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Bottom 2: Gil Velazquez!

09.26.08 at 6:27 pm ET
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Gil Velazquez enjoyed a very warm reception here in the bottom of the second, as those who braved the torrent to make it to the ballpark offered a standing ovation to a career minor leaguer who just had his first big-league at-bat. Velazquez probably had a pretty decent adrenaline rush working–he swung at the first pitch (lifting a foul fly into the stands), took a ball and then grounded out to third. 

Jacoby Ellsbury followed by singling and stealing second. He thus became just the third player in Red Sox history–following Tommy Harper (54 in 1973) and Tris Speaker (52 in 1912)–to swipe 50 bases in a season. 

While Harper is only asked about his steals, he put together a pretty solid year in ’73 that included 17 homers and a .281/.351/.422/.773 line.

Top 2: A title at stake

09.26.08 at 6:21 pm ET
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News from afar: the Twins are getting smoked, 4-0, by the Royals (has Francisco Liriano really given up nine hits in three innings? whoaaaa), but Twins catcher Joe Mauer is 1-for-1, nudging his batting average north from .330 to .331. Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia is sitting out tonight, and time is short for him to bump up his .325 average far enough to catch the Twins backstop. 

Of course, in another category, Pedroia enjoys an insurmountable lead on the Minnesota star. Mauer’s sideburns enjoy unseemly popularity in Minnesota, to the point where small children appear to be consuming massive quantities of testosterone in order to replicate them. (Are the former East German Olympic doctors in charge of this campaign?)

Going relatively unnoticed–to the point where it is difficult to find a picture that demonstrates the phenomenon–has been Pedroia’s ambitious facial hair growth. The second baseman is starting to look like he’s spent the past couple years in a cabin in the woods hunting bears with his bare hands. With the Tampa Bay Rays currently rocking a bunch of mohawks, it seems disappointing that baseball players don’t go the hockey route for the postseason. 

That aside aside, David Pauley was hit hard in the second, giving up three runs (including a two-run homer to Johnny Damon). Yankees lead 4-3, a fact that seems increasingly relevant with the Tigers beating the Rays 5-3 in the seventh inning in Detroit.

Bottom 1: Ellsbury, Youkilis raking

09.26.08 at 6:05 pm ET
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Jacoby Ellsbury just homered off Alfredo Aceves to lead off the bottom of the first for the Red Sox. Ellsbury has now led off three games this year with a homer. He also has a career-best 17-game hitting streak in progress, and is also enjoying a strong finishing kick. He is hitting .326 with an .867 OPS this month.

Tommy Harper’s 35-year-old record for the most steals (54) by a Red Sox in a single season, however, appears safe. Ellsbury remains stuck at 49, and hasn’t swiped a bag in five games despite having reached base nine times. “Nine times?” quote principal Ed Rooney…

Ellsbury has also matched the season-long hitting streak by a member of the Sox this year. Dustin Pedroia had a 17-game run from June 22-July 9. Pedroia hit a ridiculous .474 during his streak, averaging more than two runs a game. 

Kevin Youkilis also went deep in the bottom of the first, crushing a 92 m.p.h. fastball into the left-field stands. Youkilis now has 29 homers on the year. Since Aceves now has a 2.39 ERA (up from a 1.38 mark at the start of the game), it adds, at least technically, to the notion that Youkilis is the best Sox hitter against “good” pitchers (technically defined as hurlers with a sub-3.50 ERA). Aceves, who gave up three hits and two walksin the first, may not fall into that category for much longer. All the same, the 25-year-old Aceves  deserves a shout out for having moved up all the way from High-A Tampa of the Florida State League to the majors in a single year.

And they’re off…

09.26.08 at 5:46 pm ET
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First pitch took place at 8:36pm. Before the Red Sox replaced the Fenway turf a few years ago, the drainage system would have never allowed this game to happen.

Even so, it is a buzz-free atmosphere. Aside from a few perfunctory boos offered to Johnny Damon, there’s no sense of blood lust. 

“Right now, it’s just like another team is coming in,” said Sox outfielder Jason Bay. “There isn’t the hoopla.” 

Members of the Yankees almost unanimously seemed to expect a rainout today. It will be interesting to see whether they come out a bit flat. Jed Lowrie, a native of Salem, Oregon, seemed positively exuberant about the downpour. Lowrie said that there was no chance that “a little drizzle” along the lines of what Bostonians experienced today would have rained out games in Salem.

“This would have been a nice day to play,” he said.

