Keith Foulke returned to a mound last night, this time in Lowell, pitching in a Single A league that allows only four players per team older than age 23. Foulke, whose fastball hovered between 86 and 88 miles per hour, pitched 1 2/3 innings, allowing an unearned run on three hits as he readies to rejoin the Red Sox bullpen in a matter of days.
About 30 miles southwest, at Fenway Park, it was abundantly clear, possibly more than on any other night this season, how desperately the Red Sox need Foulke to return as the Foulke of 1999 to 2004, the pitcher who never finished with an ERA higher than 2.97 in those seasons.
It was nightmarish on Yawkey Way last night, the Sox ahead, 6-0, after four innings before being outscored, 12-2, the rest of the way in a crushing 12-8 loss to the Tigers that halted a 14-game home winning streak, the fourth longest in club history.
It was, without question, an inglorious end to an amazing run. Five Boston pitchers combined to throw 178 pitches and allow 17 hits, nine for extra bases. In the last three games -- one vs. Kansas City and two vs. Detroit -- the teams at the bottom of the American League Central have assaulted the Sox pitching staff for 27 runs on 42 hits in a mere 26 innings.
''They know that when we play teams like that, we need to hold them down one way or another," said David Ortiz, when asked about the Boston staff. ''We need to put our pitching together and do what we can do because October is a whole different game."
October is also becoming less and less of a certainty. The Yankees scored five in the ninth yesterday to win 8-7 -- Alan Embree, now 2-5, got the win -- and closed the Sox's AL East lead to 1 1/2 games, the smallest margin since July 28.
The issue, of course, is pitching and role changing within the staff. Jonathan Papelbon, previously a starting pitcher, entered the game with the Sox leading, 7-6, in the sixth last night with one Tiger aboard.
Papelbon, in his second major league relief appearance, surrendered Wall doubles on the first two pitches he threw, the first tying the game, the second vaulting Detroit ahead, 8-7. The loss was the 24-year-old's his first major league decision. His line: 1 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 2 K.
Jeremi Gonzalez, usually a long reliever, followed Papelbon. Gonzalez, thrust into a quasi-setup role with Mike Timlin closing, coughed up three runs in an inning of work. After posting 11 2/3 scoreless innings over six appearances, Gonzalez, over the last two nights, has allowed five runs on five hits while recording four outs.
Last night's starting pitcher, Bronson Arroyo, matched a season high by allowing seven runs over 5 1/3 innings, the most damaging blow a Dmitri Young grand slam on a flat fastball.
''What happened?" Arroyo said, when asked to summarize his night. ''Dmitri Young hit a fastball on the inner half and made it 6-4. Just a bad game, overall. Period."
This came just three nights after Arroyo pitched in relief, and took the loss, in an extra-inning defeat at Kansas City. Did that outing have a bearing on Arroyo last night, when his fastball lacked zip and he gave up five runs on five hits in the Detroit fourth, marking the 17th time this season a Sox opponent has plated five or more runs in an inning?
''I hope not," said manager Terry Francona. ''We've asked a lot of these guys all week. We worry about things like that all the time."
Francona's thoughts on Papelbon were similar.
''We've asked a lot of him this week: starting, relieving, short rest," the skipper said.
And he's right. In a seven-day span, Papelbon started in Anaheim (Sunday), relieved in Kansas City (Thursday), and came back to relieve last night.
The pitching staff's work ruined what began as one of those nights when Sox bats look positively unstoppable.
The Sox sent nine men to the plate in the third -- the 33d time this season the club has batted around in an inning -- and scored six runs on seven hits, mercilessly pounding Tigers righthander Sean Douglass for a 6-0 lead.
The Sox went single, single, RBI single, three-run homer, strikeout, solo homer, double, strikeout, single. The inning ended not on anything Douglass did but when Bill Mueller, who'd delivered the sixth run with an RBI single to right, was cut down attempting to go to second on the play.
Ortiz and Trot Nixon provided the emphatic swings in the inning, Ortiz's resulting in a three-run homer over the Monster in left center, Nixon's a solo shot that landed atop the wall in dead center and bounced into the seats. Ortiz's blast, his 32d, upped his RBI total to 112. Nixon's homer was his first since July 15 vs. the Yankees.
No. 9 hitter Tony Graffanino led off that inning with his first at-bat against Douglass and singled. Then, the eight members of the Sox lineup who were seeing Douglass for the second time in the game cranked out six hits, including two home runs.
That underscored just how potent the Sox have been at home this season the second time through the lineup. At Fenway, the Sox are batting .353 as a team the second time through the order. Some individual breakdowns: Graffanino (.778), Johnny Damon (.457), Manny Ramirez (.439), Ortiz (.413), Edgar Renteria (.400), Nixon (.357), Mueller (.341), Kevin Millar (.333), Jason Varitek (.238).
All of that, however, went for naught.
David Wells pitches today in the first of four games before rosters expand Thursday, allowing the Sox to promote bullpen help. Expect Manny Delcarmen and Lenny DiNardo to be here, maybe Foulke, and possibly even Craig Hansen. And expect more role experimenting, something, at the moment, with little end in sight.