Sox in gear from start to finish
Clement quiets Blue Jays, then Papelbon shuts the door
A great many people are looking to catch Blue Jay Lyle Overbays fourth-inning popup, but its Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek who makes the grab along the wall near the Boston dugout. (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)
With one out in the top of the ninth, one runner aboard, and the Red Sox ahead, 7-4, last night, a 7-1 lead dissolving in the hands of Rudy Seanez and Julian Tavarez, the 36,396 at Fenway Park began to chant. Their roll call was for ''Pa-pel-bon," but, when rhythmically blended together, it sounded like ''Let's go home." And, really, either statement would have been pleading for the same thing: a quick conclusion.
Sox manager Terry Francona, in mind if not in voice, was right there with the Fenway fandom. He hopped out of the dugout and called upon the 25-year-old righthander, who a night earlier gave up a decisive ninth-inning run, the first run he'd allowed in 25 1/3 innings spanning 7 1/2 months. Papelbon jogged in to be greeted, appropriately, by the man who got to him a night earlier, Russ Adams. The Sox closer blew a fastball by Adams for the second out. Frank Catalanotto singled. Papelbon went to 0 and 2 on Vernon Wells, who entered the game hitting .406 against the Sox this season, and induced him to bounce weakly to the mound. Ballgame.
''I really respect Tito for getting me the ball today and letting me go back out there and prove myself," Papelbon said after saving his 11th game in as many chances and pruning his ERA to 0.53. ''Tonight I was able to locate my pitches a lot better. I wasn't leaving balls over the plate like I was [Wednesday] night."
His was one of two excellent pitching performances on the night, the other turned in by Matt Clement. Clement, who on April 13 fell to 0-3 with a 9.45 ERA against the Jays in his career, beat them last night for the second consecutive time. He allowed two hits over six innings, the fewest hits he has allowed since he was a Cub more than two years ago (April 25, 2004).
''The season is a constant adjustment without changing everything you do," Clement said. ''It's hard to know why in the past they've hit me well. You go on to your next start, remember what you did, and hopefully it will help me against them in the future."
It helped that his opponent was Josh Towers, who began the night with some staggering numbers: 0-5 with a 10.45 ERA. Opposing batters were hitting .388 off him with a .450 on-base percentage and .643 slugging percentage. The Sox, who have played Toronto eight times, are 3-0 in games started by Towers and 0-5 against the rest of Toronto's staff.
Bombed for seven runs in 2 1/3 innings in his previous start, Towers allowed the Sox to bat around in the first and score five runs, including four with two outs. Mark Loretta -- who was just 2 for his last 24 before last night -- collected two hits in four at-bats, including a one-out double to left that began things in the inning.
Towers fell behind David Ortiz, 3 and 0, then walked him intentionally. Manny Ramírez walked, loading the bases for Trot Nixon, who grounded into a fielder's choice, scoring Loretta but erasing Ramírez. With two outs, Jason Varitek ripped a 1-and-1 slider off the base of the wall in right, plating Ortiz for a 2-0 lead.
Up came Mike Lowell, who suddenly has become one of baseball's hottest hitters. He shot a Towers offering just inside the third base bag for a two-run double and a 4-0 lead. Lowell would double again, in the sixth. In his last 14 games he's hitting .393 (22 for 56) to improve to a team-leading .333 (33 for 99) overall.
''You can see him as each day progresses his confidence is growing," Francona said. ''His bat is coming through the zone with a little more authority, a little more crispness."
Wily Mo Peña then stung a searing single to left, a hit heard as much as seen, for a 5-0 lead.
Clement, in his best appearance of 2006, worked six clean innings, allowing only one run on two hits. Through five innings he'd allowed one hit (Bengie Molina's broken-bat single in the second inning) and no runs. He recorded two quick outs to begin the sixth before walking Troy Glaus and surrendering a stinging run-scoring double to Lyle Overbay, pulling Toronto within 5-1. Then Shea Hillenbrand worked a 1-and-2 count to 3 and 2 before Clement finished him swinging, and not well, on a slider, his 105th pitch in six innings.
''They work counts very, very well and they're dangerous hitters," Francona said.
Kevin Youkilis tacked on a two-run blast over the Monster seats in the sixth for a 7-1 lead.
Seanez, though, made it interesting. In to pitch the eighth with a six-run lead, he allowed a one-out double to Wells, who has reached base in all 27 games in which he's played. Glaus then unloaded on a 94-mile-per-hour fastball, launching it to the right of the light tower in left-center.
Seanez, in a month of spring training and a month-plus of the season, is pitching like the pitcher who appeared in nine games for the Sox in 2003 (8 2/3 innings, 6 earned runs) more than the pitcher who went 7-1 with a 2.69 ERA for San Diego last season.
Seanez, this spring training: 12 innings, 14 hits, 9 earned runs, 5 home runs, 7 walks, 6 strikeouts, 6.75 ERA.
Seanez, this season: 10 1/3 innings, 14 hits, 11 earned runs, 4 HRs, 6 BBs, 15 K's, 9.58 ERA.
Why isn't he locating?
''If I had that answer, he wouldn't have trouble," Francona said. ''We're just trying desperately to get a clean inning out of him because I don't think any of us think he's far away from being a real solid contributor to that bullpen."
Tavarez began the ninth, got a quick out, then gave up Eric Hinske's first homer of 2006, pulling Toronto within 7-4. Francona allowed him one more batter, the No. 9 hitter, Aaron Hill, who singled, before going to Papelbon.
He got Adams. He allowed the Catalanotto single, bringing the tying run to the plate in Wells. Papelbon, on 0 and 1, stumbled in his delivery. That brought Francona to the mound for a convocation of players, coaches, and trainers.
''I went to deliver the pitch and my back foot got stuck in the rubber," Papelbon said. ''I went to release and the ball had come out of my hand and my back leg wasn't able to come over and release. It got stuck and it just kind of grabbed my lower back. It wasn't but a little temporary thing. I should be fine."
He and Francona, though, had a serious discussion before Papelbon was allowed to continue.
''I wanted him to reassure me that he was not only OK physically but able to execute a pitch and not be thinking about his back," Francona said.
Papelbon evidently provided the right answer.
''When I told him the pain was starting to dissipate in my lower back, I said I was going to be able to go," Papelbon said.
And he did, getting Wells, on a soft grounder, to end it.