It was unclear whether he meant it. Regardless, the rain delay merely added to the rationale for the Yankees to move to Arizona

Of rain-imposed scratches and things

09.26.08 at 5:23 pm ET
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The Red Sox‘ decision to scratch Daisuke Matsuzaka in favor of David Pauley seems a prudent gesture. Whenever a pitcher is supposed to take the bump on a night when the weather is miserable, one need only think back to 2002 to reflect on the potential risks involved. 

In the second game of the 2002 season, the Red Sox sent pitcher Dustin Hermanson to the hill. Hermanson, a pitcher whom the Sox signed because of his lively, mid-90s fastball and sweet sideburns, was making his Boston debut, and was well on his way to a highly favorable impression. He looked electric in the first inning, striking out a pair of Blue Jays. Then, he slipped on the mound while warming up for the second and badly “strained” his right groin. 

Hermanson didn’t return to the majors until the 95th Sox game that year. His official Red Sox debut, which came in relief, was a particularly puzzling one. Sox skipper Grady Little decided that with the Sox leading the Yankees 8-6 in Yankee Stadium, the eighth inning would be a great time for Hermanson to make his first appearance since the injury. Hermanson coughed up a couple of runs and the Yankees went on to beat the Sox 9-8 in extras. 

A couple days later, Hermanson went back on the disabled list with a staph infection in his right elbow. The cause? The pitcher said that he slipped in his kitchen while doing dishes and gashed his elbow on his counter.

He missed another month before returning on August 22 for a start–another one in which Hermanson was dodging raindrops. Hermanson pitched five decent innings that night to claim his only win as a member of the Red Sox. He finished that year 1-1 with a 7.77 ERA, pitching in just 12 games and 22 innings, and was no doubt left to wonder that offseason how his life might have been different had he not been sent to the mound on one rainy night in April. 

Hermanson’s story took an interesting post-Bostonian twist. He bounced to St. Louis and San Francisco in 2003-04, then ended up as a member of the Chicago White Sox in 2005. He emerged as an elite closer that year, recording a 2.04 ERA and 34 saves, but injured his back in September of that season, losing his job to hulking closer Bobby Jenks. Jenks went on to become a postseason force for the White Sox en route to the club’s first World Series win since 1917. Hermanson bounced around before getting released by the Reds just prior to opening day in 2007.

Soggy math

09.26.08 at 4:10 pm ET
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Rain delays can be fun! Really… we mean it…

Just ask Mr. Met. Or the guy who created the Rainout Blog (where I found the image of Mr. Met).  Actually, and sadly, don’t ask the guy who created the Rainout Blog – looks like he pulled the plug on the enterprise this season.

But enough of that. Rain, hypothetically, could crown the Red Sox the champions of the American League East. But how?

The Sox enter today facing a two-game deficit in the division, but because Tampa Bay won the season series and the resulting tiebreaker, the Sox would have to win out their schedule while the Rays would have to lose all of their three games against Detroit. 

But the dismal weekend weather could create all kinds of bizarre scenarios that would wreak havoc on the division. Here’s the shakedown:

If the Rays lost all three games and the Sox were rained out all weekend, the Rays (96-66, .593) would win the division thanks to a higher winning percentage than the Sox (94-65, .591). 

If the Rays lose all three and the Sox play and win one game, Boston would take the division with a 95-65 record and .594 winning percentage. The same is true if the Sox play and win two games to finish with a 96-65 record and .596 mark. 

In such scenarios, the big question would be whether the Sox should pop champagne corks in celebration of a Sunday rainout. Or whether scheduled Yankees Sunday starter Mike Mussina would go ballistic. Mussina is 19-9 with a 3.47 ERA, and–somewhat incredibly–would become a 20-game winner for the first time in his career with a ‘W’ on Sunday. The 39-year-old would become the oldest player in baseball history to reach the milestone for the first time.

Former Boston and Milwaukee Brave Warren Spahn is the oldest pitcher ever to notch 20 W’s in a season. He was 42 (the same age as Tim Wakefield and Mike Timlin) when he went 23-7 with a 2.60 ERA in 1963.

Pre-game notes of note

09.26.08 at 2:06 pm ET
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If tonight’s game is rained out, the Red Sox and Yankees are likely to play two on Sunday. I can’t imagine that Ernie Banks was thinking of a meaningless twin-bill on the season’s final day when he made his well known proclamation, but so be it. 

In such a scenario, Daisuke Matsuzaka would start on Saturday, with Josh Beckett’s status officially “undeclared.” If Beckett were to start on Sunday, it would all but rule out a Game 1 start. 

