Like night and day
Sox knuckle down and gain doubleheader split after taking a beating in opener
Enough was enough. With one dispiriting loss leading to another as they plunged a whopping nine games behind the division-leading Yankees, the Red Sox made no secret after they dropped the opener of yesterday's day-night doubleheader against the Orioles that losing the nightcap could place them in terrible peril.
Spinning all kinds of cotton-candy optimism was fine and dandy, several players suggested, but there was no sugarcoating the prospect of the franchise's 86-year championship drought lasting another year unless the Sox swiftly reversed their fortunes.
"We need to start doing it soon," Johnny Damon said, "or we won't have a chance this year."
Enter Tim Wakefield. Five days after he absorbed a nasty line drive behind his pitching shoulder that put his start in jeopardy, Wakefield reeled off one of his finest outings of the season, blanking the Birds for seven innings as he propelled the Sox toward a welcome 4-0 victory before 35,370 at Fenway Park.
"That's Tim Wakefield for you," catcher Doug Mirabelli said. "Barring a broken shoulder, he was going to take the ball, and to come out and throw like he did, that was huge."
The triumph provided urgent relief after the Sox dropped the opener, 8-3, in Double A lefthander Abe Alvarez's major league debut. With the team's situation teetering toward desperation, manager Terry Francona said, "We needed this like you can't believe."
Next up, the Yankees, for a showdown that Francona hoped would further boost the team's intensity.
"I think this weekend might be good for us, having a little added electricity here," Francona said. "We've played a lot of baseball. We've done a lot of traveling. I think it will be good."
Wakefield was plenty good, allowing only one Oriole, Brian Roberts, to reach third base over seven innings. All told, Wakefield scattered eight hits and walked none as he provided a fine role model for Alvarez, who early last year was pitching for Long Beach State before the Sox selected him in the second round of the June draft.
"I tried to battle through the game knowing our situation," Wakefield said. "Hopefully, this win will give us some momentum going into the Yankee series."
The knuckleballer improved to 6-6 with a 4.17 ERA as he spared the weary relief corps while pitching through his own physical adversity.
"That was awesome," Francona said. "I know he didn't feel that good. He really gutted up, not only by going out there but by the way he pitched."
Wakefield's toughest challenge came with Roberts at third and David Newhan at first with no outs in the first inning. In the most pivotal defensive play of the game, Roberts was gunned down on David McCarty's one-hop strike to the plate trying to score on a fly ball to left field by Melvin Mora. It was McCarty's first start in left field since May 15.
"I knew I had a good shot," McCarty said, "but it's always hard to say when you have a runner that fast."
Mirabelli had no problem fielding the throw and cleanly tagging Roberts.
"It was a huge play," Mirabelli said. "They had a little rally going, and it got the momentum on our side."
The Sox mustered all the runs they needed when Manny Ramirez drove in Mark Bellhorn on a fielder's choice in the first inning, moments before McCarty delivered a two-run single. Kevin Youkilis completed the scoring with a solo shot off Baltimore starter Dave Borkowski leading off the fourth inning.
With Wakefield finished after delivering 108 pitches, Mike Timlin worked a scoreless eighth inning, and Alan Embree finished things off in the ninth as the Sox pulled within 8 1/2 games of the Yankees on the eve of their weekend tango.
After the opening loss, the Sox could hardly wait another day to start turning things around.
"It's difficult, no question," Gabe Kapler said. "We're still waiting on that explosion we know we have in us. I don't feel like there's a deadline, but obviously we need to play better than we've been playing."
The team's attitude "is definitely not where it needs to be right now," Damon said. "When you're winning, that attitude gets raised. But there's definitely no need for throwing things or breaking bats in here. The attitude gets raised when you win games. The music gets louder, the energy gets more contagious, and right now it's just not there. We're pretty disappointed."
The Sox had hit .238 in going 3-6 over the previous nine games before they won the nightcap.
"You can't let [the frustration] mount," Francona cautioned after the opener. "It doesn't help."
The Sox opted to start Alvarez in the opener over Triple A righthander Frank Castillo, partly because the Orioles had fared significantly worse this season against lefthanders (entering the day with a .245 average) than righthanders (.296). The Birds were 10-21 against lefty starters, but Alvarez, who had not walked more than three batters in a game over his first two pro seasons, lacked his signature command, putting himself in jeopardy. He walked five batters and allowed eight hits in his five-inning debut. Two of the hits left the park as Miguel Tejada touched him for a two-run homer in the first inning and Mora scorched a solo homer in the third.
"It was kind of like a welcome-to-the-big-leagues type of deal," said Alvarez, 21, who became the youngest pitcher to make his major league debut as a Sox starter since Jeff Sellers in 1985, and the first Sox pitcher to jump directly from Double A to the bigs since Casey Fossum in 2001.
Even though he failed to exceed expectations, Alvarez fared well enough to give the Sox a chance.
"He showed a lot of good things that we thought he would show: poise, having some character, and some guts," Francona said. "He kept his composure and actually kept us in the game."
But the Sox faltered at the plate, as they went 4 for 17 with runners on base and 1 for 7 with runners in scoring position. Once again, they had no answer for Orioles starter Rodrigo Lopez, who improved to 3-0 with a 1.06 ERA against them this year.
Kapler's RBI single in the second inning accounted for the only Sox run through seven innings as they fell behind, 6-1.
"[Lopez] has been tough on us in the past, but we're going to have to do better," Francona said. "We have the people to do better. And we're going to have to do better or it's going to be an uphill battle."
The Sox did better in the eighth inning when Kevin Millar walloped a two-run homer into the Monster seats off Buddy Groom, making it 6-3, before Ramiro Mendoza gave both runs back in the ninth on a two-run jack by Mora.
But the victory in the nightcap soothed much of the sting.
"It was a huge win for us," Mirabelli said. "The Orioles have played us tough every year I've been here, so to keep those guys from scoring was great."
For the Sox, stopping the Yankees would be even greater.