The best thing in sports is a Game Seven. Thanks to an unlikely series of circumstances, we get the first one of the year in baseball tonight.
I’d advocated for using Jon Lester on full rest in last night’s game instead of Josh Beckett. Lester is the better pitcher right now, and given that starting him would not have entailed using him in a non-standard manner, it didn’t seem to make sense for the Red Sox to not get him to the mound with their season on the line. Usually, there’s a strong argument for not moving up a pitcher, but the off days built into the ALCS meant that Lester could be moved up to start on his regular day. Throw in that the Rays don’t hit lefties as well as they do righties, and the move made sense to me.
Terry Francona went with Beckett instead, and while Beckett was neither dominant nor durable, he did pitch through the fifth inning, allowing just two runs on two solo homers, walking one, and striking out three. He was ahead in the count more, and much more pitch-efficient than he’d been in recent outings, but still a far cry from the brand-name Josh Beckett of 2007.
Beckett’s success was not even the most surprising story of the night for the Red Sox. No, Jason Varitek, having the worst season of his career and killing the team in October, hit a solo home run in the top of the sixth to give the Sox a 3-2 lead, one they would not relinquish. Given Varitek’s awful performance with the bat all year, it was a stunning blow.
Varitek’s homer had parallels to the blast David Ortiz hit Thursday night that got the Sox back into that game. In Ortiz’s case, the veteran hitter’s struggles may have induced Joe Maddon to leave right-hander Grant Balfour in the game to pitch to him, rather than bring in a southpaw. Because he was perceived as less dangerous, there was less reason to pull out all the stops to retire him. In Varitek’s case, James Shields threw a 2-0 get-me-over fastball with two outs and no one on, a cripple pitch that even Varitek couldn’t miss. Perhaps the 2005 version of Varitek sees a changeup, or something located a bit better.
Having been given the lead, the Sox bullpen was not about to give it up. Three relievers threw four shutout innings, with Jonathan Papelbon—who has never allowed a post-season run—closing the ninth. I get that it’s just 20-odd innings, but they’ve been exceptionally high-leverage innings. Mariano Rivera is going into the Hall of Fame in no small part for being the greatest post-season pitcher ever, and Papelbon is about a quarter of the way down that road. He’s been essentially untouchable this October: 10
1/3innings, three hits, 13 strikeouts.
Nearly as good, and certainly critical to last night’s win, is Hideki Okajima. He has thrown nine innings and allowed two runs in this postseason, and while the perception is that his 2007 season has been significantly worse than his 2008, he had nearly identical Stuff Score, strikeout, and home-run rates. And as we saw last night, his ability to go multiple innings and retire right-handed batters make him perhaps the most important plank in the bridge between the starters and Papelbon. Should the Sox win, he’ll serve that same role against the Phillies.
During the early-game technical difficulties that left much of America wondering if Frank Caliendo was impersonating a mediocre comedian/sitcom actor, I and a friend followed the game via our mobile devices. He turned to me at one point and said, “One-nothing, Rays; B.J. Upton homer.” I wasn’t convinced. “Are you sure that’s today’s game?” It’s become like that, the daily B.J. Upton homer as much a part of the ALCS as mohawks, cowbells, and insipid paeans to small ball in a series that’s featured 24 bombs. He’s having an amazing postseason at the plate, enough to make you forget that his mechanics in center field—he’s prone to poor jumps and misreads, which present as laziness and showboating—need a ton of work. With a bat, though, he’s a wonder, capable of drawing a walk, lining a double to right, or hitting a ball out of Fenway Park, sometimes all three in one game.
There’s no point to issuing a prediction on one game. If I had any special talent for doing so, I’d have a zip code starting with “8” and a very different wardrobe. With that said, the Red Sox would seem to have an edge tonight. Lester was the third-best pitcher in the AL this year, and save for 15 minutes last Monday, has continued to pitch very well in October. The Rays’ problems with left-handers have been covered, although Upton and Evan Longoria do give them a puncher’s chance.
Matt Garza, who was effective in Game Three after being staked to a lead, makes his sixth start of the season against the Sox. The key for him has been the long ball. In three of his five starts against the Sox, he did not give up a homer. In those, he went 18 innings and allowed four runs. In the other two, he allowed four homers, went 10 innings, and allowed 10 runs. It may seem a bit tautological, but when you consider how good the Rays’ defense is, and how much of Garza’s success was due to pitching in front of that defense (his .271 BABIP is notable even given the Rays’ success on balls in play), his equation for winning is simple: keep the ball down.
At the start of the series, I thought that hitting homers, especially multi-run homers, would be critical because of the defenses involved. Tonight’s game brings that idea to a head. The Rays beat Lester by taking him deep, and the Sox’ success against Garza has come by doing the same. Whichever team finds that key again tonight plays in Philadelphia on Wednesday night.