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Bob Ryan

Enjoying good times while they last

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By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / June 11, 2009
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It's now seven straight over the Yankees - eight if you go back to September - and for all of that the Red Sox only lead those guys by one game in the standings. And if they don't beat 'em tonight, the two will be tied.

Big Picture, you know?

Terry Francona's not thinking big, not with the seven straight and not even when last night's 6-5 squeaker makes it two straight in this series. Asked to explain the meaning of it all, he took a pass.

"I don't know if I really care to," he said. "What we did in April is a long time ago. What I care about is us playing good tonight, and getting better as we go."

It took a lot to nail this one down. It took home runs by Mike Lowell and Kevin Youkilis. It took a Nick Green-generated double play. It took six workmanlike innings from Tim Wakefield. It took a major bullpen turn by Hideki Okajima. It took an acrobatic save by Dustin Pedroia of a deflected throw.

And, finally, it took the latest in a worrisome string of adventuresome ninth innings from Jonathan Papelbon, who has made things at least mildly interesting in 80 percent of his 2009 appearances.

The game ended with pinch runner Ramiro Pena on second representing the tying run, and the always menacing Jorge Posada at the plate. Alex Rodriguez had drawn a one-out walk, and Pena had stolen second. He might have gotten to third when George Kottaras's throw bounced away from Green, but Pedroia was there to back it up.

"That was a great play," said Francona. "[Pedroia] manages to put himself into position to help us win."

A nice 1-2-3 ninth would have made things comforting and relaxing for all concerned. But that is not Pap's 2009 M.O.

Nope. Papelbon is establishing himself as baseball's resident heart attack closer. He has only been able to go 1-2-3 five times in 25 appearances. He has walked at least one man 11 times. Doesn't he know his manager has health issues? Geez.

Oh, sure, all's well that ends well. He ran the count on Posada to 3-2 before Posada lofted one toward left. It may have been scary for a millisecond, but it was quickly apparent Jason Bay had it tracked. He moved to the edge of the warning track and closed the glove on the ball to give his team the game and Mr. Excitement back there on the mound his 15th save. Only Brian Fuentes of the Orange County American League Baseball Representative has more (16), but you can be very certain the ones Mr. Fuentes has racked up haven't been half as entertaining as Papelbon's.

"I thought he threw the ball pretty well," said Francona, who is not about to tell us what he's really thinking about his prize closer, who already has walked five more men this year in 25 innings than he did in 69 1/3 innings last year.

All right, already. I'll drop it.

But I'm just sayin' . . .

On a happier note, the guy who set up Papelbon was spectacular. Okajima was summoned in the seventh to face countryman Hideki Matsui with two runs in and Posada on first in a 6-5 game. The inning had begun with the Red Sox in possession of a 6-3 lead, but Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira smashed homers to right off Ramon Ramirez to open the inning.

But the key Battle of the Hidekis went to the Boston southpaw, who fanned the noble lefthanded Yankee outfielder to end the seventh, and who then got himself out of a jam in the eighth (Nick Swisher walk and Melky Cabrera sacrifice bunt) by making first Derek Jeter and then Damon look very bad indeed on swinging - or, I should say, flailing - third strikes. Jeter went down on a pitch in the dirt, while Damon had no chance on a tantalizing pitch on the outside that would have been a ball had he left it alone.

Breathing far better in the dugout at that point was Tim Wakefield, who had battled his way through six innings (eight hits, three earned runs) on a night when he had, at best, his B-minus/C-plus game.

"It was a little bit of a grind," said Wakefield, who is now 8-3. "I was able to spread the hits around, not get into any big innings."

He was also the grateful beneficiary of a fine play by Green in the second. The Yanks had a run in via a Posada homer and men on first and second with no one out when Cabrera lined one toward short. Green made a nice leaping grab, but that was just the beginning. One day after his manager had been raving about what a gun Green has for an arm, the shortstop threw a laser across the diamond to nail a retreating Swisher for a dazzling double play.

"At that point," said Francona, "that was a big play. You could feel it. Instead of a run, there's a man on second and two outs."

"The double play really changed the momentum of the inning," agreed Wakefield.

Against Detroit last time out, Wakefield didn't need very much in the way of bullpen support. He did this time. The usually reliable Ramirez messed things up a bit, but Okajima and Papelbon got the job done.

"The pen has been pretty special," said Wakefield. "In '03 and '04 we were pretty deep, but this year it's even better. Every guy down there is dominant. That makes your job as a starting pitcher easier, knowing all you have to do is go five or six. They can pretty much shut people down, and they proved that tonight."

The Red Sox know better than to make too much of this sudden success with the Yankees. As for the fans, it's way too early to start pouring champagne. A little ginger ale sounds about right.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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