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Ortiz was set up for another signature moment -- and he delivered

Posted by David D'Onofrio  October 14, 2013 08:00 AM

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It never really got up into the night, needing just 3.9 seconds to cover the 387 feet between the barrel of the bat and the glove of bullpen catcher Mani Martinez, but even if it was more a line drive than a moonshot it was every bit as majestic as most anything he'd launched before it -- and thus it'll be the moment that Red Sox fans remember forever, especially if this series and this season end as they hope it does.

It was another signature moment in the storied career of David Ortiz, whose legend began late in a Sunday night American League Championship Series game, and who added to it again almost nine years later by anticipating Joaquin Benoit would go off-speed before viciously ripping it into the Red Sox' bullpen beyond right field. The third grand slam in the club's postseason history tied Game 2 of this year's ALCS at 5-all in the eighth inning, and effectively set the stage for Jarrod Saltalamacchia to even the best-of-seven series by knocking home Jonny Gomes in the ninth.

The designated hitter took a curtain call when the bedlam he brought to Fenway was still shaking the building minutes after the blast -- and deservedly so. But there's no grand slam if things don't fall perfectly into place before Ortiz spits on his gloves and steps into the box.

And thanks to his teammates, and the Tigers, they did just that.

A case could be made that the first piece of the puzzle that was completed with Ortiz pointing skyward and enjoying hugs near home plate was actually put into place back five days earlier, when Manager Jim Leyland brought starter Max Scherzer out of the bullpen with the Tigers facing elimination in Game 4 of their AL Division Series against the Athletics.

Scherzer worked only two innings during his second relief appearance in five years, though they required 47 pitches -- and all but four of them were under high-leverage stress. He entered in a tie game, but let Oakland take the lead within three batters in the seventh inning, then he loaded the bases before getting an out in the eighth.

It clearly didn't effect his ability to get ready for his next start, as he kept the Red Sox without a hit or a run until the sixth inning and struck out a season-high 13 hitters. Two of those punchouts came in the seventh, when he retired the side in order.

But before the eighth, Leyland and Scherzer both agreed that his night was over. "He was spent," the manager said afterward, although the righty still appeared to be in command of the game, and he had only thrown 108 pitches to that point. He's thrown more than that in 15 starts this season.

But, then, none of those had been preceded by a relief appearance. So Leyland was compelled to entrust a four-run lead to his bullpen.

And that's when the Red Sox found life for the first time in the series. Scherzer had essentially replicated what Anibal Sanchez did the night before, though the difference between Games 1 and 2 boiled down to how much more effective Detroit's bullpen was on the first night than the second, when Leyland tried to piece together six outs by playing the matchups -- but might've instead overcomplicated matters, considering he was working with a four-run lead, yet didn't allow any of his five relievers throw more than nine pitches.

His first move was to Jose Veras, who retired leadoff man Stephen Drew on a grounder to shortstop, then allowed Will Middlebrooks to rip a hit into the left field corner. When the Sox' third baseman hustled into second ahead of the throw, he stood there with a one-out double.

Next up was Jacoby Ellsbury, a left-handed hitter. Veras is a right-handed pitcher, but he'd thrown only three pitches to that point, lefties had batted only .233 against him during the regular season, and due next for Boston were righties Shane Victorino and Dustin Pedroia. Veras had struck out both of them a night earlier.

Ellsbury was 1-for-3 against Veras in his career, though he'd struck him out twice, and lifetime Ellsbury was 1-for-3 against Drew Smyly, too -- but Leyland nonetheless made the call to the best southpaw in his bullpen.

When he did, the manager had to be figuring of all the possible outcomes the best would be a strikeout and the worst would be that Ellsbury at least had to earn his way on. Smyly whiffed 81 batters in 76 innings this season, and walked only three between June 28 and the start of the playoffs.

But after getting to a 1-and-2 count against the Sox' center fielder, he missed the zone with his next three pitches. Ellsbury got a free pass to first. Smyly got the hook. And Al Alburquerque got his opportunity with one out and two aboard.

This one made the most sense for Leyland. Albeit in a limited sample, Alburquerque hadn't allowed a hit to either Victorino or Pedroia in his brief career, and his performance a night earlier had prompted his manager to say his stuff was as good as it had ever been.

That all still held true as Alburquerque struck out Victorino after a six-pitch battle -- though it didn't last through Pedroia's trip to the plate. Alburquerque threw a first-pitch strike, though all season the right-hander has been made to pay when not following that up with another quality offering. Opponents hit .480 against him this season when putting the ball in play on an 0-and-1 count. And so Pedroia just continued the trend when he smacked a single to right.

Had it been under different circumstances, perhaps typically aggressive third-base coach Brian Butterfield would've waved Middlebrooks around third in an effort to score with two outs. However, doing so would've not only risked killing the rally by making an out at the plate, but if Ellsbury and Pedroia had scooted up a base on the throw home, Detroit almost certainly would've walked Ortiz with first base open. Although it would've put the tying run aboard, Leyland would've likely taken his chances against Mike Carp or Mike Napoli, given how much the former struggles Sunday and the latter has had problems since the start of the postseason.

By holding Middlebrooks, Butterfield ensured Ortiz would get his opportunity to hit. The only question was who he'd hit against. Boston's DH had reached all three times he'd faced Alburquerque, so the incumbent wasn't a realistic option, but Leyland had two relievers primed and ready in his bullpen.

He'd set himself up for a choice between Benoit, the right-handed closer who is tough on lefties (they hit .188 against him this season), and who Ortiz had never homered against in 26 career plate appearances; and Phil Coke, the lefty who was left off the Tigers' ALDS roster, but re-added in time for this series in part because Ortiz had managed only two hits in the 18 times they'd faced off.

If Coke isn't to be used situationally in this spot, or against Ellsbury (1-for-11 lifetime) in that spot earlier in the inning, it's hard to see why he's on the roster at all. Yet, as Leyland emerged from his dugout, he tapped his right arm to summon Benoit.

One pitch -- and 3.9 seconds -- later, that looked like the wrong decision. Ortiz got his arms extended, got the head of the bat into the lower third of the strike zone, and crushed the ball on a line. When it landed, each of the four relievers Leyland had used was charged with one of the runs. The Red Sox had suddenly swung the momentum of this series in their favor.

And Ortiz had another moment that'll be mentioned on the day they hang his "34" among the rest of the retired numbers above right field -- this one made possible by his team's trademark resiliency and typical of his own dramatic relentlessness.

"This is a fighting group. We're not going to get down on ourselves. We're going to keep battling," catcher David Ross said. "No one thing sparked it; it was guys grinding out at-bats. Will Middlebrooks started it off with a basehit, running hard into second. Pedey had a great at-bat. Ellsbury with a great walk against the tough lefty that he faced. Victorino even threw a good at-bat on the righty. That's a collective group putting together a bunch of good at-bats."

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Dave D'Onofrio is a sports journalist who focuses on the Red Sox and Patriots, and also writes Boston.com's "Off The Field" blog about what Boston's sportsmen do away from the More »

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