CLEVELAND - Fenway Park was bursting with hubris and expectation Saturday night when Manny Ramírez and Mike Lowell hit back-to-back homers in the fifth inning of Game 2 of the American League Championship Series against the Indians. Curtain calls all around, and the Red Sox were on the verge of winning their fifth consecutive playoff game and appeared headed back to the World Series.
The midgame rally now feels as though it happened sometime back in 1918.
The Indians last night won their second straight, beating a free-falling Daisuke Matsuzaka, 4-2, at Jacobs Field, to take a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven series. Forty-one-year-old Tim Wakefield, who has not pitched since Sept. 29, gets the ball tonight for the suddenly reeling Red Sox.
Jake Westbrook, a 30-year-old righthander who went 6-9 in 2007, blanked the slumbering Sox for 6 1/3 innings last night and got bullpen help from Jensen Lewis, Rafael Betancourt, and Joe Borowski. Jason Varitek supplied Boston's offense with a two-run homer off Westbrook in the seventh, snapping a string of 12 scoreless innings for the Sox.
Forty-year-old Kenny Lofton crushed a two-run homer off Matsuzaka in the second and Cleveland chased the Japanese righthander with a pair of runs in the fifth. Acquired for the price of $103 million last winter, Matsuzaka won 15 games in his rookie season, but he has failed to finish the fifth inning in either of his playoff appearances. The tumbling Dice Man is on schedule to pitch Game 7 against the Indians at Fenway if the series goes the limit. Matsuzaka was despondent in the clubhouse after the loss.
"He made the one glaring mistake to Lofton," said Sox manager Terry Francona. "He made a lot of pitches . I thought he threw some good pitches, but there were a lot of deep counts."
The Red Sox hadn't been in a playoff game here since the night the stadium clock stopped when Pedro Martínez came out of the bullpen to smother the Indians in the fifth and deciding game of the 1999 Division Series. That was the same year a young Manny Ramírez knocked in 165 runs for the Indians.
It was a perfect 69 degrees at Jacobs Field at game time with no midges (the tiny flying insects that disrupted the Yankees in the Division Series) in sight.
The Red Sox loaded the bases with no outs in the second, but failed to score against Westbrook (Jake at the Jake). Varitek made the first out on a shallow fly to left, then Coco Crisp grounded into a double play (one of three the Sox hit into against Westbrook). Three Cleveland infielders made spectacular plays on the Crisp grounder.
"That was a pivotal point," said Francona. "After that, it looked like [Westbrook] really got locked in."
Lofton, who played six seasons with Ramírez in Cleveland, put the Tribe ahead with a two-run homer to right in the second. It was the much-traveled Lofton's first postseason homer since 2004, when he hit one off Wakefield while playing for the Yankees against the Red Sox in the ALCS.
"I just wanted to be aggressive at that point and I got lucky," said Lofton. "These guys are starting to understand that you have to have fun with the playoffs. Relish it and enjoy it. I'm able to tell these guys what it takes."
"He has a lot of experience in the postseason," said Cleveland manager Eric Wedge. "For him to go out there and get us going like that, it really got us kick-started."
David Ortiz hurt the Sox cause in the fourth with a base-running blunder. After a leadoff double, Big Papi ran into a ground ball hit by Ramírez. By rule, Ortiz was automatically out, and Westbrook retired the next two batters to keep Boston scoreless through four.
"He had such a big lead and he took a jab step toward third and he was in no-man's land," said Francona.
The Sox' fifth was particularly anemic, three feeble ground outs. It was hard to believe Boston hit .382 against Westbrook in 2007.
The Indians knocked out Matsuzaka with two runs in the fifth. Asdrubal Cabrera drove in the third run with a single to center, and Travis Hafner's grounder to second scored Grady Sizemore from third for the fourth run. When Victor Martinez hit a two-out single on Matsuzaka's 101st pitch, Francona decided he had seen enough and Mike Timlin was summoned.
A legend in his homeland for his clutch work in the Koshien high school tournament, the Olympics, and the World Baseball Classic, Matsuzaka has struggled in Major League Baseball's October tournament.
Westbrook, who was pummeled by the Yankees in the Division Series, lost his shutout in the seventh when Varitek homered to center after a single by J.D. Drew.
Fifteen of Westbrook's 20 outs game came via ground balls.
"You always know you have a good chance to get a good game out of Jake when he's putting the ball on the ground," said Wedge. "We needed it."
The Indians planned on getting to the World Series on the strength of 19-game winners C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona. Westbrook was far better than either ace.
Tonight's Cleveland starter, veteran Paul Byrd, is another righthanded pitcher who gets little respect. Hub maitre d's might remember him from his stay in Boston during the 1999 All-Star Game. Byrd was an All-Star with the Phillies that year and though it was nearly impossible to make dinner reservations during that busy time, the crafty moundsman enjoyed stunning success by requesting tables under the name of his father: Larry Byrd.
If the Sox lose to Larry Byrd's son, they'll be down, 3-1, with Sabathia and Carmona on deck. It's a long way from the good times that never seemed so good at Fenway Park in the fifth inning Saturday night.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at email@example.com.