The Red Sox were hanging en masse on the dugout railing in the seventh inning last night. For an instant, when their returning slugger, David Ortiz, launched a drive toward the right-field seats with the bases loaded, it appeared they would be rewarded for their rubbernecking.
"The way things have been going, you expect a big rally," said Alex Cora, who hit one of three consecutive singles off Indians starter Paul Byrd to begin the seventh, bringing Ortiz to the plate as the potential tying run. "We were 10 feet away from a tie ballgame."
But the ball hooked foul, just as Ortiz, knowing he was in front of a changeup, suspected it would. Ortiz lined out softly to third on the next pitch from Cleveland reliever Aaron Fultz, and there would be no salvaging Daisuke Matsuzaka's roughest outing on this side of the Big Pond, an 8-4 defeat to the Indians that ended the Sox' winning streak at five.
"I felt good at the plate," said Ortiz, back after a three-game absence because of barking hamstrings and, he said last night, sore quadriceps, too. "The days off helped me a lot. I felt a lot better. I think I was more excited about that than anything else. I was seeing the ball good. I wasn't jumping or doing anything crazy. He made good pitches."
The Indians had 18 hits, a dozen off Matsuzaka, who gave up six runs in 5 2/3 innings. Four of those hits came from Kelly Shoppach, the discarded Sox catching prospect, and former Sox right fielder Trot Nixon, who received three straight nights of standing ovations, doubled to start the decisive four-run rally in the sixth, when the Indians broke a 2-2 tie.
The Sox nonetheless took two of three from the American League's highest-scoring team this month, and ended May with a 20-8 record. It was their first 20-win month in three years (August 2004) and only their third 20-win month in the last eight seasons.
They have tonight off, then resume play tomorrow against the New York Yankees, who will begin June tied for last place in the AL East, 13 1/2 games behind the Sox.
"We're playing them again?" Ortiz said. "Why can't we be playing Tampa, or one of those guys?
"You've got to do what you've got to do with the schedule. Just got to play your game and get them out of the way. We're playing good. We just lost a game tonight."
Matsuzaka hadn't lost in six weeks (2-1 in Toronto April 17) and was coming off a Texas-sized bellyache last Friday night in Arlington, where he was seen suffering from dry heaves while lasting just five innings. Still, Matsuzaka talked like a man who had bailed out on the Good Ship Francona, while the Sox manager suggested his problems were nothing that a more consistent fastball couldn't fix.
"I'm trying to improve my game overall, and it is a challenge," said Matsuzaka through translator Masa Hoshino. "I'm always keeping in mind that I want to avoid being a burden to my teammates. I hope I can achieve that level of consistency sooner than later."
Matsuzaka pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the first, when Nixon grounded into a double play. He also survived Ryan Garko's leadoff double in the fourth, striking out Nixon and Jhonny Peralta before Coco Crisp ran down David Dellucci's drive to the deepest part of center field.
But Matsuzaka's game of dodge ball ended in the fifth, when Shoppach singled and Grady Sizemore doubled with one out and the Sox leading, 2-0. With the infield playing back, Casey Blake's grounder to shortstop brought home a run, and Travis Hafner's double to left tied the score.
Nixon's double down the right-field line commenced Cleveland's winning rally. Dellucci doubled off the Monster to make it 3-2, Josh Barfield followed with a single to make it 4-2, and after Barfield was cut down by Manny Ramírez when he made too wide a turn at second on Shoppach's base hit, Sizemore homered into the visitors' bullpen to make it 6-2.
Sizemore had struck out six times and was 0 for 9 in the series until his double and home run.
"We're still learning, to be honest with you," Sox catcher Jason Varitek said of last night's collaboration with Matsuzaka.
"Outside of the two runs he gave up -- Barfield, you can't do much about that, and then we just left a split up to Hafner and he did a good job of driving it to left-center. The big one was the two-run home run by Grady, on a slider, middle third. It put things a little further out of reach.
"I'm just trying to get a feel for him and his pitches, what we can get the most quality out of at different times. I still think it comes down to when he locates his fastball both sides, up and down, in and out, we can effectively work his other pitches."
The Sox, meanwhile, were held in check by journeyman Paul Byrd, a 36-year-old control artist enjoying a renaissance (6-1) in the autumn of his career. Byrd, who started once against the Sox last season and gave up home runs to Ramírez, Wily Mo Peña, and Ortiz, avoided the long ball last night. He also negated the Sox' stratagem of wearing down the opposition starter by throwing first-pitch strikes to 25 of 27 batters.
"I looked up at one point and I think he had close to 80 percent strikes," Francona said of Byrd, who threw 77 pitches, 61 for strikes, before departing, and has now gone 43 consecutive innings without issuing a walk.
Byrd was done when the Sox loaded the bases on singles by Varitek, Cora, and Dustin Pedroia (10-game hitting streak) to start the seventh. Tom Mastny entered and retired Crisp, whose popup was caught on the top of the dugout steps by third baseman Blake. Crisp went 0 for 12 against his former team.
To the plate came Boston's hottest hitter, Kevin Youkilis, who had singled in the third inning to extend his hitting streak to 22 games. But Youkilis was unable to hold up his swing on a second-strike slider, then went down swinging on a fastball that may have been just outside the zone. Indians manager Eric Wedge brought in the lefthanded Fultz to face Ortiz, who succumbed after a nine-pitch at-bat.
Shoppach greeted Sox reliever J.C. Romero with a home run, his second of the season, on the first pitch of the eighth. Sizemore walked, stole second, and scored on Hafner's double to make it 8-2. In his last five innings, Romero has walked nine batters and allowed six hits. Control problems have plagued him throughout his career.
"He's not giving up on himself," Francona said, "so we won't give up on him."
Mike Lowell, who has hit in 22 consecutive games at home, hit his 10th home run with a runner aboard to make it 8-4 in the eighth.
"We don't set our minds to sweep people," Cora said. "We set our minds on winning series. You win series, the standings take care of themselves."
Bring on the Bombers -- again.
Gordon Edes can be reached at email@example.com.