Earlier in the day, Jacoby Ellsbury became the first Red Sox player in history to hit 30 home runs and steal at least 30 bases. That was a significant feat, but it was lost in yet another September loss for the Sox that sent them to 5-18 during the month and saw their wild card lead over Tampa Bay trimmed to a half-game.
Ellsbury’s most monumental hit on Sunday was delivered in the bottom of the 14th inning in Game Two. The center fielder belted a three-run home run off right-hander Scott Proctor to catapult Boston to a 7-4 victory, sealed by a clean inning of work by left-hander Felix Doubront.
Not only did Ellsbury’s home run give the Sox a lift heading into their season-ending three-game series at Baltimore. If Boston holds on and reaches the playoffs, that home run could be the deciding factor in the American League Most Valuable Player vote.
Regardless of whether Ellsbury wins the AL MVP award, or finishes second or third, he has emerged as the club’s clutch hitter. Sure, Adrian Gonzalez might win the batting title, and the first baseman provides pop in the middle of the order, but he is hitting under .200 against the Yankees and Rays, and he has done little against the top pitchers in the American League.
Not even David Ortiz or Dustin Pedroia have stepped up in key situations this season like Ellsbury. What a difference a year makes. Last season, Ellsbury missed all but 18 games due to a rib injury originally suffered in a collision with third baseman Adrian Beltre. The center fielder’s toughness was publicy questioned, and there was rumors that he would be traded last off-season.
The rumors, of course, were unfounded. Ellsbury returned healthy and not only emerged as the leadoff hitter Boston sorely missed last season, but also became a run producer, a la Rickey Henderson.
It is amazing in baseball how one game can change the feelings about a team. After the first inning in Game Two, when John Lackey served up a two-run double to Mark Teixeira and watched as Teixeira scored when Jason Varitek’s throw to third base sailed into left field, it appeared that the Red Sox would roll over and leave Yankee Stadium at the wrong side of a three-game sweep.
Instead, the Sox chipped away, Lackey settled down and the bullpen responded with eight shutout innings. Lackey – who should have been taken out by Terry Francona after six innings but was permitted to trot out in the seventh and allow a leadoff single to Eric Chavez – delivered a respectable start. He was charged with four runs (three earned) and five hits in 6.0 innings.
Alfredo Aceves started the impressive string of innings by Red Sox relievers when he entered for Lackey in the sixth. Aceves retired all three batters he faced, though he did allow a sacrifice fly that tied the score at 4-4.
Then only shaky arm form the pen last night was Daniel Bard, who dismissed the only batter he faced in the eighth but then encountered trouble in the bottom of the ninth. After walking Teixeira to open the frame, Bard retired the next two batters. He then issued an intentional pass to Jesus Montero and, after falling behind pinch-hitter Jorge Posada, Bard intentionally walked the veteran.
Francona summoned Jonathan Papelbon with the bases loaded and two outs in a 4-4 game in the bottom of the ninth. The closer struck out Austin Romine to send the contest into extra innings.
Papelbon tossed 2.1 hitless innings, striking out four.
Left-hander Franklin Morales was impressive, too. He logged two scoreless frames. In the bottom of the 14th, Doubront retired the side in order.
As the Rays prepare to host the Yankees for a three-game series, Boston is in Baltimore, where Josh Beckett opposes right-hander Tommy Hunter tonight. The Red Sox need a deep outing from Beckett since the bullpen is weary and Papelbon is unavailable. Morales and long man Scott Atchison, who has pitched effectively in September, will not throw tonight either. Atchison tweaked his groin at the end of Game One.
Tonight, the Red Sox need a laugher – the kind of game where the offense lights up Orioles pitching and eases the pressure. Regardless, the Sox need a win, but they are in much better shape because of Ellsbury’s home run than it looked like they would be after Lackey allowed those three first inning runs.