Squeezing out all the drama
A crossed-up catcher got the Angels back into the game. A botched suicide squeeze got them out of it.
And a bang-bang-bang collaboration featuring three players who were not even on the roster when the season began sent the Red Sox into the American League Championship Series before 38,785 frosted but delighted fans at Fenway Park last night.
It was an evening of superb baseball, ending with two innings of the kind of drama that only baseball among all our sports can provide. Sure, you knew Jed Lowrie was going to win it, didn't you?
Lowrie's ground single through the first base/second base hole brought home Jason Bay from second base and made the Red Sox 3-2 victors with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. It was an appropriate climax to a brilliant game that reminded the lucky spectators that when it comes to flat-out, unscripted, never-seen-that-before drama, there is baseball - especially playoff baseball - and there is everything else.
I mean, how great were those gripping final two innings? The Red Sox had it won, lost complete control of it, then won it back against a pitcher who had begun his night's work by striking out three of the first four men he faced.
That pitcher was Scot Shields, not Frankie Rodriguez. Where was K-Rod? He was watching, just like his counterpart, Jonathan Papelbon. Neither manager had the use of his All-Star closer, each of whom had done superb work the night before.
For seven innings the story was Jon Lester. Twice within five days, Angels ace John Lackey had found himself matched up against the 24-year-old Boston lefty, and twice he pitched well enough not to win. The big righty was touched up in only one inning, and even then he wasn't exactly smacked around, the Red Sox scoring the first run on a ground out (Howie Kendrick bobbled it, but it would have been difficult to turn two on Jacoby Ellsbury) and the second when Dustin Pedroia broke an 0-for-15 drought with a double off the Wall to bring home Jason Varitek.
Lackey's problem was that Lester had given the Angels nothing. They made him work to get through the first three innings (54 pitches), but, as usual, he had the right pitch for the occasion, leaving two men stranded in the second, third, and fifth.
The biggest moment had to be a two-on, two-out situation in the fifth, when he got the very dangerous Mark Teixeira looking on a 3-and-2 pitch after throwing a very close 2-and-2 pitch that had him walking off the mound toward the dugout, only to see plate umpire Ed Rapuano signal a ball. Coming back to freeze a great hitter such as Teixeira to get out of the situation tells you all you need to know about the kind of pitcher this young man has become.
"We needed to have Jon Lester give us a strong starting performance," said manager Terry Francona, "and he did that."
His seven innings of work submitted, the pitching job was turned over to Hideki Okajima, who retired the first two men on ground balls to second before walking Teixeira.
This is when the fun began.
With memories of a Sunday night punchout of Vladimir Guerrero in mind, the skipper summoned young Justin Masterson, who quickly ran the count to 0-and-2 against the free-swinging slugger. But Vladdy wouldn't bite on the next four offerings, and now there were two on.
Torii Hunter was up next, and the veteran was having a brutal series in every way. He, too, quickly fell behind, 0-and-2. But he had to be as surprised as anyone when Masterson's next pitch sailed past Jason Varitek for a passed ball. Clearly, there had been serious failure to communicate between the pitcher and catcher, because it was a very catchable ball. Anyway, now there were men on second and third.
Varitek couldn't hold a foul tip on the next pitch, and that's when you knew something bad was going to happen. Hunter poked a single through the hole, and the score was tied at 2-2.
When pinch hitter Kendry Morales led off the Angels ninth with a double off the Wall, and Kendrick sacrificed pinch runner Reggie Willits to third, the Angels were in great shape. Manny Delcarmen was on, and he ran the count to 2-and-0 when manager Mike Scioscia decided to play classic Angels baseball. He ordered a suicide squeeze.
But Erick Aybar missed the pitch. Varitek chased Willits back to third, tagging him with a diving motion. The ball squirted loose, but third base umpire Tim Welke ruled that Varitek had maintained possession long enough. Scioscia quite naturally disagreed, but guess how this one turned out.
That bullet neatly dodged, the Red Sox came to bat in the bottom of the ninth. With one away, Jason Bay blooped one down the right-field line. Willits is very fleet afoot and he made a nice try, but the ball bounced about a foot in front of him as he made a dive for it and it bounded into the stands for a ground-rule double.
Mark Kotsay made an immediate bid for a game-winning hit by belting the next pitch viciously down the right-field line. But Teixeira speared it and now the only thing standing between the Angels and extra innings was Lowrie, who had famously stunk out the joint as a lefthanded hitter all September, but who had a hit earlier in the game off Lackey.
Lowrie didn't fool around. Shields threw one pitch and Lowrie hit it hard enough to get by a diving Kendrick. Willits had no chance to throw out Bay, who probably would select Boston over Pittsburgh as a place to play if you asked him.
You hear the phrase "great kid" a lot, but I am here to tell you Jed Lowrie is a great kid. If you had given me a list of people I'd like to see being mobbed after sending the Red Sox to the ALCS, the name I'd have checked off is Lowrie's.
"[Sunday] night Scot Shields struck me out on three pitches with curveballs," he said. "I had it in the back of my mind 'curveball' and he left it up in the zone and I got the bat on it."
About those September struggles, kid? "I never really lost my confidence," he explained. "That's baseball."
It sure is, and we've got more of it coming our way this year. Lucky us.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.