Ramírez's replacement turns tide
ANAHEIM, Calif. - Manny is here even when he's not here.
His image was here on the giant videoboard, showing him hitting a homer in Chicago.
His agent was here in his luxury box behind home plate, making phone calls and counting future millions.
And his replacement was here, hitting a game-winning home run for the Red Sox in the opener of their best-of-five American League Division Series against the Angels.
Jason Bay's sixth-inning, two-out, two-run blast off Angels ace John Lackey powered the Sox to a 4-1 victory last night/this morning. Jon Lester smothered the Halos on six hits over seven innings as the Sox beat Los Angeles for the 10th consecutive time in postseason play dating to 1986. The game ended at 1:21 a.m. Boston time.
"Everybody was wondering how I'd do in my first playoff game," said Bay. "I had nothing to compare it to. It's baseball again and I couldn't have picked a better first game, I guess."
No one expects Bay to be Manny Ramírez. A mild-mannered Canadian who toiled in anonymity in Pittsburgh, Bay hit .293 with nine homers and 37 RBIs in 49 games for the Red Sox after the blockbuster deal that sent Manny to SoCal. Bay didn't invent any injuries or duck inside the Wall to relieve himself. He hardly said a word. He was just Jason being Jason.
Meanwhile, Manny Mania gripped LA and much of the nation. In 53 games with the Dodgers, Manny hit .396 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs. The goofy slugger is considered a legitimate National League MVP candidate (though Ryan Howard will win) even though he played only two months with Los Angeles. Manny continued his dominance with a homer in the Dodgers' shocking NLDS Game 1 win over the Cubs last night.
Southern California is in the midst of a baseball renaissance, and the Angels graciously allowed fans to keep track of the Dodgers-Cubs game while the Sox and Angels were warming up for their late start. Bay was on the field with his teammates when Manny interrupted the action. There was a gasp in the half-empty park when the big board showed Manny crushing a pitch that almost bounced on home plate. A few fans in Red Sox garb booed while Manny rounded the bases.
It was hard not to watch.
"Mike Lowell said, 'Geez, did you see the pitch he hit?' " said Bay. "Obviously, he's one of the best postseason players of all time. Regardless of where he's at, we enjoy watching him."
Meanwhile, Scott Boras, Manny's agent - believed by some to be the evil force who urged Manny to shoot his way out of Boston - smiled at the sight of Manny being Manny in the playoffs. Ca-ching.
Bay was having something of a rough night when thunder struck in the sixth inning. He chased a lot of breaking stuff and struck out feebly in his first two at-bats against Lackey. He was caught playing a little too deep (by the dock of the Bay) when Torii Hunter dumped an RBI single to left in the third.
Then he came up and put a perfect swing on an 0-and-1 pitch (a fastball cookie), and Boston's 1-0 deficit turned into a 2-1 lead.
"Lackey was throwing some really good breaking balls," said Sox manager Terry Francona. "He tried to get a fastball by Jason. Fortunately for us, he didn't."
"I'd never faced Lackey before," said Bay. "In the third at-bat, I felt like I got into a little better rhythm. I was seeing the ball. He left a fastball up and I hit it."
Bay added a two-out double off Scot Shields in the eighth. Not a bad start for the new guy. The 30-year-old Canadian never played a postseason game before last night. Now he's a career .500 hitter in the playoffs.
Bay's big night probably settled the stomach of Theo Epstein, the man who shipped Manny out of town. Theo traded the wildly popular Nomar Garciaparra at the midsummer deadline in 2004 and the Red Sox went on to win the World Series. Will he be able to turn the same trick after trading Manny?
The Sox went 34-19 after dumping Ramírez this year, but a lot of wise guys predicted postseason doom. Conventional wisdom holds that the Sox don't have enough punch. David Ortiz misses Manny. There's no longer a big 1-2 in the middle of the lineup. Bay last night was slotted in the sixth spot in the order, below J.D. Drew.
But he made his general manager and his manager look good. He beat Lackey and the Angels with one swing of the bat. Pretty good after five years of hardball isolation in Pittsburgh.
The Angels will have an extra day to think about last night's loss. They blew a lead. They let Lester off the hook with dumb at-bats in the early innings. Lackey threw a ridiculous pitch to Bay. Vlad Guerrero was guilty of a horrible base-running blunder in the eighth. When the Red Sox blew it open with a pair in the ninth, Angel Stadium took on the look of Gillette in the fourth quarter when the Dolphins made it 38-13. Mass exodus.
These Angels were swept by the Sox in 2004 and 2007. Now they've seen their best pitcher lose at home and they are getting ready for Daisuke Matsuzaka and Josh Beckett. The Red Sox have outscored the Angels, 23-5, in four playoff games since last October.
The Halos came into this series thinking they had the Sox' number this time. Los Angeles was 8-1 against Boston this year, and there's no Manny Ramírez to torture Mike Scioscia's pitching staff.
It turned out none of it mattered. The Sox still won, this time with Jason Bay playing the part of Manny Ramírez.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.