Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Lester's luck turns as Red Sox rally

Jon Lester now has nine no-decisions this season -- including five in his last six starts. He won't remember many of them much more fondly this season than he will the no-decision he recorded in perhaps the most entertaining Red Sox game of the season.

A short summary: Lester lost his win when a nasty curveball took a bad hop in the dirt. Hideki Okajima tried to basket-catch a pop-up and dropped it -- and he then missed a return throw from the catcher to allow the runner to move to second base. Victor Martinez drove in Nick Green in the seventh and eighth innings, a result even more unexpected given that both players spent the first six innings on the bench. Okajima pitched himself into a jam, and Manny Delcarmen pitched himself out of one.

Jason Bay, who had struck out looking twice already on offspeed pitches, hit a home run on an 0-2 offspeed pitch. Jonathan Papelbon met with the media about Billy Wagner in the afternoon and absolutely blew away the White Sox in the evening. Oh, and Jacoby Ellsbury broke the franchise record for stolen bases on the first pitch to Dustin Pedroia in the bottom of the third.

That's the short summary. Here's the long summary.

1. Ellsbury. The 25-year-old speed demon had gone four games without a left before stealing his team-record-tying 54th stolen base of the season on Friday against the Yankees. Tommy Harper was in the house on Sunday, presumably in hopes Ellsbury would break the record that night. It didn't happen.

"Maybe he was hoping I'd break it -- or not break it," Ellsbury said with a smirk. "He was here and he wished me good luck, so I appreciated that."

But Ellsbury didn't steal a record that night -- he went 0-for-5, in fact, and never even got to first base. He then doubled and tripled on Monday but went without a stolen base.

He didn't wait long on Tuesday, though. He jolted a ground-rule double into the Red Sox bullpen and took off on the first pitch Freddy Garcia threw to second baseman Dustin Pedroia. But it didn't stop there. When Pedroia went out to get a slider away and rolled it to first base, Ellsbury cruised home with the game's first run.

"When I go, there's usually a purpose behind it," he said. "I'm not just out there to steal bases. If I was out therej ust to steal bases, I know I could steal quite a few more. But I want to steal at a high success rate to help the team win. That's the most important thing."

2. Lester. The snakebit lefty now has a 2.97 ERA in his last six starts -- and one measly decision to show for it. He fought through fluky adversity in April but has seen his bad luck return in August -- twice has he struck out double-digit batters in six innings, allowing three or fewer runs in the process, and still not earn himself a win.

"It's kind of getting old sometimes," he said. "But you've got to keep plugging away and keep working. The main thing is that we won the ballgame. That's why I'll go home and sleep good tonight."

He didn't look like he was going to sleep good when he left the field in the seventh inning.

He'd gone the whole game without his best stuff, fighting at times to find pitches that would work for him. He'd hit 96 miles an hour in the eighth inning in Toronto last week but saw his velocity track downward as his pitch count climbed from 50 to 75 to 100.

"There are innings when you go out there and you feel really good," he said, "and other innings where you're just battling to find a rhythm. That's what's tough about starting pitching. Sometimes, form inning to inning, you don't know what you have, and sometimes, from game to game, you don't know what you have. You just have to make adjustments from pitch to pitch. At times I did that, and at times I didn't. ... The nice thing is that the times I didn't feel too good about my mechanics or location or what we were trying to do, I was able to minimize the damage and keep the team in the ballgame."

He got himself into a little bit of a jam in the seventh when he allowed a first-pitch single to Paul Konerko and folloewd with a four-pitch walk to Jermaine Dye. A.J. Pierzynski then bunted the runners to second and third. When Alex Rios hit a line drive to J.D. Drew in right field that failed to score Konerko, it looked as though he was about to escape unscathed -- and with the lead.

He threw three straight curveballs to Alexei Ramirez: A called strike at the knees, a nasty swinging strike at the knees and a nastier swinging strike in the dirt. But the third pitch somehow ricocheted off the left edge of the plate and over the right shoulder of catcher Jason Varitek and rolled all the way to the backstop, allowing Ramirez to reach first and Konerko to score from third.

"It hit the right part of the plate with the wrong spin and got over his head," Lester said. "Nine times out of 10, that ball stays in front of the plate and we get out of the inning."

He then caught a little too much of the plate with a sharp cut fastball -- but appeared to catch a break when Nix hit the ball straight at Mike Lowell at third base. The ball hit Lowell square in the glove -- and it bounced away for a run-scoring infield single.

"You couldn't hit 100 fungoes to Mike Lowell and have that exact same result where you hit a ball out of his gloves," Bay said.

An inning-ending strikeout had given way to a two-run rally and a 3-2 White Sox lead and had knocked Lester from the game. The lefty stalked into the dugout and down the stairs and into the clubhouse, a pat on the back from John Farrell his only solace as he stormed away from what looked to be another defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.

3. Okajima. On a day the Red Sox acquired a flame-throwing lefty in Billy Wagner, the incumbent finesse lefty demonstrated once again why he's been one of the best middle relievers in baseball over the last three seasons. He inherited Lester's jam and promptly saw the White Sox load the bases when Scott Podsednik rolled a ground ball into no-man's land between first base and the pitcher's mound.

