Red Sox survive Royal uprising
Offense offsets balky bullpen
Nothing has come easy for the Red Sox this homestand, an assumed 10-game favor from the schedule makers when it began. They pushed the limits of that notion last night. The Sox spotted themselves a nine-run lead after four innings. Then they managed to make beating the Kansas City Royals a challenge.
By the time Jason Bay squeezed the final out, squinting through rain drops and fighting a stiff wind, the Sox had salvaged a 15-9 victory over the Royals that took nearly four hours. A welcome offensive onslaught, one figured at the game’s midway point, meant the Sox could finally relax. But the bullpen nearly reproduced step-by-step its collapse in Baltimore on the final night of June, and the Sox preserved John Smoltz’s first win only after Daniel Bard eviscerated Kansas City’s final threat.
The nervousness that pervaded 37,825 fans at Fenway Park after the Royals scored five runs in the sixth inning dissipated once the Sox tacked on three runs in the seventh and three more in the eighth. After the smoke cleared and the Sox could breathe deep, they had plenty to enjoy. This homestand may yet have a happy ending.
“We haven’t played our best, and here we are with a decent record,’’ Bay said. “It hasn’t been easy a lot of games, but we’re still winning them.’’
Focus on that if you want to enjoy your morning coffee. Don’t think about the moment last night when Bard trotted in from the bullpen, the go-ahead run at the plate with no outs in the seventh.
Manager Terry Francona had called upon Bard not per strategy, but desperation. “That wasn’t necessarily the way we wanted to line it up,’’ Francona said. The first relievers he tried - Justin Masterson, Manny Delcarmen, and Hideki Okajima - squandered most of a 9-1 lead.
Okajima allowed a home run to Jose Guillen to begin the seventh, making it 9-7. He was gone after two singles followed. Bard started Miguel Olivo with a slider, an indication of how comfortable he feels with his offspeed pitch. He still has that high-90s heat, too. Bard struck out Olivo and Brayan Pena. David DeJesus bounced to first, ending the inning and continuing Bard’s remarkable run.
Bard, who now has 20 games under his belt, had retired 22 consecutive batters and had not allowed a base runner in 6 1/3 innings.
The Sox tacked on three runs to the ragged scoreboard in the seventh, allowing Bard breathing room for the eighth. He surrendered two runs, both unearned, on a double and a sacrifice fly. His work calmed the stadium and earned him admiration.
“I think the last five outings have been as good as anybody can be,’’ Smoltz said. “What he did today to a couple batters was really unfair. All they could do was walk back to the dugout and say I got beat on three great pitches.’’
How did it come down to Bard, anyway? The Sox had scored in each of the first four innings, home runs by Kevin Youkilis, Jason Varitek (his 13th, tying his total from last year), and David Ortiz (whose laser to right represented his 1,000th hit with the team) providing the brunt of the damage. Smoltz had cruised through five innings, allowing four hits and striking out seven.
And then Masterson entered. He struck out Mark Teahen to lead off the sixth, and the rest of his night went like this: single, home run, walk, single, single. The home run, by Mike Jacobs, traveled some 430 feet.
Francona called on Delcarmen, who walked DeJesus to load the bases. J.D. Drew salvaged the inning with a once-in-a-season defensive play. With the bases loaded, Ryan Freel lined a pitch to right. Drew charged and swiped at the ball like a hockey goalie making a sweeping glove save. Olivo, unsure if the ball would be caught, bolted from third when it bounced. Drew hopped and fired. Varitek stretched like a first baseman at the plate, catching Drew’s missile for the second out, a 9-2 force play.
“Not too many of those,’’ Drew said. “Unbelievable we threw him out. That was the crazy thing.’’
Given a chance for a reprieve, Delcarmen squandered it. Billy Butler rolled a two-run single up the middle, reducing the Sox lead to 9-6. Francona summoned Okajima, who momentarily ended the madness by striking out Mark Teahen looking.
The Sox made things comfortable by the end, the game sealed by Youkilis’s solo home run to lead off the eighth, his second of the night. Youkilis broke out of a 4-for-35 rut by going 3 for 4 with two homers, a walk, four runs, and four RBIs.
“I don’t think we need to talk about it every day if I don’t hit .400,’’ Youkilis said. “Just go out there and play the game every day. If people are looking for me to win games and go out and bat .400, it’s not going to happen. We’ve got to win, and that’s all that counts.’’
This homestand, against the Mariners, A’s, and Royals, was thought to be means for adding cushion to their first-place lead. Then the Sox bats slumped, their bullpen proved mortal, and their bodies ached. They entered last night even after eight games.
In the end, after all the drama, the night ended well for the Sox. At worst, they will avoid their first multiple-series losing homestand this year. At worst, they will enter the All-Star break in first place, ahead of the Yankees by one game. And because Josh Beckett is starting today, any at-worst scenario is unlikely.