THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

Finally, coast is clear

Sore Man-knee

David Ortiz is on his way back while Manny is out of the lineup with a sore knee.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / July 24, 2008

SEATTLE - Yankees tomorrow. At Fenway. The return of David Ortiz. Maybe the return of Manny Ramírez. Joba Chamberlain and Josh Beckett throwing darts.

Get there early. This could be the beginning of the pennant race in the American League East.

"A Big Bash At Boston Against the Bronx Bombers," said Mike Lowell, who hit the game-breaking two-run single in yesterday's 12-inning, 6-3, coast-wrap victory over the moribund Mariners.

The Yankees haven't been at Fenway since bygone days when the Bruins were playing the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Steinbrenner AC comes to town riding a six-game winning streak, trailing the Sox by a mere two games in the loss column. The inconvenient Rays remain in first place in the AL East, which makes our annual Hub-Apple joust more urgent than usual: one of these traditional titans might not make the playoffs. It's even possible both could be rudely bounced from the tournament. The humanity!

Yesterday's/last night's series/trip finale at Safeco enabled the Sox to return with a 3-3 West Coast record. The victory furnished hope that the Sox may have found a stretch-run reliever in Justin Masterson, but also planted seeds of doubt regarding the immediate and long-term future of Ramírez.

Let's start with the good news: Making the first big league relief appearance of his life, Masterson was sensational. He inherited a first-and-second, one-out situation in the sixth inning of a 3-3 game and promptly whiffed two batters on seven pitches. He followed that with two perfect innings.

Eight up, eight down. Not bad for a 23-year-old rookie who was recalled from Pawtucket Sunday.

"That's the guy we were hoping we'd see," said Terry Francona. "We're not going to jump up and down during the game for the future, but that was exciting."

The manager continues to say he believes in his bullpen. Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen, and even Craig Hansen enjoyed scoreless outings yesterday, but none have stepped up to provide the bridge to Jonathan Papelbon. Sox fans are trained to cover their eyes in the seventh and eighth innings.

Masterson is going to be a stud starter someday soon, but for the balance of 2008 he might be the answer in the bullpen.

"I just want to come in and make sure no one else scores," said the kid righty. "It was so much fun. I'm happy to have a chance to help out the team. I just want to be part of it. However I'm used, I just want to get guys out when I'm put in there."

In contrast, we have Mr. Manny, who said nothing of the kind yesterday.

Concluding a trip that was wacky even by his own lofty/loony standards, Manny surprised his manager by announcing his knee was too sore to allow him to play. Historically, Francona has been a better cover-up man than John Dean or Jeb Stuart Magruder. Not this time. There was no transparent attempt to talk about giving Manny a day off after a night game, or a day off before a day off. No. This time the manager hung his slugger out to dry. He said he had no inkling that anything was wrong with Manny. It caught him by surprise.

After the game, which saw Coco Crisp bat while Manny sat in a crucial situation in the 11th, Francona said Manny was not available for pinch-hitting duties.

Who knew? Who knew Manny had a bad knee? Ramírez has an 11-game hitting streak in which he is batting .487 (19 for 39). Now he says he's day to day with a bum knee.

Maybe it's true. But it's tough to swallow, given past patterns and recent oddities.

Manny started the six-day odyssey with his ill-timed contract talk and charge of ownership mistreatment (comments that drew a rebuke from John Henry). Then came the carnival act on the pop fly he turned into a triple Friday night in Anaheim. Manny had a good laugh on that one while Theo Epstein sat behind the backstop with steam coming out of his ears.

Next was Manny's strange stepping-out routine against Jon Garland, then the jaywalking episode in Seattle (a totally harmless transgression that comes under the "it's always something with Manny" umbrella). Now, suddenly, there's a knee issue and Manny couldn't pinch hit on a day the club really needed him.

Ortiz is coming back tomorrow night, which can only be a great lift for the Red Sox. But the Manny situation is confusing and combustible.

It's hard to forget two years ago when Manny was scalding the ball, then shut it down at the end of the five-game Yankee sweep at Fenway.

The Yankees are back. They are back in the race and they are back at Fenway. Big Papi is back, too. Justin Masterson? He may be just getting started.

Manny?

Who knows? He might hit a couple of homers tomorrow night, he might go inside the Wall for some text-messaging, or maybe he'll be putting on the Ritz with Enrique Wilson. Only Manny knows for sure.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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