Tonight’s lineup–in a hypothetical scenario in which the game is played–would feature Mike Lowell at D.H. and David Ortiz playing first base. Ortiz, whose most frequent use of his glove is to fend off potential groupies, has yet to play in the field this year. All the same, the Sox do not consider it a priority to get him pre-World Series game activity in the field. It just so happened that it made sense to do so as the team brings Lowell back into the fold.

J.D. Drew is out of the lineup again after his back acted up again. He spent today at MGH with Dr. Thomas Gill’s medical staff to determine whether there was a significant orthopedic problem in play. A battery of bloodwork and scans did not reveal a problem, but the team still seems uncertain about what his availability might be like going forward. There was a time when that would have seemed like a huge deal, but Sox manager Terry Francona shrugged, “We’ve had him for, what, three innings for the last 39 days?” Drew has been out of the lineup, with little interruption, since August 17. In that time, the Sox have a 23-12 record, best in the American League and tied with the Phillies for the best in the majors. 

Coco Crisp remains out of the lineup due to a left foot injury that required a painkilling injection on Wednesday. In the final month of last year, Crisp dealt with the same discomfort in the sesamoid area. 

I’m not sure if 5:05pm qualifies as the “late afternoon,” but the “possible break” in the deluge is nowhere in sight…

Pesky ceremony postponed

09.26.08 at 12:29 pm ET
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I do not own a car. Today, the few-minute trek to and from the sundry means of MBTA transportation were uniquely unpleasant. The likelihood of baseball at Fenway Park, according to my very unofficial and waterlogged assessment, seems poor. According to an official Sox statement, there is “a possibility of a break in today’s rain showers.” Hardly inspiring. 

The facade above the right-field grandstand currently features a gap in the register of retired Red Sox numbers: 1-4- -8-9-27-42. The retirement ceremony for Johnny Pesky’s No. 6 was supposed to fill that void tonight. Instead, due to the monsoon, that event has just been postponed until Sunday afternoon at 1:15pm. 

I did, however, want to get back to colleague Rob Bradford’s question about Alex Cora’s history against Brendan Donnelly. In six career showdowns, Cora has averaged six pitches per appearance against the former Red Sox and current Indians reliever. Here’s the blow-by-blow.

‘Just win’

09.25.08 at 8:19 pm ET
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Game Story: Lester Spins Fenway Magic in Sox Win

Red Sox manager Terry Francona was walking through the tunnel leading from the clubhouse to the field prior to Tuesday night’s game at Fenway Park when he ran into Jed Lowrie. The night before Lowrie had struck out swinging to end a Sox loss, helping punctuate struggles the rookie found himself living with throughout the past few weeks.

Francona put his hands on the shortstop’s shoulders and offered Lowrie some advice. The message incorporated words that lasted all the way through to Thursday night’s 6-1 victory over Cleveland.

“You know what he said?” said Lowrie after his two-hit performance against the Indians. “He said, ‘Just win. Just win and everything else will take care of itself.'”

So that’s what Lowrie did, and it worked. Hitting from his more proficient side of the plate — the right side — he claimed a single and double after just the first two innings, helping the Red Sox build a 5-0 lead after the initial pair of frames. 

Heading into the game Lowrie was riding an 0 for 18 stretch which included five straight hitless games. He had also gone 4 for 37 during his previous 10 games and had watched his batting average drop from .295 to .256 over the last 23 contests.

But last night, with the combination of a lefty (Jeremy Sowers) on the mound (Lowrie was hitting .333 against southpaws compared to .222 vs. righties) and the words of Francona still fresh in his mind, Lowrie took a step in the right direction.

“I don’t think it was planned,” said Lowrie of Francona’s impromptu get-together. “It just reiterated the fact. All I am usually thinking about when I go out there is how I can help the team win, but to hear it from him, it kind of reiterates it. It’s that simple. I think clinching obviously takes a little bit of pressure off these games, even though you still want to win. But hearing the encouragement, like that from Tito, that goes a long ways.”

Another Sox rookie, Jacoby Ellsbury, continued to gain momentum heading into the post-season, joining Lowrie in notching a pair of hits to extend his hitting streak to 16 games, the longest by a rookie in the major leagues this season. 

Ellsbury is now batting .347 with eight multi-hit games during the 16-game streak, which ranks as the longest hitting streak by a Red Sox rookie since Nomar Garciaparra’s 30-gamer in 1997.

