Captain deserves a big salute
ST. PETERSBURG , Fla. - Well, isn't that what you've been saying all year? You know, "As Jason Varitek goes, so go the Red Sox . . ."
The score was 2-2 in the sixth inning. There were two out and none on. It felt like The Captain was 0 for eternity, but it was only 0 for 15 since a single in the fifth inning of Game 4 of the Angels series. James Shields ran the count to 2 and 0, a nice hitter's count, and then he made a very big boo-boo. He left one in a spot where the slumping switch-hitter, a .201 batter from the left side, could put a good swing on it. The ball headed out to right and, by God, it dropped over the fence. Jason Varitek had broken the tie with a home run and the Red Sox were on their way to a 4-2 win.
Forget about anything else you had in mind for tonight. Come 8:07, you're going to be parked in front of the set. The Boston Red Sox are 27 outs away from going to another World Series.
There will be a Game 7 tonight in The Trop and it had nothing to do with the Rays being spooked by what happened Thursday night in Boston. They lost this game because the Red Sox outplayed them. Boston's pitchers outpitched Tampa's. Boston's batters applied far more pressure on Tampa Bay than the Tampa Bay batters did on Boston. The Red Sox didn't have a 1-2-3 inning until the eighth. They played a better baseball game, period. That's Joe Maddon's story, anyway, and he's sticking to it.
Of course, we all know there never should have been a Game 7. But that's an entirely separate chapter in this ongoing 2008 ALCS novella.
"That [epic collapse] happened a couple of days ago," said the Rays skipper. "That has nothing to do with tomorrow." Or, naturally, last night.
"It's all about how we react to the moment," he continued. "It's a great learning experience. For us to win that game would be something special for us, also. So it's not about looking into the past. It's about looking into the future right now. We've got to get ready to play that game [tonight]."
There was pregame questioning about the state of Josh Beckett's oblique muscle, but there are never any doubts about the man himself. The guy enhanced his Big Game reputation last night with five gritty innings to emerge as the winning pitcher. Topping off at 92 miles per hour, he was simply not the same guy who overpowered and overmatched the Angels, Indians, and Rockies a year ago. But he reminded one and all that, at 27, he is a pitcher's pitcher. Mixing in curves and a changeup with his well-spotted fastball, he gave up four hits and two runs, each a solo homer, before handing the ball to Hideki Okajima to start the sixth.
"That showed you the kind of pitcher and teammate he is," said Dustin Pedroia. "You know he's not feeling well. But he's got heart. And he has one other thing I can't say to you."
His work done, Beckett was able to sit back and watch Okajima, Justin Masterson, and, of course, Jonathan Papelbon shut down the Rays in the final four innings. And I mean shut them down. How's four hitless innings? Is that up to your standards?
It was kind of a crazy evening. The national TV audience missed the first 19 or so minutes of the game because there was a routing problem in Atlanta that messed up the TBS telecast. So people missed yet another home run by B.J. Upton - his seventh in 42 postseason at-bats. The telecast was back by the time Kevin Youkilis tied it with a leadoff shot in the second.
Then there was a 15-minute delay prior to the Red Sox fourth. It seems that a third-inning foul ball off the bat of Varitek had struck plate umpire Derryl Cousins, injuring his collarbone. He was worked on, but he was finally deemed hors de combat and was replaced by crew chief Tim McClelland. Hence the delay.
The change in umpires didn't help Tampa Bay starter James Shields, who was not exactly his Big Game self. He needed 30 pitches to get through the third, at which point he had already thrown 67. This was not the Shields Joe Maddon expected to see.
It's a good thing the TBS transmission wasn't out when Varitek parked that Shields pitch over the FSN Florida sign in the fifth. Like anyone back home would have believed it if they hadn't actually seen it. That was his first hit of any kind in this series; it was his first home run since he hit one here Sept. 15 during that 13-5 long-ball barrage off Scott Kazmir; and it was his first extra-base hit since a double in Fenway Sept. 19 against Toronto. That would be 14 games ago for the captain. You know Scott Boras was beaming.
For what it's worth, you should know this: The last 10 times Jason Varitek has homered, the Red Sox have won the game. They are 11-2 when he homers. I have a feeling Boras knows this. I'm sure he knows all the counts, too.
Nobody could stop talking about Varitek.
"I don't think I could, from our side, think of anything more appropriate," said Sox manager Terry Francona. "I mean, our whole dugout went crazy."
So now it's Game 7 and the man on the mound will be Jon Lester, Boston's best 2008 pitcher. I can report to you that his pulse rate on the eve of the Big Game, as usual, was one beat above dead. This kid is unflappable. You don't have to worry about him being overwhelmed by the moment.
"It's just a regular game," he declared. "I have to keep focus and execute my pitches. I can't let the situation get into my head. I just want to pitch my game."
Game 7. Lester's not particularly excited, but I suspect you are.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.