eight pitches, giving Wagner nine free passes on the season, one shy of the reliever’s total for the entire 2008 season (45 games).
Then came one a moment lost on many, but not Dustin Pedroia.
With runners on first and second, Kendry Morales hit a bounding grounder to Pedroia at second. But upon its arrival the ball took a bad hop, forcing the second baseman to collapse to his knees and smother it just enough to get the inning’s second out at first.
Some, including Pedroia, felt like — especially with Guerrero running at first — there was a legitimate shot at an inning-ending double play when the ball left the bat.
“It took a bad hop,” Pedroia noted. “Our infield sucks. It’s the worst in the game. I’m not lying about that. That is true. It took a bad hop. I just tried to put my body in front of it to get an out.
“I think about those things, too. That stuff upsets me. My job is to take 1,000 ground balls a day and the other guy’s job is to get the field perfect so we can play baseball. But it happens. That’s the way it goes.”
WHAT WAS LEFT IN THE NINTH?
Once the Red Sox got to the bottom of the ninth, down by a run, they found themselves facing closer Brian Fuentes, a lefty.
Leading off the inning, Francona chose to pinch-hit Jed Lowrie for Alex Gonzalez, who was 1-for-6 in his career against Fuentes, and had one hit in six at-bats in the series.
Lowrie had said his surgically repaired wrist didn’t bother him when hitting right-handed, although the infielder had experienced a limited amount of at-bats since returning to the majors in early September, having gone 2-for-12.
The result was a fly out to center field to lead off the inning.
Two weeks before, the at-bat would have most likely gone to Rocco Baldelli, who finished his season with the Red Sox having hit .290 against left-handers. But because of an injured hip flexor, Baldelli was not on the roster, leaving Lowrie, Jason Varitek and Brian Anderson as the only right-handed options off the bench.
Bottom line: Francona and the Red Sox were handcuffed by injuries, with the ninth inning magnifying that.
Lowrie will be heading back out to Arizona to have his wrist checked out once again by specialist Dr. Donald Sheridan. Meanwhile, Baldelli jogged Sunday for the first time since his injury and said he fully expected to be ready to play if the Red Sox reached the ALCS. He is so confident of his recovery that he has already signed up to play on his friend’s recreational basketball league team, which starts in less than a month.
In other injury news, Wakefield met with doctors following the game to discuss when he could have surgery on his herniated disc. It is believed that a procedure will take place as early as this week.
ALSO IN THAT NINTH …
It wouldn’t be a Red Sox playoff game without some sort of legend to pass on, and that came courtesy of Figgins.
Figgins watched from his defensive position as a door next to the 379 marker in center field opened during the bottom of the ninth inning, after the Angels had taken their 7-6 lead. A conversation between Figgins and Red Sox third base coach DeMarlo Hale ensued.
Said Figgins: "It's funny, we saw that door open, and the third base coach tells me, 'You know the ghosts just opened the door.' And I said, 'Nah, not this time.' I was like, 'Close that door so we can close all this. Get three outs and let's take it home.' "
A short time later, the door was officially closed.
WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED?
If the Red Sox did hold on, there was no doubt who would have pitched.
Daisuke Matsuzaka, the pitcher thought to have a chance to pitch Game 4 at one point, warmed up in the Red Sox bullpen throughout the game, and as early as the second inning. That left only one option for the potential next game — Lester, who had pitched on three days rest just once before, Aug. 23, 2008.
So, how did he feel heading toward Monday?
“It doesn’t matter now how I felt. It really didn’t matter to begin with,” Lester said. “I was going to pitch.”
One player who also regretted not getting another chance to take advantage of some momentum was J.D. Drew, whose fourth-inning, two-run homer was eerily similar to the kind of swing that had manufactured so many positive postseason memories — most notably his grand slam in the ’07 American League Championship Series.
“I don’t know if it’s exactly the same swing, but similar to the one off Carmona, a pitch down and over the plate, stayed inside the ball and put a good swing on it,” Drew said. “That’s the thing I felt like there were some good swings today and was hoping to be able to battle again tomorrow, but it didn’t work out.”
ABOUT THOSE SHADOWS
One subtle aspect of the game that went noticed by the players were the shadows looming over the Fenway field throughout the game. Because of the 12:07 p.m. start time and early October date, the sun and stadium combined for a unique pattern all over the diamond.
“From the fifth inning on there was a big difference in the way you see the ball,” said Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. “Fielding it actually got easier. With the noon start there were a lot of white shirts, but as the shadows came in it kind of darkens so defensively it actually gets easier. But hitting got hard.
In the fifth and sixth I think it was toughest, when the pitchers in the sun and you’re in the shade you almost see two different colored balls. You can lose it halfway. When the pitcher’s in the shade and you’re in the shade, it’s maybe a little easier but the backdrop is still in the sun and that’s what kind of throws you off. I didn’t see [Scott] Kazmir my third at-bat as good as my first two.”