The Red Sox are now 14-3 at home against American League Central teams … Thanks to the three innings turned in by Justin Masterson, Hideki Okajima, and Jonathan Papelbon, the Sox bullpen has now tossed 15 scoreless innings over the club’s last five games … The Red Sox hurlers gave up two hits on the night, the fourth time Boston pitchers have accomplished the feat. Only Tampa Bay’s staff has more such games … After his first five at-bats, Minnesota’s Joe Mauer had three hits to boost his American League-leading average to .330. After going 1 for 3 Thursday night Dustin Pedroia stands at .325.

Jon Lester improved to 4-1 with a 2.01 ERA over his last six starts, allowing one or less runs in five of those outings. It marks the 13th time this season he has gone at least six innings while giving up one or few runs. Among American League pitchers, only Toronto’s Roy Halladay has more, coming into Thursday night with 14.

Lester’s 16th win is the most by a Boston lefty since Bruce Hurst’s 18 in 1988. He also notched his 20th quality start of the season, fourth among A.L. left-handers. The last Red Sox lefty to have as m any quality starts was Frank Viola with 23 in 1992.

Gil Velazquez made his major league debut in his 11th professional season, pinch-running for Alex Cora in the sixth inning. He didn’t get a chance to come to the plate but was presented with the lineup card after the game by Sox bench coach Brad Mills.

Quotes:

Cleveland manager Eric Wedge on Lester: “He was as good of a left-hander as we’ve seen all year. He was outstanding.”

Francona on Lester’s outing: “He really did well. We kind of though about 85 (pitches) would be good and he was right there. He never had a real long inning. He did a good job.

Francona on Lester’s pitch count during the no-hitter: “Well, he was coming out. I told him that was the first time I’ve ever rooted against him. The only way you’re going to see something like that would’ve had to have been a group effort.”

Francona on Lester’s growth over the past season: “He’s matured so much. As a young man we’ve seen that side of it but physically, just because of everything he’s been through, he’s now getting away form everything he’s gone through and he’s getting stronger. His endurance, his maturity pitching, you could go on and on about a lot of aspects but I’ll tell you it’s been fun to watch.”

Francona on Lowrie’s offensive production: “He’s been feeling real good right-handed. Left-handed has been a little bit of a struggle. Jake’s (Ellsbury) running early in the game, and (he) hits that line-drive into the gap and gets us going. But I think all along he’s felt pretty good right-handed.”

Lester on having a no-hitter but knowing pitch count would be an issue: “Just keep throwing strikes. I’m not really worried about it. It’s one of those things, kind of like last time, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. I knew that Tito was going to have a short leash on me. I just had to go out there and keep pounding the zone. If it ended up happening and working out to where I could have done it with not a lot of pitches, then great. If not, no big deal. Get out of there in the sixth inning and everything’s good.

“I didn’t isolate myself from anybody. I still went to talk to (Jason Varitek), talk to Johnny (Farrell) and figure some things out. I’m not going to sit on the edge of the bench and not talk to my teammates just because of that. I don’t really understand that. They’re out there catching the ball for you and hitting it so you’ve got to keep them occupied and keep their minds off of it too.

“No-hit through five innings is good but you still have a long way to go to where it starts to set in. I don’t think until about the seventh inning you start to really worry about it. Five innings is nice, but when you get deeper in the ballgame is where it starts to mean a little more.”

Lester on 16 wins vs. 200 innings: “I think 200 innings. For me I associate that with guys like (Josh) Beckett, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens. Guys that are pretty much the horses of the team. They’re going to go out there, pound the strike zone, and give you good efforts every night. To me that’s kind of an honor to get up to that number. That means you’re going deep into ballgames and not throwing a lot of pitches.”

Eighth/Ninth innings: Put it on the board …

09.25.08 at 6:37 pm ET
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Sorry, I just checked the White Sox score (3-1 Chicago) so I had Hawk ringing in my head. Red Sox win, 6-1.

In their final regular season game (OK, I’m giving too much of a tip of the chapeau to those who predict Mother Nature’s wiping out of the weekend series), the Red Sox went to 33-17 since Aug. 1, still the second-best mark behind Houston.

It was announced Alex Cora was driven from the game with a contusion on the right hip. Jonathan Papelbon came on to close out the ninth after appearances from Justin Masterson and Hideki Okajima. The Red Sox relievers have now worked 15 scoreless innings over the last five games and has issued just one earned run in 16 innings in the last six games.

More after clubhouse time …

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