Thursday, September 17, 2009

Three shortstops lift Red Sox to win

One shortstop has missed most of the year with a wrist injury he can't shake. One shortstop could barely swing thanks to a right leg that almost collapsed under him. One shortstop wasn't brought to town for anything beyond his defense.

Sensational at-bats from all three in the bottom of Wednesday's ninth inning lifted the Red Sox to one of their wildest wins of the season.

1. Jed Lowrie

That's the word Red Sox manager Terry Francona said last week when asked how he expected to use Lowrie, his Opening Day shortstop and a player who has fought through as many setbacks as the Red Sox have gone through replacements. Lowrie began the season with the Red Sox but underwent wrist surgery in late April to resolve an issue that wasn't allowing him to swing the way he wanted to swing. Numbness in his wrist cut short a return in July, and further numbness sidelined him during a rehab stint at Triple-A Pawtucket.

His return to the major-league roster seemed almost a formality, a chance to reward him for his hard work with a pat on the back and a front-row seat for the stretch run. If the right situation presented itself, well, maybe he'd get an at-bat. You know: "Selectively."

It was a heck of a situation to select.

"I realized the situation, and I know what's going on," he said. "It's hard not to recognize that when everyone at Fenway is on their feet. You'd be a robot if you didn't recognize that. But once you get in the box, it goes back to, 'Let's get the job done.'"

Catcher Dusty Brown wasn't going to hit, not when he's only on the 40-man roster as insurance behind the team's two primary catchers. Lowrie has hit lefties far better than righties in his short major-league career, and with lefty closer Brian Fuentes on the mound, the timing seemed right.

"We wanted to get him in a situation where he hit righthanded," Francona said. "They get to Fuentes, so we know they're staying with him."

Lowrie, then, strode to the plate for the first time since Aug. 4 -- and for the first time in a truly meaningful spot since his single through the right side eliminated the Angels from last season's playoffs.

It didn't take long for the deja vu: He jumped on a breaking ball, just like he did last year, and he ripped a worm-burner through the infield, just like he did last year.

But Angels third baseman Chone Figgins dove and got a piece of his glove on the ball to knock it down deep behind third base. All three runners advanced easily, but the acrobatic effort from Figgins prevented a run from scoring and brought the next hitter to the plate.

2. Nick Green
"I was battling for my life," the journeyman shortstop said in an otherwise empty clubhouse late Wednesday night, the divider between his locker and Dustin Pedroia's locker supporting his weight. "I seriously did not think I could get a hit."

It's the simplest thing in the world for a hitter to do upon drawing a walk to toss the bat aside and jog to first base. But Nick Green could hardly do that. A right leg that's bothered him over the last couple of days almost collapsed underneath him while he was flailing at pitches up in the zone from Angels closer Brian Fuentes.

The problem dates back a couple of days. Green can't pinpoint any incident as the source of his injury, but he's felt soreness and weakness in his right leg since the series against the Angels began. It just didn't seem so bad because he wasn't playing in games.

He didn't tell anyone about the soreness. He didn't think it was a big deal. He even hit off a tee in the middle innings just in case he needed to pinch-hit. Headed into the bottom of the ninth, he considered taking a few more swings but decided against it.

He then came to the plate to pinch-hit for lefty Casey Kotchman with the bases loaded and two outs, the Red Sox still trailing by a run.

His first swing wasn't pretty. His second swing was worse.

"I don't think I even could have put the ball in play," said Green, whose playing time has almost evaporated since the arrival of Alex Gonzalez. "Go look at the replay. Go look at all the swings. ... I couldn't really swing."

When he checked his swing on a fastball up at his eyes, he almost fell down, and that only made it worse.

(The irony there is that Lowrie twice aggravated his wrist injury by checking his swing, setbacks that prolonged his absence by close to a month.)

Green still somehow managed to foul off three straight pitches after that. Two were out of the strike zone, but one was right in his wheelhouse.

"There is no reason I shouldn't put one of those balls in play," he said.

The ninth pitch of the at-bat, though, is the one Fuentes and the Angels won't forget. A hurting Green stood with his bat on his shoulder and watched a 91-mile-an-hour fastball cut the plate right in half.

Umpire Rick Reed stood still. Ball four.

"It's a good umpiring crew, and I think we really feel strongly they missed a couple of times we had Green struck out," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "That's the focal point of the game, and it didn't go our way."

Said Green, "I thought it was low, and apparently (Reed) did, too."

He then had to drag himself to first base, something that took more effort than anyone in the ballpark understood at the time.

"I almost collapsed every single swing," he said, "and I almost collapsed walking down to first and almost collapsed when I was leading off."

The call might have been wrong -- replays seemed to indicate that the pitch was right down the middle of the plate -- but the normally free-swinging Green still put up a hellacious battle on one leg. It's not easy to draw a walk when you don't get many chances to swing the bat.

"I told Greenie I had a boatload of possible scenarios for his (at-bat)," left fielder Jason Bay said, "and walking wasn't one of them. It's just a testament to him. You don't play that much, and you go up there and you want to do too much. You want to try to win the ballgame. To try to do what he did is even tougher than it looks."

3. Alex Gonzalez
The Red Sox acquired Gonzalez for his glove, plain and simple. Any base hit he mustered would be a bonus. All they needed for him to do was to make every play at shortstop, to make the plays Green and Julio Lugo hadn't made that had cost the Red Sox runs and wins.

Entering play Wednesday, Gonzalez was hitting .287 and had 11 RBI in his first 27 games with the Red Sox. His defense, though, still is what keeps him in the lineup every day.

"What he does out at short, there's not many in the game who can match what he does out there," catcher Jason Varitek said. "That's still a level of importance. But he's come up with some big hits for us."

Said Lowrie, "He's done an amazing job with the bat."

Gonzalez might not have hit for himself if Terry Francona had anyone else available. But with Francona down to fourth catcher George Kottaras, he had no choice but to send his defensive specialist to the plate in the biggest spot of the game.

Gonzalez had provided one encouraging sign in his previous at-bat: He'd walked. He'd gone 99 plate appearances with the Red Sox to that point without managing to draw a walk -- a phenomenal accomplishment particularly when you consider how much the Red Sox stress plate discipline in their hitters. David Ortiz walked more times in Wednesday's game alone than Gonzalez had in his first 27 games with the Red Sox.

But he fought off a couple of breaking balls -- "They were throwing me a lot of breaking balls," he said -- and took ball four when a Darren Oliver fastball ran so far in on him even he couldn't think about taking a swing at it.

"I think I got the ball and the base," he said with a grin.

Fuentes started him in the ninth inning with a fastball (foul ball), a slider (low for a ball) and a fastball (foul ball). He couldn't have been more sure a breaking ball was coming even if catcher Mike Napoli had whispered to him Crash Davis-style.

"I know it's coming," he said. "They've been throwing me a lot of breaking balls last night and tonight."

It wasn't quite a breaking ball: It was a changeup down at the knees. But Gonzalez got under it and lofted it gently into short left field. Left fielder Juan Rivera might have had a chance at it but chose not to dive, and the collision of ball and grass set off a wild celebration.

"When I hit it, I hit it like he throw it: I hit it just soft enough," Gonzalez said. "I don't hit it good, but I hit it in the right spot."

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