Sky is the limit
Red Sox head to the 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 Japanese reliever spawned concerns last month that he might not make it to the finish line of a season as demanding as any he had 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 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 (first World Series save), he also laid what may be an unshakeable foundation for what could 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, including and the Sox in '04.
The Sox won their sixth straight Series game and fifth straight of this postseason with one never-before seen wrinkle. Papelbon, 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, who had nearly taken out both Papelbon and second baseman Dustin Pedroia with a line single up the middle that appeared to glance off Papelbon's leg and caused Pedroia to writhe in pain after he landed heavily on the left shoulder he'd dislocated once this postseason, was on board with his fourth hit of the night.
At the plate was Todd Helton, the signature player in Rockies franchise history. But he never saw a pitch, as Papelbon whirled and picked off Holliday.
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.
Sox manager Terry Francona bristles when some ignorant soul calls him "Tony." But that slip of the tongue pales in comparison to the faux pas on a transcript from a media session this week with Rockies manager Clint Hurdle, in which the intent speed typist recording the Q and A somehow heard "Wally Madison" when the question was about "Ubaldo Jimenez."
As if the Rockies' starter in Game 2 didn't have enough reasons to be considered an afterthought in a matchup with Schilling, who was attempting to put a possible coda on a postseason résumé already gilded by a 10-2 record and 2.25 ERA in 18 starts, his winning percentage of .833 the highest in history among pitchers with at least 10 postseason decisions.
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 a Rockies visit that got off to a bad start - star Helton requiring four takes to recite the team's starting lineup for Fox before getting it right - and had been on a downhill slope ever since.
It helped that Jimenez, in the words of Helton earlier this summer, has "as good an arm as I've ever seen since I've been here."
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 Matt Holliday's smash was knocked down by third baseman Mike 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 Brad 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 Garrett Atkins, scoring Ortiz to make it 2-1.
For the second straight game, Hurdle 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, the rookie staying on top of a pitch low and away and hitting it up the middle. Lugo bunted him to second, and Ellsbury took third on an infield out by Dustin Pedroia. When Kevin Youkilis walked, Boston's seventh of the night, Hurdle once again reached for the bullpen phone, this time summoning 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, three by Holliday, 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 Hideki Okajima earlier than normal, and Okajima responded, retiring Atkins on a tapper to first and striking out Hawpe on three pitches, running through his full repertoire: curve, fastball, changeup. Okajima followed that up with another 1-2-3 inning in the seventh, striking out Ryan Spilborghs, the DH who whiffed in his first three at-bats.