Red Sox roar into AL title series
9th-inning fireworks sink Angels, 3-2, set up showdown with Rays
Bring on the Rays. Bring on the Dodgers or Phillies if you like. There is plenty of champagne left in New England and Mayor Menino has sent the duck boats to have their tires rotated.
Rookie shortstop Jed Lowrie pushed the Red Sox into the American League Championship Series with a walkoff RBI single to right field off Angels reliever Scot Shields in the bottom of the ninth at frosty Fenway late last night.
The Sox had their bags packed for a 3,000-mile overnight flight to Orange County and a potential elimination game tomorrow night in Anaheim, Calif., but they rallied to beat the Angels, 3-2, after the Halos ran themselves out of an opportunity in the top of the ninth. The Sox open the ALCS against the Tampa Bay Rays Friday night at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"[Sunday] night Scot Shields struck me out on three straight curveballs, so in the back of my mind, I was thinking curveball," said Lowrie. "He left one up in the zone enough for me to find a hole. I never really lost my confidence. That's kind of the game of baseball."
Last night's win was yet another demonstration of how the Red Sox have changed their October modus operandi. This was the type of game the Sox always lost. Now it's a game the Sox always win. When it comes to Red Sox history, there's the Curse Universe, pre-2004. And there's everything since.
A crucial part of this new world order, lefty Jon Lester has emerged as Boston's playoff stopper for 2008. He smothered the Angels twice in a week, allowing zero earned runs over 14 innings, which makes him a worthy successor to Josh Beckett (2007), Curt Schilling (2004), Pedro Martínez (1999), and Bruce Hurst (1986). On the heels of his Game 1 victory last week, he blanked the Halos on four hits over seven innings before Hideki Okajima took over in the unfortunate eighth.
The Angels scored a pair primarily because of a cross-up between 23-year-old rookie righty Justin Masterson and captain catcher Jason Varitek. In the old days, the Sox would have folded. No more. Now it's the other guys who cave.
The Angels blew it in the top of the ninth when manager Mike Scioscia called for a suicide squeeze with Reggie Willits on third and Erick Aybar at the plate. Aybar couldn't get his bat on Manny Delcarmen's 2-and-0 pitch and Willits was a dead man running. Varitek ran Willits back to the bag, tagged him, and tumbled over the base.
"Erick's a pretty good bunter and he feels bad he didn't get it down," said Scioscia. "It was a buntable ball. I thought it was going to be a pitch Erick could handle. It didn't work out."
The evening started off on a down note for Red Sox Nation when it was learned that Mike Lowell (hip injury) had been replaced on the ALDS roster by infielder Gil Velazquez. A consummate professional and clutch performer, Lowell was World Series MVP when the Sox smoked the Rockies in four games last fall. But it was increasingly clear that Lowell's condition was deteriorating. He is ineligible for the ALCS and is expected to undergo surgery in the offseason.
The Sox felt good about their chances with Lester on the mound. Coming into the game, Boston had won each of the last 14 Fenway starts made by the young lefty. The last time they lost a Lester start at home was April 23 - against the Angels. Lester was 11-1 in 17 starts at Fenway this year, including a no-hitter against the Royals.
This was an organization win, through and through. The Sox are getting it done with a perfect combination of old warhorses and young talent cultivated by Theo Epstein and his baseball operations staff. Manager Terry Francona took note when he observed heroes Lowrie and Lester fielding questions in the postgame interview room.
"I was looking and thinking, 'Boy, they're young,' " said the field boss. "Not in a bad way. We've brought some kids up and they have done such a phenomenal job of competing. I think our organization should be proud. I'm the one who gets to stand here on nights like this and talk, but I hope we do this as an organization, because it's an exciting time for the Red Sox."
An exciting time for the Red Sox.
The celebration continued past the midnight hour, as players and team executives toasted one another and took photos with their children on the infield while fans lingered by the dugout. It was still going at 12:24 this morning when the ballpark organist broke into "The Impossible Dream." The Fenway lawn and home clubhouse should be dry by the time the ALCS comes to Boston.
"It's going to be fun," said Lester. "We've had some good battles with them all year. Hopefully we can go down there and steal a win or two wins and get some momentum on our side and come back home."
They will be home for Game 3 Monday afternoon.
That's right, Monday afternoon. A day game at Fenway will be a relief for the tired eyes of Red Sox Nation after four exhausting late nights against the Angels.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.