It was the sixth inning, the teams still mired in a scoreless tie that didn't look very promising for the offense. Jon Lester was dominating. Roy Halladay was dominating. And DeMarlo Hale knew what was going to happen. He told manager Terry Francona, "It's going to come down to sending somebody."
So it did. Though neither side would have predicted that, bruised knee and all, it would be David Ortiz coming around from second to score in the ninth on Kevin Youkilis's single to center field, aided when Vernon Wells bobbled the ball. It was a long time coming, the sole run of the 1-0 Red Sox win coming after 21 straight scoreless innings for Boston.
"I said, 'Go ahead and send him,' " Francona said, of his conversation with the third base coach. "The way Halladay was pitching, take your shot with [one chance], because that might be all we had."
It was. Ortiz stood at second base, only the second Red Sox to make it that far against Halladay, who was on the way to his fourth straight complete game. And the team only got that far because of a spectacular sprawling play by Dustin Pedroia in the top of the ninth, one that left him with a left shoulder that popped out of its socket, one that almost took off Jonathan Papelbon's head, and one that sent the Sox to the bottom of the frame with the game still scoreless.
That was what led to Ortiz's walk, Manny Ramírez's single to center, and Youkilis's winning single to center, all coming with two outs and leaving a very happy crowd of 37,215 exiting just a mere 2 hours 18 minutes after the game began. But all that excitement in the ninth - four men on base between the teams - shouldn't detract from what led up to it. For those who dig the long ball, it wasn't exactly the most thrilling. For those who love pitching, well, that was another story.
"Good thing," Francona said, when asked if last night's version of Lester was the one they had been waiting to see. "Because that was the Halladay we weren't waiting to see."
It wasn't, however, all-that-expected. Though Halladay entered the game following two losses, the former Cy Young award winner is one of the most impressive pitchers in the majors. Lester, on the other hand, has struggled because of inconsistencies, which left him vacillating between quality starts and early exits, pitch counts too high, walk counts too high.
Not last night.
With a greater reliance on his changeup early in the game, Lester was able to befuddle the Blue Jays into pounding his pitches into the ground, helped by throwing first-pitch strikes to 16 of 27 batters. Halladay, though, was doing much of the same. Thirty-one of the 53 outs in the game came on the ground, with another 14 coming via strikeout. That left just eight in the air, with the Red Sox outfield taking care of a single out (a fly ball by Lyle Overbay, caught by right fielder Brandon Moss).
Despite admitting after the game that he suffered through some self-doubt earlier in the season, Lester showed no fear on the mound. He especially took the advice of the coaching staff, picking up his tempo and keeping the Blue Jays off balance, enabling him to get all those groundouts, in addition to six strikeouts.
"It really allows him to slow some bats down, to take advantage with his four-seamer and cutter in on righthanders," pitching coach John Farrell said of Lester's use of the changeup. "Again I think his ability to not only change speeds but throw his fastball to both sides of the plate are things that he's worked on relentlessly, we've preached to him about.
"I don't want to make it just as simple as the old adage, 'Work quick, change speeds, and throw strikes,' but in the end that's what ultimately happens."
That's exactly what Lester did. And though he had four walks in his eight innings of one-hit ball, Lester didn't allow them to affect him. He got double plays after walks twice, and stranded the other two (both of which came with two outs). So he was good. But he had to be good.
Against Halladay, there wasn't a large margin for error.
"The same thing as always," Pedroia said about why Halladay was so difficult. "He throws a sinker, cutter, curveball. He throws everything, and every pitch is great. That's why he's one of the best. That's why he throws a complete game every time he goes out. He pounds the strike zone with really great stuff. I think everybody loves playing, but when you see him on the mound, you're like, 'We've got to find a way to score one or two.' "
That was what the Sox did. Despite not having scored since the fifth inning of Saturday night's game against the Rays (and before that, not since the sixth inning of Friday's game), the offense mustered just enough to end the team's five-game losing streak and to avoid being shut out again, even as it extended its streak without an extra-base hit to 33 innings.
Even so, that run was enough behind Lester and Jonathan Papelbon (1-0). Enough to win. And, at the same time, watch another flash of dominance in the progression of a young pitcher.
"My changeup's coming along," Lester said. "Everything's coming along good. Seems like every time I go out there, I take strides in the right direction."