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October 19, 2008

On the Beat

ALCS Game Six

by John Perrotto

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ST. PETERSBURG-The wave of media had finally departed the Red Sox clubhouse, so Kevin Youkilis dropped his guard and smiled at the lone reporter standing at his locker. "This is really amazing," the third baseman said with a twinkle in his eye. "To think where we were just a few days ago. I mean, it was close to being all over for us. Our chances were pretty slim of living to see another day. Now, we've lived to see a couple of more days and we're going to Game Seven. It's a heckuva story."

The Rays had been the story not only of the American League Championship Series, but of the entire 2008 season up until just three days ago. Their quick ascent to the AL East title has been astonishing, and beating the defending World Series champion Red Sox three times in their first four games of the ALCS had only added to the Rays' legend. Now, everything has changed, and it's the Red Sox who seem destined to write another amazing chapter as they have positioned themselves to rally from another 3-1 playoff-series deficit and a possible third AL title in the past five years.

On Wednesday night in Game Five, seven runs and seven outs stood between the Red Sox and extinction. Down 7-0 in the bottom of the seventh with two outs and a runner on second, they somehow managed to come back for an improbable 8-7 win. The Red Sox' 4-2 victory over the Rays in Game Six on Saturday night at Tropicana Field was not nearly as dramatic, but the Red Sox have forced a decisive Game Seven which will be played tonight, with left-hander Jon Lester facing the Rays' Matt Garza. "It's all we really have a right to ask for, the chance to play a seventh game," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "Our guys have really battled to put themselves in this position. We'll go out and see what happens. If nothing else, it should be fun."

Those who follow this game closely realize that there is no such thing as momentum in baseball. That being said, as the Red Sox prepare to add to their streak of nine consecutive wins in ALCS elimination games, there were a few things that happened in Game Six that might be construed as good omens. For starters, right-hander Josh Beckett, as dominant in Octobers past as he has been ineffectual in this postseason, got the win. He wasn't the Beckett who walked into Yankee Stadium and pitched a World Series-clinching shutout for the Marlins in Game Six in 2003, or even the flamethrower who was 4-0 with a 1.20 ERA in four starts last postseason as the Red Sox won their second World Series in four years, but he was good enough to get through five innings and turn the ball over to Hideki Okajima, Justin Masterson, and Jonathan Papelbon, who finished with four innings of lockdown relief. Then, there was catcher Jason Varitek hitting a tie-breaking home run in the sixth inning that would prove to be the game-winning hit. Varitek's bat has been so feeble this season, and through the playoffs, that Francona may have been better off using the designated hitter in place of his catcher rather than the pitcher. "Josh pitched great, and Tek hit a huge home run, and you don't know how good it was to see both of those guys come up big," Masterson said. "They are just huge parts of our team and they've both been struggling. Now, we've got them going, and it gives everybody the feeling that things are really clicking now. What those guys did really gave us a lift."

Beckett had pitched so poorly in his first two outings of this postseason that the Rays were still considered the overwhelming favorite to win the ALCS despite the epic Game Five collapse. Though he did not factor in the decision in either game, his October ERA stood at 11.57 after giving up 12 earned runs in 9 1/3 innings, and each of the four times he had been given a lead in the postseason, he had relinquished it in the next half-inning. Beckett has been bothered by elbow and oblique strains in the latter stages of the regular season that have lowered his velocity, but he made the transition from thrower to pitcher on Saturday night in the Red Sox' most important game of the season, working in more curveballs and being more willing to pitch to contract. "Josh was very deliberate between pitches and really took his time," Varitek said. "He really slowed himself down and didn't try to overthrow. He's just not able to throw 96 mph right now and blow away hitters, but I think he finally is able to understand that he can throw his fastball at 92 mph and still get people out, because he's just that good."