But the 33-year-old from Japan came back with his best Wagner impression, throwing three splitfingered fastballs to Gordon Beckham before blowing an 88-mile-an-hour fastball at the eyes -- OK, easing an 88-mile-an-hour fastball at the eyes -- past him to end the inning.

4. Martinez. You'd have to guess that Terry Francona doesn't often exchange late-night text messages with his catcher. Last night, though, Francona got a message from Martinez around 1:15 a.m. that said, "Let me play."

"I finally wrote back," Francona said after the game, "and I said, 'Leave me alone. You'll come in and pinch-hit and get the game-winning hit.' He said, 'OK. Good night.'"

It didn't quite go that way. But it still was a big spot when Francona pinch-hit Martinez for Alex Gonzalez with one out in the seventh inning and the Red Sox still trailing by a 3-2 score. He sent shortstop Nick Green to run for Jason Varitek at the same time, effectively a double-switch with his shortstop and his catcher.

Martinez didn't wait long, jumping on a Matt Thornton fastball in the middle of the plate and ripping it into left field to score Green from second with the tying run. Martinez knew what to expect from Thornton, having faced him 19 times in his days with the Cleveland Indians, and he didn't expect the 6-foot-6 lefty to mess around at all.

"I just went up there and looked for his strength," Martinez said. "It's no secret. Everybody knows he's got a great fastball. I went up there to go get one and put a good swing on the ball."

Tie game.

5. Delcarmen. Carlos Quentin popped the second pitch he saw in the eighth inning over the pitcher's mound, a pop-up just high enough to make Okajima hesitate rather than calling for it himself. The result was a botched basket catch on the back of the mound to allow the runner to reach. (The play first was ruled an error but later changed to a hit.)

"It's got to be Oki's ball because of the height," Francona said. "It was like somebody punched me in the stomach -- and before I could look even look up, I felt like I got hit with the other hand."

The other hand? That came when a return throw from Martinez to Okajima missed the pitcher's outstretched glove and rolled all the way into center field, allowing Quentin to scramble to second base and threatening to turn a tie game back into a White Sox win.

Francona stuck with Okajima long enough to let him induce a pop fly to Dye and strike out Pierzynski, the last lefty in the White Sox lineup for a little while. But he then went to Delcarmen with two outs and runners on first and third and Rios striding to the plate.

Delcarmen found himself on the periphery of controversy this week after the report that both he and Jonathan Papelbon weren't overly enthusiastic about the then-rumored move for Wagner. He also hasn't exactly been the most lights-out pitcher in the Red Sox bullpen and has seen himself passed by both Daniel Bard and Ramon Ramirez in terms of the faith Francona has in him in big spots. Part of the reason is the fact that he's averaging almost a walk every other inning he pitches. When he comes into a game with runners on base, he often puts more runners on base.

True to form, he missed with back-to-back fastballs to Rios.

(Ozzie Guillen made an interesting call, by the way, in not pinch-hitting Jim Thome for Rios. Rios has hit lefties and righties equally in his career, but Thome has crushed righties to the tune of a 1.045 OPS in his career. It seemed logical that once Francona called for Delcarmen, Guillen would send up Thome. But Delcarmen has a goofy reverse split: He's a righthanded pitcher, but righties have hit .260 off him in his career while lefties have hit just .216.)

The third pitch Delcarmen threw was a 92-mile-an-hour fastball at the letters, and Rios popped it into shallow center field. Pedroia caught it for the third out.

6. Bay. Not much has been consistent about Bay's season. He began the season on a tear that turned "Sign Bay!" into a "Don't Treat On Me"-esque New England anthem, but his OPS numbers dwindled from there -- from 1.123 in April to .978 to .701 to .689 in a miserable July in which he hit just one home run.

But things have taken a turn for the better in August. He went into Tuesday's game with seven home runs for the month, and that meant he was feeling a little better in the eighth inning even though he'd already taken two called third strikes against Garcia in the early going.

"It was a constant battle," he said. "You go up there looking for a pitch you can drive, and I had some early on that I didn't swing at. It's kind of nice to do it when it matters."

It mattered in the bottom of the eighth with the game still tied at 3. David Ortiz had turned on a Thornton curveball and put a nice stroke on the ball and hit a line drive almost to the warning track in right field before Dye hauled it in. Bay then came up and took a called strike on a curveball and fouled off a slider to put himself right into the hole he didn't want to be in.

"The problem is, when I look breaking ball, half the time, that's when I swing at it when it bounces because you're looking for it and you get it," he said. "At that point, he had thrown me two (breaking balls), but it's still in the back of your mind that he throws 96 miles an hour. You're just basically looking for a strike."

Thornton hung a splitter, a terrible two-strike pitch right of the middle of the plate, and Bay crushed it into the Green Monster seats.

"It's easier said than done, just to react, but that's basically what it was," he said.

Green, Martinez and Ellsbury followed with hits to score two more runs and push the score to 6-3, a more than manageable margin for a dominant-looking Papelbon in the ninth.

Postscript: Bay's night ended with, of all things, a drug test. He took longer than usual to emerge into the locker room because, he said, "I couldn't go." Two Red Sox players were tested -- Bay and, of course, Ellsbury.

Did they find anything on the record-breaking base-stealer?

"I'll let you know," he said with a grin.

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