The Red Sox could not bring Alex Rodriguez all the way back to earth last night. These days, no one can.
But they undressed another Yankee demigod, closer Mariano Rivera, in stunning fashion, scoring five runs in the bottom of the eighth to overcome a four-run deficit, then held their collective breath while watching Hideki Okajima, the stand-in for closer Jonathan Papelbon, solve A-Rod and save a 7-6 win before a delirious crowd of 36,786 in Fenway Park.
"Alex came up and we decided the best coaching there was to stay out of the way," Sox manager Terry Francona said of Okajima's ninth-inning confrontation with Rodriguez, who already had hit two home runs and a double, knocking in four runs and scoring three, when he came to the plate with Bobby Abreu aboard on a one-out walk issued by the Japanese lefthander.
Francona's first inclination was to send pitching coach John Farrell to the mound, armed with written instructions translated by assistant trainer Masai Takahashi, on how to keep Rodriguez from adding to his epic home run tear. With two off Curt Schilling, A-Rod now has 12 in his first 15 games, a historic pace matching that set by Mike Schmidt of the Phillies in 1976.
"We had Masai writing stuff down on a card, that this guy's a real good hitter," Francona said. "I think he knew that. We said, 'The best thing to do is stay out of the way.' He looked like he was throwing the ball really well."
Moments later, after Okajima had retired A-Rod on a full-count, soft liner to second and struck out Kevin Thompson, who had run for strongman Jason Giambi in the eighth when the Yankees seemingly had the game in hand, Francona was out of the dugout.
"The closer we got," Francona said of the Sox' rally against Rivera, "I'll admit there was some anxiety, because Pap's not pitching. It's nice to look down there and see the big boy throwing.
"But it's an exciting night for us to run Oki out there and watch what he did. You saw the excitement in everyone's faces."
Francona let Okajima know, American-style, what he thought of his performance.
"I patted him on the chest," Francona said. "I think I knocked him back about 2 feet."
Okajima was puzzled when asked if he felt he was in any physical danger after the game. "I'm perfectly fine," he said, before pausing and asking, "Was that a joke?"
Assured that it was, Okajima smiled and offered a big thumbs-up.
"I wasn't expecting to go in and pitch in an important situation like this," said the "other" Japanese pitcher. "I never expected that things like this would happen to me today. It was a very precious moment for me."
What was dear to Okajima and the Red Sox was devastating to the Yankees. A rally that began with David Ortiz's double off former Sox lefthander Mike Myers to open the eighth ended with three straight run-scoring hits off Rivera from the bottom of the Sox' order, the supposed black hole of their lineup.
Jason Varitek's RBI single, which followed Mike Lowell's RBI base hit off Luis Vizcaino, made it 6-4. Coco Crisp then scorched a ground ball down the right-field line into the corner for a triple, tying the score, and came home on Alex Cora's flare over a drawn-in infield.
"Every time we have a lead and he comes in and we don't have a lead when he gets off the mound, I'm always going to be shocked," Yankees manager Joe Torre said, "only because of what he is, who he is, and his track record."
This makes back-to-back shockers for Torre. In his last appearance, Rivera was beaten in Oakland last Sunday by a walkoff home run by utility infielder Marco Scutaro.
The Sox, of course, have had more success against Rivera, who will be going to the Hall of Fame someday , than any other team. No one who was there, including Rivera, will soon forget the standing ovation Sox fans gave the Yankee closer in the 2005 home opener, when the Sox received their World Series rings and Rivera was reminded that the Sox had gotten to him in two epic games in the ALCS. Since the start of the 2003 season, Rivera has blown 9 of 29 save opportunities against the Sox.
"On the flip side, we see him more than anybody," Francona said. "That's not good, either. That means they're winning too much."
The winning hit was Cora's second in two games. He tripled home the go-ahead run Thursday in Toronto. He laughed uproariously when asked if he'd done that before.
"There's a lot of side stories to this win," said Schilling, who departed after seven, down, 5-2, to Andy Pettitte in his first duel with the Yankees lefthander, back after a three-season hiatus in Houston. "Everybody should be feeling real good about what we did."
Varitek had three hits, including a two-run home run off Pettitte that was his first since Sept. 8, a span of 90 at-bats. Lowell also singled and scored twice.
Schilling was taken deep by A-Rod leading off the fourth ("0-and-1 fastball, middle, knee high, the only surprise is that it didn't land somewhere in the Bronx," said Schilling ) and again in the fifth, after two-out singles by Derek Jeter and Abreu. "The second one was not as bad a pitch," Schilling said, "but he's seeing the ball so well, he's so comfortable at the plate right now. He stayed on it. He's so strong the other way, his ball carries differently than most other guys in the game."
That home run landed in the Sox' bullpen. So did center fielder Crisp, who landed on his head trying to make the catch. But Crisp got back up, and so did the Sox.
"I always feel that every year when you're on a team, you have to come back and win one to kind of start doing it [coming from behind]," Schilling said. "Yesterday was the first time we really came back and won.
"Oki's last outing, he was awesome. He's absolutely flown under the radar. He's been a little better than people thought he might be, outside the clubhouse."
No more. Oki-mania, anyone?
Gordon Edes can be reached at email@example.com.