Marlins reel in streaking Sox
Willis silences offense; defense sets standard of excellence
MIAMI -- Jason Johnson parachuted in midway through the longest Red Sox winning streak in nearly 11 years, and until last night his only on-field obligation was to take a place in the nightly conga line of high fives celebrating each win.
The Sox ratcheted up Johnson's responsibilities here, calling upon him to pitch in a spot that has already passed through several other sets of hands, among them Lenny DiNardo, David Pauley, and Kyle Snyder. The results were not encouraging. Johnson ran through the entire Florida batting order in the first inning and was down, 5-0, by the time he'd recorded five outs in a 5-2 loss to the Marlins, the rambunctious kids who ended the Sox winning streak at 12 in Dolphin Stadium before a crowd of 32,194 saturated with Sox fans.
Was the streak too much to expect any newcomer to shoulder?
``There's a lot of pressure here to win, anyway," said Johnson, who hit two batters and walked another in a three-run first inning and threw a wild pitch that brought a run home in a two-run second.
He'd come from Cleveland advertised as a sinkerballer, but last night he left his two-seamers too high above sea level, forcing him to throw an assortment of curves and splitters that were no more effective.
``I definitely wanted to go out there and win, for the team and for myself," he said, ``and it's unfortunate that I got ahead of myself there the first two innings."
Also expiring last night was the Sox' 12-game winning streak against National League teams, though the Sox did set a major league record by extending their streak of errorless games to 17. That line drive that flew over the head of an immobile Manny Ramírez in the first inning? That went in the books as a Mike Jacobs double, the only extra-base hit allowed by Johnson but damaging in the first degree.
``He took one step in, and that was one step too many," Sox manager Terry Francona said of Ramírez, who was dealing with football stadium lights when he broke the wrong way on Jacobs's liner, which knocked in former Sox prospect Hanley Ramirez for the first run and set up the next two.
The Sox had entertained some hope that simply soaking up the atmosphere might have some benefit for a guy whose winning percentage of .367 (55-95) is the worst of any pitcher in the last 30 years who has thrown at least 1,000 innings. The one other pitcher who had exactly the same record was another one-time itinerant Sox pitcher, Matt Young, who called it a career when he hit those numbers.
``I've talked to him quite a bit," Curt Schilling, king of the Sox positive thinkers, had said the night before. ``He shouldn't have the record he has, not with that stuff. He's the kind of guy hitters come back and say, `This guy's filthy.' They don't want to face him.
``But he hasn't been a consistent winner yet. So, he's got to make some adjustments, and he will, so I'm excited about that."
Johnson didn't take long to taper that excitement. After giving up two more runs on three singles, one run coming home on a wild pitch, Johnson was gone after four, manager Terry Francona lifting him for a pinch hitter to start the fifth.
The Marlins, whose $15 million payroll wouldn't cover Manny money for one summer, have blown up two World Series winners in the last nine years (1997 and 2003), shipping two alumni from the Class of 2003 -- Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell -- to Boston in their last fire sale. Another alum, Alex Gonzalez, arrived via free agency.
But somehow, they're making it work.
Behind Dontrelle Willis, the lefthander who is the ace of the Florida staff and has been the subject of more trade speculation than some of John W. Henry's hedge funds, the Marlins, who on May 22 were 11-31, have gone 24-10 since under first-year manager Joe Girardi, the old Yankee catcher. As of this morning, they are in second place in the National League East, ahead of the Phillies, Braves, and Nationals, teams that this season are a combined 1-11 against the Sox.
Interleague pushovers? Not these Marlins, who began the night as just one of three NL teams -- the Rockies and Giants are the others -- with a winning record against the AL.
``I think it's two things," Lowell said of the unexpected surge by the Marlins. ``[General Manager] Larry Beinfest has to be complimented on the job he's done because it's tough. I've got to believe that when you start unloading everyone, you're kind of with your hands behind your back, and you've got to pick and choose some prospects.
``He's done a great job, and I've got to believe that Joe Girardi has had a very good influence with the staff he's put around him. I played with Joe a little time when I got called up [to the Yankees], and he was like a manager when he was playing. I know he was running sprints and stuff in spring training, because that's the type of guy he is.
``It is impressive, it makes you think the turnaround isn't too far away for that organization. It starts with pitching, and I think they have some good young pitching."
That begins with Willis, still only 24. He held the Sox scoreless until Ramírez's two-run single in the sixth, one of three hits by Ramírez in a lineup that produced just eight hits, all singles. The best ball hit all night by the Sox was probably David Ortiz's drive off Marlins closer Joe Borowski that died on the warning track in right to end the game, Ortiz serving only as a pinch hitter on this DH-less night.
Willis was generous to the Sox only in his praise of his former mates Lowell and Gonzalez, who both elicited warm ovations to which they responded with raised helmets.
``I was really happy for [Lowell]," Willis said. ``I stepped off [the mound] for Gonzo as well. Great guys, great ballplayers. They're the reason why I am the player I am today. I have a lot of respect for them. They got a couple of hits off me, so I'll be expecting that check to my house soon."