Beckett allowed two runs on four hits while walking one and striking out three. Both runs came on solo home runs as B.J. Upton connected for his sixth of the postseason and record-tying fourth of the ALCS in the first inning to open the scoring, and Jason Bartlett, who had hit only one home run in 454 regular-season at-bats, tied it at 2-2 in the fifth after Youkilis' second-inning solo shot and a third-inning run-producing groundout had put the Red Sox ahead 2-1. Youkilis had been 0-for-17 in his career against losing pitcher James Shields until that home run.

The Red Sox have downplayed the idea that Beckett has been hurting throughout the postseason, but Francona's comments about Beckett's outing made it clear that the big right-hander is pitching in pain. "I thought Josh threw with a lot of guts," Francona said. "It's not vintage Josh Beckett, but he also proved who he is and he gave us what we needed. I don't think it was real easy for him at times, but he pitched with a lot of composure and a lot of guts. He showed a lot of courage." Beckett has such disdain for the media that it seems he would rather undergo major surgery without the aid of anesthesia than expound on most subjects with reporters, and he left everyone guessing as to how much pain he was feeling. "I felt like I executed pitches when I had to," was the most revealing remark that Beckett offered during his brief appearance in front of the media.

Varitek, one of the very few players in the major leagues who has the distinction of being a team captain, has not executed with a bat in his hands very often this year. He hit .220/.313/.359 with a 237 EqA and -1.0 VORP in the regular season, and had been 4-for-28 with no extra-base hits in the postseason and 0-for-15 in the ALCS through his first two at-bats of Game Six. However, with two outs in the sixth, Varitek deposited a 2-0 pitch from James Shields into the right-field stands to break the 2-2 tie. The Red Sox added another run later in the inning when David Ortiz hit an RBI single off of left-hander J.P. Howell. The Red Sox dugout was just settling down by the time Ortiz delivered. "Our whole dugout went crazy," Francona said about the reaction to Varitek's home run. "I don't think I could think of anything more appropriate from our side than for him to come through in that situation. We'll take runs any way we can get them, but by that means and who hit it, it was not just a big run, it was a huge run. The way it happened and as hard as he's worked, it means a lot to everybody."

Varitek's home run even prompted the recalcitrant Beckett to say something interesting. "He wears that 'C' on that jersey for a lot of different reasons, but none more important than how much respect everybody in that clubhouse, including players, coaches, and upper management, has for him," Beckett said. "We're always pulling for the guy, but it was huge for him to do that." The low-key Varitek downplayed any personal significance to the homer. "We're still here," Varitek said. "We're still playing baseball. That's what matters most."

Only one of these two teams will be playing on Wednesday night when the winner of the ALCS hosts the Phillies in the opening game of the World Series. It seemed certain two-thirds of the way through Game Five that it would be the Rays appearing in their first Fall Classic. Now, the clock seems ready to strike midnight on baseball's biggest Cinderella story since the 1969 Mets, even though manager Joe Maddon insists that his team is not going to change into a pumpkin. The always-cool Maddon just grinned when a post-game questioner bluntly asked if he realized his team was on the verge of one of the biggest collapses in post-season history. "That was tremendous hyperbole right there," Maddon responded. "What happened a couple of days ago and what happened tonight has nothing to do with tomorrow. It's all about how we react to the moment, and it's a seventh game. It's a great learning experience. To win that game would be something special for us. So, it's not about looking into the past. It's about looking into the future right now."

The Red Sox certainly are looking forward to the near future. With the way this series has turned, they would have liked to have gone right back out on the field and played Game Seven at one o'clock this morning. History is on their side, beyond their rallies over the Yankees in '04 and the Indians last October, as six of the seven teams who have come back from a 3-1 deficit to force a Game Seven in the LCS have won the series. "How could you not be excited about a Game Seven?," Youkilis said. "There's nothing else like it. It's the ultimate." "It's pretty appropriate that we come down to the last game, and whoever plays better gets to move on," Francona said. "We have a lot of respect for how good the Rays have played, but we also really like our ballclub."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  ALCS,  Josh Beckett,  The Who,  Flamethrower

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