This, remember, was not an audition, but a response to a flu-driven emergency. The Red Sox needed a pitcher, and Justin Masterson, the 23-year-old missionary kid pitching in Double A Portland, received the summons. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.
Pitching against one of the deepest lineups in the American League, Masterson was inspiring, holding the Angels to two hits in six innings, one of them Mike Napoli's wind-aided home run over the Sox bullpen, a big-league debut even more impressive than the one Clay Buchholz made against the Angels eight months ago. No Sox rookie since Billy Rohr, who threw a one-hitter in 1967, had held a team to two or fewer hits while pitching at least six innings in his debut.
Like Buchholz, who threw a no-hitter in his second start, there is little doubt that Masterson, who was filling in for the ailing Daisuke Matsuzaka, will be back, sooner than later. "He did a tremendous job with his composure throwing strikes," general manager Theo Epstein said. "We're proud of him. We couldn't have asked for more from him today."
But once the afternoon shadows deepened, the day took a dive from the divine, the Sox bullpen giving up six runs in the last three innings in a 7-5 loss that rendered David Ortiz's two-run home run in the ninth just a loud but empty shout for 37,848 in Fenway Park.
"I overheard Javier Lopez talking about how Masterson came in out of the blue and threw six great innings," said Manny Delcarmen. "We wanted to finish it off for him, but it didn't happen today."
Lopez, Delcarmen, and ultimately Hideki Okajima combined to give back the 3-1 lead Masterson left with during a seventh inning in which seven straight Angels reached on four singles and three walks, one intentional. Lopez was first and walked Casey Kotchman and gave up a ground-ball single to Maicer Izturis. Delcarmen, pitching for the first time since being dropped by the flu bug that took root in the Sox clubhouse, threw six straight balls, walking Napoli to load the bases, and giving up an infield hit to Erick Aybar that made it 3-2.
Fully healthy, Delcarmen could have been expected to start the seventh. Terry Francona wasn't sure he was up to the task, and events proved his fears were warranted.
"Warming up I was a tad dizzy," Delcarmen said. "I was hoping to get through it."
Okajima, who was pitching for only the second time since April 15 and had given up a home run to Kotchman in Tuesday's 7-6 win, inherited a nigh-impossible situation: a run in, bases loaded, no outs, and the top of the Angels order coming up.
There would be no miraculous escape. Chone Figgins roped a single to right to tie it, and Gary Matthews Jr. skidded a ground ball up the middle that scored two more.
The Angels would tack on two more late runs. Aybar beat out a bunt single in the eighth that Jed Lowrie couldn't handle cleanly at third, and scored on a double by Matthews off David Aardsma. Garret Anderson scored in the ninth after he singled, stole second, and took third on a passed ball before Izturis's sac fly.
The Sox, with Coco Crisp returning to the lineup for the first time in nine days and driving in two runs with an infield out and an RBI double, took a 3-0 lead against Angels lefthander Joe Saunders, who also went six. But they didn't score again until Ortiz hit his fourth home run and second in two games, this one off Scot Shields in the ninth.
The back-to-back victories gave the Angels, who have been swept by the Sox in the playoffs in each of Boston's last two World Series years, some encouragement that another October rendezvous might have a different outcome.
"We are able to pressure teams in a lot of ways," manager Mike Scioscia said. "We're swinging the bats much closer to what we expected than we did in the playoffs last year . . . When we are playing well, we can play with any team that's out there."
The Sox, who had won the first five games of this homestand after winning the finale of a two-game set in New York, dropped the final two, despite three more hits from Manny Ramírez (.455 over his last dozen games) and another base hit from Dustin Pedroia, who began the day as the American League's leading hitter - before being supplanted by Ramírez - and extended his hitting streak to 13 games, matching the longest in the majors, with a third-inning single. They'll be gone just briefly, for a three-game set against the improved Rays, before returning home next week for six games against the Blue Jays and Rays.
They'll consider it a "W" just to have more healthy bodies for the weekend.
Jason Varitek, for one, said he expects to return this weekend, though with Tim Wakefield pitching tonight, Kevin Cash will be behind the plate for the fifth straight game.
"It was good to get on the field and warm some guys up," said Varitek, his voice still not at full strength. "I haven't done anything in a week. This was the best morning I had. It took all day just to get to walking speed."
Delcarmen, who took the loss after not being involved in a decision in 64 straight appearances dating to Aug. 31, 2006, reminded folks this won't be his last chance at protecting a win for Masterson.
"I'm pretty sure he'll be back," he said, "and we'll be giving the ball to Papelbon with a 2-1 lead."
Gordon Edes can be reached at email@example.com.