Relieved and exhilarated -- but mostly relieved -- Jonathan Papelbon punctuated his postgame fist pump with a pointed finger at Mike Lowell. And then a hug. Because, even if he hadn't hit a first-inning grand slam in an eventual 11-9 win over the Orioles yesterday, Lowell seemed to deserve the praise just for making the final out of the 3-hour-41-minute game and preserving Papelbon's save.
``No. 31's been a tough one for me to get," said Papelbon, who had blown two save chances since earning No. 30 Aug. 4. ``I'll cherish this one tonight, for sure.
``I'm sitting there battling and battling. My first reaction was, `He picked me up.' That's what they're out there for and that's what they've been doing all year long and that's what they're great at. For me it was a relief. That's a huge play [by Lowell]. A huge play. If he doesn't make that play, that's probably a tie ballgame, maybe they go ahead."
The Orioles had the bases loaded for much of the ninth inning as they tried their darndest to prevent a demoralizing three-game sweep. Because even though Papelbon didn't give up a hit in his two-thirds of an inning, two walks and an error by the normally steady Alex Cora at shortstop provided two runs and a chance for another major late-inning meltdown by the Sox.
But Lowell took care of that, grabbing Melvin Mora's grounder and winging it across the diamond for the final out.
He took care of more, too, his home run over the Green Monster acting as a steppingstone to another offensive outburst (28 runs in three games at Fenway after 26 in six road games) that helped the Sox cut their deficit in the American League East to one game.
``Losing this game was . . .," said manager Terry Francona, trailing off. ``We needed to stay away from that."
Simply, they needed to win these games. Having dropped five of six to the Devil Rays and Royals, the Sox needed to gain even a modicum of momentum before the Tigers and Yankees come calling. And they did that, using impressive offensive production to offset a shaky outing by Jon Lester, even without a resting David Ortiz or a hit by the streaking Manny Ramírez, whose afternoon ended with an 0 for 3 on the stat sheet. Kevin Youkilis ended the eighth with a ground out, leaving Ramírez in the on-deck circle.
With Lester laboring through a 25-pitch, one-run first inning, his teammates picked him up in the bottom of the inning with a Mark Loretta walk, Youkilis double, and Ramírez walk, setting the stage for Lowell's grand slam.
But Lester (5 innings, 9 hits, 4 runs) couldn't hold the lead. Continuing his spate of early-inning troubles -- and rising pitch counts -- the rookie couldn't end the second inning before his 61st pitch was thrown and the Orioles had tied the game at 4-4, including a two-run home run by Corey Patterson that the wind carried past Gabe Kapler's outstretched glove and into the Baltimore bullpen.
``After the first couple innings, you're hoping he goes five," said Francona. ``That pitch count was soaring quickly.
``You can't forget this kid is learning right in the middle of a pennant race, and, thankfully, he keeps his poise and he competes. I think when he left the game today he was real frustrated. He wants to go deeper. He knows that that will help us. At the same time, I reminded him after the fifth, `It will come.' "
The Sox scored three runs in the fourth (three hits, two walks, and a wild pitch) and held a 7-4 lead after five. But their relievers continued their less-than-stellar pitching, beginning with Kyle Snyder, who allowed solo home runs to Kevin Millar and Brian Roberts in the sixth.
Youkilis's three-run blast to the black sheeting in center field gave the hosts some temporary breathing room in the seventh before the Orioles scratched out another run in the eighth on Mora's single off Craig Hansen (the run was charged to Manny Delcarmen, who has pulled after issuing back-to-back two-out walks). The see-saw continued with Doug Mirabelli drilling a solo shot to dead center in the eighth before the Orioles answered with another run off Hansen in the ninth. Enter Papelbon, who finally nailed down the win after walking Roberts with the bases loaded.
``It's that game where you try to take the series and nothing's going to come easy for you," Papelbon said. ``To win a series, to sweep a series like we did, nothing's going to come easy. And obviously nothing came easy for us, throughout the entire ballgame."
That goes for his outing. That goes for Lester's.
``It's just a grind right now for some reason," said Lester, who picked up his first win since his 1-0 gem against the Royals July 18. ``Just a click away. I have quick innings every now and again. It makes you see what I'm close to.
``Any time you have to turn it over to the bullpen in the fifth inning, it's tough on them. They did a great job today picking me up. Offense, too. Mikey at the end of the game, saving the game right there. That's the bullpen's game right there. They picked me up, kept the team in the ballgame. That's their win."
Most of all, though, it is a win. Something that the Red Sox will need to see in more abundance this week to keep pace with the cream of the American League. In order to keep thinking about October.
``We desperately needed to win those three games," Francona said. ``That gives us a fighting chance."