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Homers Fly Like Canadian Geese as Red Sox Out-Slug Blue Jays

Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka throws against the Toronto Blue Jays during first inning baseball action in Toronto Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2010. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darren Calabrese)

After splitting with the Yankees, the faintest of playoff hopes remains for the Boston Red Sox. But to keep that hope from dying, they would need to continue to dominate their rivals from north of the Niagara.

The Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays began their four-game series Tuesday night at the Rogers Center in Toronto. The game featured the pitching match-up of Daisuke Matsuzaka versus Ricky Romero. Both pitchers were coming off stellar performances in their most recent starts. Matsuzaka’s last start saw him pitch eight innings of one-run ball against the Cleveland Indians, while Romero pitched a two-hit, two-run complete game against the New York Yankees when he last toed the rubber. History favored the boys from Boston Tuesday night, as Matsuzaka was 6-0 with a 3.51 ERA against Toronto, whereas Romero was 1-4 with an 8.76 ERA against Boston. Romero’s last start against Boston was the shortest of his career, as he lasted just 2 1/3 innings while giving up nine runs (five earned). However, history would have little say in this game, as neither starter would wind up factoring in the decision.

Matsuzaka wanted to set the tone early for his team, and he did so by striking out the side in the first. When the Red Sox next went to bat in the second, they responded to him, belting three doubles and a single to give themselves a three-run lead early in the game. Toronto’s Adam Lind got one of those runs back in the bottom of the second, hitting a solo homer, but the Red Sox re-upped their lead to three in the third inning on a bases-loaded sacrifice fly by Mike Lowell. Unfortunately, Matsuzaka’s control failed him in the bottom of the third, and he walked the first two batters he faced. Next up was Travis Snider, who crushed the second pitch of his at-bat (one of several fastballs that Matsuzaka left high in the strike-zone) into the second seating level behind right-center for a three-run home run. Just like that, the game was tied.

The scoring continued in the top of the fifth inning, with J.D. Drew crushing a 3-1 offering into the second level in right field. The Red Sox had retaken the lead, and it seemed like Daisuke might be able to eke out a win despite a sub-par performance. However, he was lifted with two outs in the sixth and the job of securing the win fell to Boston’s often-maligned bullpen. They lived up to their jeers, unfortunately, as they yielded a game-tying solo home run to Jose Bautista (the leading home run hitter in the MLB) to lead off the bottom of the seventh.

The Red Sox did not let themselves get discouraged, however. With two outs in the top of the eighth, Mike Lowell came on to face Shawn Camp, who had been brought in with one out in the inning. On an 0-1 pitch, Lowell put the ball just out of reach beyond the wall in left center, breaking the tie with a solo home run. The Red Sox added an insurance run in the eighth, though they would not need it. Jonathan Papelbon worked around a one-out double to Snider and closed out the game without giving up a run. The final score was Boston 7, Toronto 5. Felix Doubront, despite giving up the initial game-tying home run to Bautista (and picking up his first blown save in the process), earned the “vulture” win. Shawn Camp picked up the loss, while Papelbon earned his 29th save of the season.

Red Sox at the Plate

Two Red Sox homered in key situations Tuesday night: J.D. Drew and Mike Lowell. Lowell went 1-3 on the night with two RBIs.

Three Red Sox players had multi-hit games: David Ortiz, Jed Lowrie and Jacoby Ellsbury. Both of Ortiz’s hits were doubles, the first of which was driven home for the first run of the game. Jed Lowrie, meanwhile, hit two doubles (one of which was ground-rule), drove in two, scored a run and drew a walk. Ellsbury had one RBI, but was caught stealing on his one attempt. The bottom two in the lineup, Lowrie and Ellsbury, played exceptionally well Tuesday night. They provided the basic hitting to contrast the middle of the lineup’s power hitting. When both are happening, the Red Sox offensive can really do damage, which explains why the Red Sox are in the top-five in the MLB in most significant offensive categories (second in runs, second in home runs, third in hits, first in total bases, etc.). It might be wise to keep Ellsbury in the nine-hole for now, letting him re-acclimate to hitting in the majors before resuming his role as lead-off hitter.

Red Sox on the Mound

Daisuke Matsuzaka’s pitching performance Tuesday could best be described as “spotty.” There were spots of brilliance, such as his three-strikeout first inning or his 1-2-3 fourth, but there were also spots of mediocrity, such as his 2-walk, 3-run home run third inning. And then there were average spots, where he would just give up a hit or a run (second and fifth innings). When he’s on, Matsuzaka definitely CAN pitch. We’ve all seen it. What is so maddening about him is that you never can tell what you’re going to get from start to start or even inning to inning. He can be brilliant for stretches, then it can all fall apart for him, then he can find it again, then he’ll have a horrible string of starts, then he’ll have a few good innings, and so on and so forth. At some point he’ll probably wind up on the DL, then come off it at after a seemingly arbitrary period of time. There’s no pattern to his pitching, no way to tell when you’ll get a good start from him or a bad one. It’s like the knuckleball, except with that it’s either on or off, and you can usually tell early into a game which is the case. Matsuzaka pitched great at points during this game, but at other points he would struggle with control or leave fastball after fastball up in the zone. It’s not being “effectively wild,” it’s just being unpredictable. And it’s hard for fans to sit on an edge for three-plus hours of baseball.

The bullpen pitched well Tuesday night. After surrendering the game-tying home run in the seventh, Doubront retired the next three batters he faced. He also pitched his way out of a two-on, two-out situation in the bottom of the sixth, striking out the second batter he faced after giving up an infield single. Overall, the Blue Jays managed just two hits and one run in 3 1/3 innings pitched by the bullpen. While you would have liked to see them lock it down completely, allow no runs, and finish the win for Matsuzaka, at this point in the season you’ll take any game the Red Sox can walk away from with a win. The bullpen wasn’t brilliant Tuesday night, but perhaps they just won’t be this season. While this may come back to haunt them in the postseason, most fans would be happy if Boston could just MAKE the postseason this year.

The Game in Context

By splitting their series with the Yankees, the Red Sox continued to dangle the playoff line in front of their fans’ eyes. A playoff berth remains very far away, but not so far away that fans can write it off as gone completely. And that’s what makes a win like this unsettling. Yes, the Red Sox won. But the starting pitching wasn’t spectacular tonight, and the bullpen wasn’t much better. The hitting was good, but they were facing a just-average pitcher with a bad history against Boston. So it’s difficult to look at this team and be optimistic. If the Red Sox make it to the playoffs, most fans will have a hard time looking at the Yankees or the Rangers and thinking the Red Sox match up well. But there’s always the hope that if one or two more players come back and/or find their form then this team will transform into something like the team that was at one point just a half-game out of first place in the AL East. It’s a glimmering of hope, not bright enough to see by, but not so dark that you develop night vision either. This game was a metaphor for the entire season: you’re never sure what to think, and it drives you crazy.

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