Just one game into the 2008 MLB playoffs for the Boston Red Sox, and we’ve already witnessed an instant October classic.
Wednesday night’s Game 1 matchup against the Anaheim Angels (sorry, not going for that “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim” crap) was a game that should be rewatched, studied, noted, even talked about for generations to come. It was an awesome display of talent and determination, with veteran players and rookies alike playing equally vital roles throughout.
Despite the incredibly late start time for the East Coast fan contingent (and a big thanks to the MLB braintrust for that scheduling genius, you bastards), I was wide awake from first pitch to final out. Hell, I had trouble falling asleep at 1:30am I was so keyed up from the game. It was that good.
If nothing else, the game was living proof that you can’t make mistakes against good baseball teams, because they will capitalize.
In the bottom of the third, Red Sox rookie shortstop Jed Lowrie booted a routing ground ball that would have easily been the third out of the inning. The next batter, Tori Hunter, singled to drive in the games first run and give the Angels a 1-0 lead. In addition, Boston’s starting pitcher Jon Lester threw seven more pitches to end the inning. Not a huge number, but it helped lead to his being pulled in the seventh for rookie reliever Justin Masterson (more on that later).
But the Angels made a few blunders of their own, upon which the Sox jumped when it counted. Their starting pitcher, John Lackey, was very much in command through the first five innings. He especially owned Jason Bay, who struck out twice and looked bad in the process.
But in the sixth, with Kevin Youkilis on first and two outs, Lackey hung a breaking ball up and over the plate that Bay crushed into the left field bleachers, giving the Sox a 2-1 lead that they would not relinquish. Lackey’s target was down and away from the right-hander, a location he nailed twice against Bay in earlier at-bats.
With that one pitch, that one swing of the bat, momentum had changed. The players felt it, the fans knew it. Lester was dealing all night, but after the Sox took the lead, he struck out the side in the bottom of the sixth. In the seventh inning, Lester’s fastball was hitting 97 on the radar gun. The Angels went down 1-2-3 for the forth time of the night.
In a decision that made myself and many other Sox fans immediately break into a cold sweat, manager Tito Francona went with Masterson for the eighth inning, despite having a fresh bullpen of veteran hurlers. Masterson has some nasty stuff, but at 23 with only 88 innings pitched in the bigs, it seemed like a decision that would quickly bite Francona in the ass.
But it didn’t.
Masterson didn’t exactly shut down the Angels, giving up singles to Vladmir Guerrero and Hunter, but stellar defense helped end a potential threat: Hunter’s bloop single behind first base didn’t bounce far from the diving Youkilis, who snared the ball and immediately fired it to third base, nailing Guerrero by a country mile as he tried to advance from first. That might as well have been the final out of the game, because it completely deflated the Angels. Instead of first and third with one out in a one-run game, it was two outs with Hunter at first. Howie Kendrick hit a weak grounder to Lowrie to end the inning.
If that defensive pick-me-up for Masterson wasn’t enough, the Sox padded their lead in the next inning, plating both Lowrie and outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury for a 4-1 lead. (It warrants mentioning here that Ellsbury scored form second base after Jason Varitek laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt to move him over, Varitek’s first sacrifice bunt in 3 years.) With Jonathan Papelbon taking the hill in the ninth, the Game 1 was in the books.
Game 2 of the series is tonight, with Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka facing off against Anaheim’s Irvin Santana. Both pitchers had excellent seasons and are tough to hit when they’re on. Sox fans around the globe are hoping the Good Matsuzaka shows up, the one that doesn’t waste time nibbling the corners of the plate for strikes and lets his pitches do the work for him.
The Sox have now beaten the Angels in 10 straight postseason matchups, with yesterday’s victory having the added bonus of removing home-field advantage from a 100-game winner. And Boston’s postseason ace Josh Becket is scheduled to toss Game 3 on Sunday.
I think I speak for the majority of Red Sox Nation when I say: Sweet.