When Daisuke Matsuzaka was first asked at his introductory news conference in December what he knew about the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, he likened it to something with which he was familiar: the Hanshin Tigers vs. the Yomiuri Giants.
Just a guess from this side of the pond, but it's doubtful Japan ever has witnessed the likes of Matsuzaka's baptism into baseball's version of Athens-Sparta last night before a packed house of 36,905 in Fenway Park.
Never in the 106 previous seasons of Boston Baseball had anyone seen a night like this, one in which the Sox hit four consecutive home runs in the third inning of a 7-6 win that completed an audacious three-game sweep of the Bombers, who were last seen here trampling the Sox in five straight games last August. It was the first time the Sox swept a series of at least two games against the Yankees at Fenway Park since 1990.
"I don't know, I never played in Japan," said reliever Brendan Donnelly, who got a couple of big outs in the eighth. "But I think, after watching these three games, if he's downplaying the rivalry, he might want to rethink it.
"Everybody knows it's a big thing. The media make it big -- it is big. It's legitimately the best rivalry in baseball and maybe in all of sports."
The Sox took the rivalry to a previously unknown dimension last night. Trailing, 3-0 -- a familiar theme in a series in which the Sox were behind by at least two runs in all three games -- the Sox hit four consecutive home runs off a Yankee rookie, lefthander Chase Wright, whose next appearance might come not a mound, but on a couch provided by the American Psychiatric Association.
"The game today was unbelievable," said Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis, who was hoarse from a throat ailment even before this one began. "The four home runs were ridiculous."
There were two outs and no one on when Manny Ramírez hit one just to the left of the Volvo sign in left-center field. J.D. Drew followed by hitting a home run over the Sox' bullpen in right-center. Home run No. 3 came from Mike Lowell, who nearly clipped the Coke bottles with a prodigious blast onto Lansdowne Street, and Jason Varitek gave the Sox a piece of history when he lined a home run into the Monster seats, the Sox the fifth team in major league history to hit four in a row.
"Man, that was fun to watch," Donnelly said. "I'll guarantee you none of us in this room has ever seen it. I feel for the pitcher a little bit. Just a little bit, because he's on the other side."
How's this for ridiculous: Donnelly was wrong about one thing. Drew also homered the last time this happened, Sept. 18, 2006 in Los Angeles, when the Dodgers hit four in a row with two outs in the bottom of the ninth against San Diego to tie a game that Nomar Garciaparra won with a home run in the 10th.
"What are the odds, the chance of being part of this twice," Drew said. "I was the second guy in both of 'em. I told Coco [Crisp] after Lowell hit his that we were one away from Los Angeles, and it happened."
Even Matsuzaka was swept up in the home run frenzy. "I was having a hard time keeping my cool," he said.
But that was merely the most spectacular sequence in a game that ended with Jonathan Papelbon facing Alex Rodriguez with the tying run on first, and retiring the hottest player in baseball on a bouncer to third. Was that the only way for the series to end?
"I would have liked it to have been Papelbon-Abreu and been done with it, don't give that guy a chance to swing the bat," said Drew. "But yeah, Papelbon definitely has one of those arms that's special. If you want to say poetic ending, yeah it worked out, because that's what made that ninth inning so electric, they were only down one run, anything can happen. But Papelbon seems to be in control of what he wants to do out there."
In a game overloaded with drama, there also was this:
Matsuzaka plunked the Yankees' two biggest superstars, Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, taking off his cap and bowing in apology -- a custom in Japan -- after drilling A-Rod. Oddly, there was no apology to Jeter, who squared matters by leading off the fifth with a tying home run off the Japanese righthander.
Matsuzaka was in danger of losing for the third time in four decisions until the Sox scored three times in the bottom of the seventh, erasing a 5-4 deficit on a three-run home run by Lowell. The third baseman connected off Yankees reliever Scott Proctor after a single by Ramírez and double by Drew.
Rookie second baseman Dustin Pedroia, restored to the starting lineup after being benched because of a 1-for-28 slump, made the defensive play of the game, stabbing a wicked liner by pinch hitter Josh Phelps with two on and two out in the eighth. The Yankees had drawn to within a run when A-Rod, who had struck out twice against Matsuzaka, knocked him out of the game with a leadoff single, keeping alive his streak of hitting safely in all 17 Yankee games this season. Matsuzaka, charged with six runs, left with an earned run average of 4.00.
Hideki Okajima, who had played such a decisive role in the first two wins this weekend, was summoned to bail out his countryman, and had the crowd roaring when he retired Yankee strongman Jason Giambi on a pop fly. But Robinson Cano dumped a single just in front of center fielder Crisp, who'd just entered as a defensive replacement, and Jorge Posada, pinch hitting despite a sore left thumb, drew a full-count walk to load the bases. In came Brendan Donnelly, who retired Melky Cabrera on a run-scoring fielder's choice before Pedroia dove to his right to catch Phelps's knee-high liner.
Andy Pettitte, the Yankees' starter Friday night, made a rare relief appearance -- just the 10th of his career but second this season -- pitching a scoreless sixth inning. Phelps, who had pinch hit for catcher Wil Nieves, wound up behind the plate for the first time in six seasons.
And, in the end, there was Papelbon.
He induced Johnny Damon to line to left and struck out Jeter on a 96-mile-per-hour fastball before falling behind Abreu, 2 and 0, with A-Rod on deck. After a called strike, Papelbon missed outside. Abreu fouled off a 95-m.p.h. fastball to the left, making the count full, then Papelbon missed high and inside for ball four.
"Somehow it always comes down to me," A-Rod had said earlier this season, and once again, it did,
Papelbon started him off with a splitter that A-Rod waved at. Then came the 95-m.p.h. fastball, A-Rod popping it foul to the right.
One more pitch: A 96-m.p.h. fastball that Rodriguez hit on a couple of bounces to Lowell, who flipped to second for the force, Papelbon pumping his fist again and again.