Result aside, it was smashing entertainment
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Just about one month ago, Terry Francona ran out of pitchers in the 14th inning of a game with the Tampa Bay Rays and had no choice but to summon Mike Timlin.
You know what happened. Carlos Peña hit a three-run homer to win the game.
Last night, Terry Francona found himself in the 11th inning of a playoff game with the Tampa Bay Rays and he had two pitching options - Paul Byrd, a career starter, or Mike Timlin, a career reliever trying desperately to hang on as a major league pitcher at the age of 42. He chose Timlin.
The veteran righthander didn't give up a three-run homer, but he couldn't get the job done. He walked two men unintentionally and one intentionally and he gave up a sacrifice fly to B.J. Upton. The Rays won, 9-8. Those are the facts.
A further fact is the Rays saved face and avoided a 2-0 hole. They're very happy.
The Red Sox come out of here with a split. They lost a tough game, but as tough a game as it was to lose, they accomplished a very real objective. The next three are at Fenway and Jon Lester is ready.
The fans got their money's worth, with baseballs flying all over The Trop and the home team driving 2007 postseason darling Josh Beckett from the mound in less than five innings.
It started out as a complete assault on the starting pitchers. The Red Sox outhomered the Rays, 4-3, with Dustin Pedroia evoking memories of such diminutive sluggers as Joe Morgan and Jimmy "Toy Cannon" Wynn by slamming two. But the Rays were relentless, coming back from deficits of 2-0, 3-2, and 6-5. They chased a battered Beckett with three runs in the fifth after the Red Sox had hit three homers in their half - the first two off Scott Kazmir and the third off Grant Balfour - with the centerpiece blow being a run-scoring double into the left corner by heralded rookie third baseman Evan Longoria, who went homer, double, double in his three at-bats against Beckett.
Of course, by the time this 5-hour-27-minute game was over, the 34,904 in attendance could have been forgiven for thinking those seven home runs had taken place in an earlier lifetime. After all the bashing of baseballs, the game evolved into the kind of tense, situational, one-mistake-can-make-the-difference game that has characterized so many of the meetings between these clubs this season.
The Red Sox had chances to win. They stranded 13, including two in the top of the 11th when 23-year-old gem of the organization David Price, making the second postseason appearance of his career (it was Timlin's 45th), got out of a two-on, one-out jam by striking out Mark Kotsay and getting Coco Crisp on a grounder to third.
You've got to love that juxtaposition. W-Price, age 23. L-Timlin, age 42.
Now the scary part of the Big Picture for the skippers in question was the shoddy performance of the starting pitchers. Beckett soiled his postseason résumé with a brutal performance in which he could not get through the fifth inning after giving up eight earned runs and nine hits, three of which were home runs by Longoria, Upton, and Cliff Floyd. And they were all certified bombs. Three times he was given a lead and three times he gave it back.
Kazmir was no better. The lefty staggered a bit down the stretch, followed by a spotty performance in Game 2 of the Rays' Divisional Series with the White Sox. But among his September starts was a forgettable outing against the Red Sox, who hammered him for nine earned runs in three innings back on Sept. 15. Joe Maddon was looking for something resembling the old Kazmir in this start. He did not get it. Kazmir, like Beckett, could not get out of the fifth. He walked three and he gave up six hits, two of them doubles and three home runs by Pedroia (2) and Kevin Youkilis.
Here is Kazmir's spiffy work against the Red Sox in his last two starts, both at The Trop:
IP H R ER HR BB K 7 1/3 12 14 14 7 7 4
But we can't stop there. This was not a night for starting pitching, period. How about a look at the combined stats from last night's starters?
IP H R ER 2B HR BB K 8 2/3 15 13 13 5 6 4 7
Which brings me to Beckett's 2008 postseason numbers:
IP H R ER 2B HR BB K 9 1/3 18 12 12 4 5 5 11
Well, he has struck out 11.
What does all this mean?
For the Rays, it means a 24-year-old pitcher who has been a two-time All-Star and who was your beacon on the mound since coming here from the Mets four years ago is officially a mystery, at least as far as these playoffs are concerned. Alone among the Tampa Bay rotation pitchers, he has gone backward. It means the Red Sox welcome another look at a guy who was once regarded as a Red Sox nemesis. There is no way Maddon can send him back to face the Red Sox in Fenway Park with any degree of confidence. Maddon has a suitable alternative in Edwin Jackson, and he might have to consider it (consultant fee gratis, by the way).
For the Red Sox, it means there is concern over their presumptive ace, who has had two playoff starts, one bad and one unspeakably horrible. We might as well resign ourselves to the notion that we will never find out if the much-discussed oblique injury has anything to do with anything. Absent any direct evidence that it does, we are left to judge Beckett strictly by results. Therefore, with what degree of confidence do you look forward to his next start? What he did in 2007 was phenomenal and what he's doing now is, well, let's just say it's not very encouraging.
Meanwhile, what a fascinating two nights of baseball, huh?
Watching these games on successive evenings brought to mind the ancient tale of the six blind Hindu men and the elephant. Suppose the only baseball game you've ever seen was Friday night's 2-0 pitcher-dominated affair. Ah, but suppose the only baseball game your friend has ever seen was this Saturday Night Adventure Theater Special, with seven home runs and supposedly excellent starting pitchers being knocked around, and lead changes and wild pitches bringing in tying runs and God-knows-what-else happening for eight innings, and then something completely different taking place the rest of the evening. Neither one of you would believe what the other one was telling you about this strange sport.
It's pretty cool when you think about it. Aren't we all interested to see what tomorrow will bring?
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.