Roaring and soaring
Red Sox head to mountains with a 2-0 Series lead
He endeared himself to New England last spring when he modestly let it be known he was willing to be a "hero in the dark."
But last night, in the brightest lights that baseball can offer, the shadows fell away forever for Hideki Okajima.
The 31-year-old reliever spawned concerns last month that he might not make it to the finish line of a season as demanding as any he had ever pitched. Those fears proved unfounded last night in Game 2 of the 103d World Series, as Okajima retired all seven batters he faced, striking out four in Boston's 2-1 win over the Colorado Rockies.
Okajima, the first Japanese pitcher to appear in a World Series game, not only served as the bridge between starting pitcher Curt Schilling, a winner for the 11th time in his postseason career, and closer Jonathan Papelbon, he also laid what may be an unshakable foundation for what may be Boston's second World Series title in four seasons.
Fifty teams have taken a two-games-to-none lead in the World Series. Thirty-nine have gone on to win the championship, including each of the last six seasons.
The Sox won their sixth straight Series game and fifth straight of this postseason with one never-before-seen wrinkle. Pa pelbon, who had not picked off a runner since he broke into the big leagues in 2006, nabbed Matt Holliday straying off first base to close out the eighth inning. Holliday had nearly taken out both Papelbon and second baseman Dustin Pedroia with a line single up the middle, his fourth hit of the night. The ball appeared to glance off Papelbon's leg and caused Pedroia, who gloved the ball with a sprawling spot, to writhe in pain after he landed heavily on the left shoulder he'd dislocated already once this postseason.
At the plate was Todd Helton, the signature player in Rockies history. But he never saw a pitch in the eighth, as Papelbon whirled and picked off Holliday.
"Probably will go down as one of the biggest outs of my career," Papelbon said.
It was not happenstance. Holliday was intending to steal - he confirmed so after the game - and the Sox had a strong suspicion he was going.
They knew that the Rockies were scouting them in the Division Series against the Angels, when Howie Kendrick stole second and third unchallenged against Papelbon in the eighth inning of a tie game.
"If you were advancing us, you would have said the same thing, that Pap is 1.8 [seconds] to the plate, and he doesn't pick," Mills said. "But it was a different situation in the game against the Angels. We didn't care if he stole, because we had confidence in Paps getting the hitter and we didn't want to take anything away from him to try to get the runner on that situation.
"We know they're advancing us, they're watching it. That night I was talking to Pap in the shower about that exact thing, and about what was to come. [Bullpen coach] Gary Tuck was talking to him about it, [pitching coach] John Farrell talked to him about it, about different things we were going to do."
When manager Terry Francona went out with trainer Paul Lessard to check on Pedroia, Mills noticed that Glenallen Hill, the Rockies' first base coach, never stopped talking to Holliday. Mills also had a color-coded chart he keeps on every player, that showed that Holliday likes to steal on the first pitch with two outs. "It was right there in my pocket," Mills said.
Indeed, it was right there on the chart, multiple steal attempts Holliday had made on the first pitch with two outs.
"You put all those things together, and it comes up, 'Hey, we're going to pick once to see where he's at, and then we're going to slide-step.'
"And, we were watching. I got a big lump in my throat because he kept inching, inching, inching off, and Pap did a great job of holding the ball, letting him get off there. And then I'm sitting there, with a lump in my throat, hoping he doesn't throw [it] away."
Papelbon made the play, Mills said. "He made the great pick."
But while it was nowhere as dramatic as Kirk Gibson knowing that Dennis Eckersley was going to throw a backdoor slider on a full count before Gibson hit one of the greatest home runs in Series history, it was a stunning example of how inside knowledge and paying extraordinary attention to detail can turn a Series.
"There are a lot of times we don't want him to throw over," Mills said. "But in this situation with Helton and [Garrett] Atkins coming up, we couldn't afford it, and it just happened to work out."
The Sox, who had raked 17 hits, nine for extra bases, in routing the Rockies in Game 1, managed just six hits last night. But their lone extra-base hit, a double by Mike Lowell, broke a 1-1 tie in the fifth and scored David Ortiz with the run that stood up as the difference.
Rockies starter Ubaldo Jimenez, meanwhile, has been in the big leagues three months, called up from Triple A Colorado July 19 despite a 5.85 ERA. The son of a retired bus driver in San Cristobal, Dominican Republic, Jimenez came up channeling his hero, Pedro Martínez, throwing a fastball that touched 100 miles per hour while mixing in a biting slider. Despite spotting Schilling 17 years in age (23 to 40), Jimenez was given a fair to middling chance of restoring some dignity to the Rockies' visit.
Jimenez initially made good on the Rockies' hope meter, requiring just six pitches to set down the Sox in order in the first after his teammates grabbed a 1-0 lead in the top of the inning when Willy Taveras was grazed in the hand by a pitch, sped to third when Holliday's smash was knocked down by third baseman Lowell but rolled into short left field, and scored when Helton rolled to first.
The Sox did not have a hit until the fourth.
It was the first time since the end of Game 4 in the American League Championship Series that the Sox found themselves on the short end of the score, having bludgeoned the Indians (three games) and Rockies (one) by a combined 43-6, the kind of spread Broncos fans could appreciate.
In the fourth, Jimenez, who had hit J.D. Drew in the right ankle with a pitch in the second and walked two batters in the third, walked Lowell with one out. Drew followed by lining a single to right, Lowell advancing to third and Drew moving to second when right fielder Hawpe, showing little respect for Lowell's ambulatory skills, attempted to get him at third. Jason Varitek brought Lowell home with a sacrifice fly to center, Drew moving up another base, and Jacoby Ellsbury drew another walk.
Jimenez survived to start another inning when Julio Lugo, after scorching a ball down the third base line inches foul, grounded to first.
But with two out and nobody on in the fifth, Jimenez issued his fifth walk, to Ortiz. Manny Ramírez grounded a single through the left side, and Lowell doubled over the head of third baseman Atkins, scoring Ortiz to make it 2-1.
For the second straight game, Rockies manager Clint 0Hurdle had to go to his bullpen in the fifth. He brought in lefthander Jeremy Affeldt, who lasted just one batter as he walked Drew to load the bases. In came Matt Herges, who retired Varitek on a fly ball to end the inning.
Herges gave up a leadoff single to Ellsbury in the sixth. Lugo bunted him to second, and Ellsbury took third on an infield out by Pedroia. When Kevin Youkilis walked, Boston's seventh of the night, Hurdle summoned lefty Brian Fuentes to face Ortiz. Big Papi flied to left, and the Sox had stranded 10 runners in six innings.
Schilling, meanwhile, allowed just four singles before he was lifted in the sixth after Holliday lined a one-out hit to left and Helton walked. Francona, with the benefit of a well-rested bullpen, brought in Okajima earlier than normal, and Okajima responded, retiring Atkins on a tapper to first and striking out Hawpe on three pitches.
Gordon Edes can be reached at email@example.com.