It began in agonizing fashion as Jon Lester stumbled through an excruciating first two innings (60 pitches and four runs) and it ended with Jonathan Papelbon laboring through an excruciating 31 pitches before he could record the two outs needed to nail down an 11-9 victory.
I believe we call this a pennant race.
``The last thing I wanted to do was use [Mike] Timlin," said Terry Francona. ``The next-to-last thing I wanted to do was use Papelbon. We would have loved to go into that series [against the Tigers today] with everybody fresh, but losing this game, we were trying to stay away from that."
This isn't basketball. It takes an entire team to win a pennant and a World Series. Some games are easy. Some require lots of heavy lifting. This one was one of the latter. It did not all go according to plan.
And so tonight Josh Beckett has a dual mandate. He must pitch well enough to beat the Detroit Tigers, and he must go at least seven innings in doing so, preferably eight. That's just the way it's fallen.
It took 3 hours 41 minutes and 198 pitches, but the Red Sox got the job done yesterday. They did it on a day when the skipper elected to give David Ortiz a holiday, and they did it with Alex Cora replacing Alex Gonzalez at shortstop. Everything was going fine in that regard until the ninth, when, with one out and the bases loaded, Kevin Millar hit a dream double play grounder to short. Except that it wasn't. The normally sure-handed Cora did not come up with the ball. A run scored to make it 11-8 and the real fun was about to begin.
Papelbon finally got his save, but not before he walked home the ninth run or before Melvin Mora tormented him with a nine-pitch at-bat with two outs and the bases still loaded. After fouling off a pair of 3-2 pitches, Mora smashed one down the third base line. It had bases-clearing double written all over it, but the third baseman happened to be Mike Lowell, who deftly backhanded the ball and threw out Mora by a half-step to end the game.
It was a W. The Yankees' loss to the Angels had been posted on the scoreboard back in the seventh. The entire Red Sox dugout had it in full view for a good hour and a half. They knew how important it was to find a way to win this game.
No doubt many of the 35,744 in attendance were mightily bummed out when they learned Big Papi had been given the day off. You have to feel for the folks driving in from distant ports of call, hoping to see Mr. Ortiz lose one or two, and if, they were really lucky, see him come up with yet another walk off hit. But these matters are always caveat emptor, and they were forced to settle for some other happenings. Such as . . .
And then there was Lester.
Please, Jon, tell us it isn't always going to be like this. Your manager won't make it to Labor Day if you keep this up.
It was what we have now come to understand as classic Lester. In five roller coaster innings, the rookie lefthander gave up nine hits and four runs while throwing 102 pitches, 60 in the first two innings. He departed having thrown three consecutive scoreless innings and looking like a pretty good pitcher. But, oh, that start.
``After that first couple of innings," acknowledged Francona, ``you're hoping he goes five. That pitch count was soaring."
``The biggest thing," said Lester, ``is that I'm trying to get into a flow, a rhythm. It's easier to do that as the game goes on because you know what you have to work with. You can take what you want from the bullpen, but you don't know what's going to be going on in the game. It's tough sometimes in the first inning."
``You can't forget this kid is learning in the middle of a pennant race, and, thankfully, he keeps his poise and competes," pointed out Francona. ``He wants to go deeper. He knows that will help us. He is trying. He is just doing it right in the middle of a pennant race."
How much of a crisis is this pitch-count business? It's pretty bad. If you throw out the one truly outstanding start, the eight-inning, one-hit outing against Kansas City that demonstrated there really is something good here, Lester is averaging 188 pitches per nine innings in his other 12 starts. Yesterday's start was the seventh time this season he has thrown more than 100 pitches in fewer than seven innings.
That can't continue, can it? But with continual run support and, as Francona said, the fact acknowledging the fact that he does compete, he has managed to go 6-2. And every one of those wins is welcome.
To borrow a phrase, the Red Sox attitude is simply, ``Just Win, Baby." After laying that Brontosaurus egg on the road, the Red Sox had to make the most of this home stand.
``We desperately needed to win these three games," sighed Francona.
Welcome to August. Welcome to the pennant race.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.