It was on Aug. 28 that the 2012 Red Sox really began to roll over, play dead, and await the merciful end of a long-lost season. Ownership and the front office had done so a few days earlier, waving a white flag that took the form of a megadeal with the Dodgers, though the players had actually managed to win three of four after Adrian Gonzalez had been yanked from their lineup in anticipation of the trade.
They were still at least competing, still seemingly caring -- until Alfredo Aceves blew a save in Los Angeles, it sparked a seven-game losing streak over which the Sox were outscored 58-16, and most sense of resilience, pride, and effort plummeted precipitously from there.
So it was fitting that on Aug. 28, the 2013 Red Sox offered yet another juxtaposition between the failures of last year and the fun of this one, this time with a reminder of just how tough a team they are. Tough mentally. Tough physically. Tough to put away in an at-bat. Tougher still to put away in a game. Tough to discourage. Tough to dislike. And, ultimately, tough to defeat.
On this night much of that was apparent in the starting pitcher, the guy who gutted his way through 28 starts two years ago despite dealing with an elbow injury that -- if Peter Gammons was right -- required Tommy John surgery as early as June of that year, but returned this season so recommitted that he now regularly leaves the mound to a rousing ovation from the fans who loathed him not long ago. Though it was after John Lackey's 7.1 stand-and-cheer innings of three-run ball having kept them in position to do so that the Red Sox' toughness went on full display.
That began with Jacoby Ellsbury, the leadoff man whose toughness is maligned more than any teammate not named Clay Buchholz -- but who in truth has played more games than any Red Sox other than Dustin Pedroia this season, who led the major leagues in plate appearances in 2011, and who ranked 10th in the American League according to that same category two years earlier. The knocks against him are that he's injury prone, and that he won't play through some of the minor nags, but those numbers say that when he doesn't have ribs cracked in a collision with Adrian Beltre, or doesn't get his shoulder landed on by a shortstop after sliding hard to break up a double play at second base, in the three other seasons he's been the Sox' full-time center fielder he's typically stayed on the field.
And that's exactly what he did Wednesday after a foul ball found the sliver of space between the two pads that protect the lower part of his front leg. Ellsbury was hobbled, to the point a trainer accompanied manager John Farrell out to check on him. He stayed in the game, finishing his at-bat by bouncing a single over second base, but when the Orioles made a pitching change immediately thereafter, the manager and trainer came out to check him again.
But again, Ellsbury stayed in the game. And impacted it with his legs, no less. The Sox trailing 3-1 in the seventh, he stole second to put the tying runs in scoring position, then raced all the way around when Dustin Pedroia's single slithered past a pair of diving infielders on the left side. Both times Ellsbury popped up from his slide with a pained grimace, and he didn't go back to center field for the eighth. But no matter. Bruise and all, he'd already been there when the team needed him most.
And he'd already used his unique skill set to arrange the stage for what happened an inning later. The game still tied, and two outs, Jarrod Saltalamacchia fell behind 1-and-2, but the count full, fouled off another offering, then lifted the seventh pitch of the at-bat high off the left-field wall for a double. After Baltimore elected to walk Stephen Drew intentionally, that brought pinch-hitter Mike Carp to the plate as a pinch-hitter, and he floated a flare toward shallow left.
Third baseman Manny Machado made an attempt, but the ball landed beyond his glove -- scoring Saltalamacchia and, once Koji Uehara pitched a perfect ninth, marking the 20th time the Sox have won a game in their last at-bat.
With his single, Carp became the 10th different Sox hitter to deliver the decisive blow in one of those games, joining Pedroia, Ellsbury, David Ortiz, and Will Middlebrooks among those who've done so once. What's more interesting is who has done it more than once: Daniel Nava has done it four times; Drew, Jonny Gomes, and Shane Victorino have all done it three times; Mike Napoli has done it twice.
The common theme among those multi-time heroes is obvious. Aside from Nava, none of them were part of the Red Sox on Aug. 28, 2012. So if Ben Cherington entered last winter looking to spend Carl Crawford's and Adrian Gonzalez's money on players he thought would be capable of not just enduring Boston, but actually capable of thriving in big moments in Boston, it says there he found the right guys. He found guys who made his team better. Made his team deeper. Made his team more likeable.
And, as Wednesday once more reminded, who made his team tougher.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||2-for-3, R, BB, 2 SB: His steal in the seventh was his second of the night and 49th of the season. One more swipe and he'll match the second-most of his career. He said afterward he expects to be back in the lineup Thursday.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||1-for-4, RBI: A night after reaching five times he only got aboard once -- but he made it count, singling home Drew with the Sox' first run.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||1-for-2, 2 BB, 2 RBI: His clutch single extended his hitting streak to nine games, and over the past four he's reached in 11 of 18 plate appearances. For the year he's now even, with 65 walks and 65 strikeouts.|
|David Ortiz, DH||0-for-4, K: His skid is now 0-for-18, dropping his average from .327-.313. But look at the positive: The Sox are 6-2 since his last hit. Early in the year there were questions about what they'd do if Ortiz got pitched around, or struggled. The answer is that they'll survive.|
|Daniel Nava, LF||1-for-4, 3 K: The Red Sox have played 62 games since Nava's last home run, and he's started 36 of them -- yet his season-long OPS of .808 justifies him hitting fifth against righty Bud Norris.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||0-for-4, 3 K: It looked like a regression after a promising stretch that included mammothhomers in each of the previous two games. But we'll wait a day or two before making that declaration.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||1-for-2, 2 R, 2 BB, K: Over the past month, Drew is now hitting .296 with a .378 on-base percentage.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||2-for-4, R, K, 2B: The key double was his 35th, moving him into sole possession of third-most all-time among Red Sox catchers in a single season.|
|Xander Bogaerts, 3B||0-for-3: He handled a couple of tricky foul pops rather adventurously before catching both, but at the plate he looked a bit anxious. His three trips totaled four pitches, then he was hit for by Carp.|
|John Lackey, SP||7.1 IP, 3 ER, 7 H, BB, 4 K: He credited his ability to command the ball and work ahead as the biggest factor in his success, as he fired 68 of 92 pitches for strikes -- 13 of those strikes swinging.|
|Craig Breslow, RP||0.2 IP, K: The lefty did his job, getting both of the batters he faced after coming on for Lackey in the eighth. For it, he earned his fourth win.|
|Koji Uehara, RP||1 IP, K: The particularly pathetic swing he generated on strike three to Nick Markakis summed up this outing -- and many others -- for the closer who now has 14 saves.|
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