Wednesday, July 1, 2009

'We pretty much imploded'

It seemed hilarious at the time. It seems like a microcosm now.

Shortstop Julio Lugo threw to first base to retire Felix Pie, a fairly routine defensive play in a fairly routine sixth inning. Dustin Pedroia began to trot off the field, and Lugo, Jeff Bailey and Kevin Youkilis followed. All three of the Red Sox outfielders took a couple of steps toward the dugout. Only catcher Jason Varitek, standing next to a bewildered Nick Markakis, held his ground, waving frantically at the gray shirts leaving the field.

There were only two outs.

"It was my fault," Pedroia said. "I got ahead of myself, and everyone followed me."

Said manager Terry Francona, "I looked up and I saw 'Tek standing there all by himself. The first thing I think is, 'I must be nuts.' I've never seen that. ... I'm looking down at my (lineup) card, like, 'What the hell did I miss?'"

Pitcher Justin Masterson then blew away Robert Andino with a 96-mile-an-hour fastball to retire the side. The Red Sox trotted off the field once again, chuckling to themselves a little bit as the Camden Yards crowd gave them a good old-fashioned Bronx cheer.

"That's really irrelevant to the game," Pedroia said.

Maybe not directly. But it was the very next inning that the Red Sox imploded, blowing a 10-1 lead to an Orioles team they'd beaten eight straight times and handled so easily before a 71-minute rain delay. It was as if they decided to sleepwalk through a game they seemed to have well in hand, particularly with the major leagues' best bullpen taking over for an encouragingly effective John Smoltz.

The collective inability to keep track of the outs in the sixth inning seemed like a goofy fluke at the time. In retrospect, it was a bad, bad omen.

"It would have been funnier to talk about under difference circumstances," Francona said.

The Red Sox lost to the Orioles on Tuesday night in the type of game that can become a turning point if they let it, the type of game that can snowball for the whole team the way it snowballed for the bullpen in the seventh and eighth innings.

Masterson, so dominant in the fifth and sixth innings, allowed a line-drive double to Luke Scott and a no-doubt-about-it home run to Oscar Salazar. He then gave way to Manny Delcarmen, who allowed an RBI single to Pie. Delcarmen gave way to Hideki Okajima, who retired the side in the seventh but allowed four straight hits to open the bottom of the eighth. Okajima gave way to Takashi Saito, who allowed a sacrifice fly and a tough-luck single down the left-field line. Saito then gave way to closer Jonathan Papelbon, who struck out Pie but gave up a ringing double to Nick Markakis that gave the Orioles the lead.

"We pretty much imploded," Papelbon said. "I can't think of any better word to use. That's just what happened."

Said Francona, "We wanted to get to the lefties" -- Markakis and Aubrey Huff -- "for Oki, but that wasn't happening. We sandwiched Manny in there and even stayed with Oki to start the next inning because we wanted to get through (switch-hitter Matt) Wieters. Nothing we did worked."

At the same time, after the rain delay, Red Sox bats went virtually silent against Dave Hendrickson, a journeyman junkballer relegated to the bullpen because he had a 6.35 ERA as a starter. The last time the Red Sox saw him, he pitched the first five innings of what turned out to be a 12-1 win. Tuesday's game looked like it was headed that way before the Orioles started hitting rockets all over the place.

It even looked like the Red Sox would survive the scare, would emerge to smile about the near-miss, until Markakis launched a Papelbon fastball to left-center field to drive home the tying and go-ahead runs.

"We still held onto the lead until that big hit Markakis got," Pedroia said. "It felt like we were fine until that ball that he hit. I was hoping it would have at least bounced over (the fence) to keep (Brian) Roberts at third, but it didn't work out for us."

Nothing did.

The last time the Red Sox blew a lead of this magnitude, back in 1989, insult and injury came hand in hand: Second baseman Marty Barrett had expected to have the day off; he pinch-hit in the ninth inning only because a 10-0 lead had turned into an 11-11 tie. Barrett tripped over first base running out a ground ball and tore up his knee and never was the same player again. Two years later, not yet 33 years old, he was out of baseball.

That's the silver lining: No one got hurt on Tuesday night. Everyone emerged safe and sound.

Even better, the Red Sox ace is pitching on Wednesday.

"There's games in the year you just chalk up to fluke," Smoltz said. "Our bullpen is outstanding. You give credit where credit is due: Baltimore took advantage of every opportunity. They got the bloops to fall. They got some big hits late. They got some two-out hits. But as far as our bullpen is concerned, this will sting a little bit, but when you've got Josh Beckett on the mound tomorrow, he has a tendency to erase that. ...

"It's just one of those games where you shake your head because you can't believe what you just saw."

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