What a difference a couple of days make.
Tuesday night on the frozen tundra of Chicago’s South Side, the Red Sox had to be feeling even lower than the Windy City’s wind chill. Their three early-season nemeses – injuries, bad luck, and lack of clutch – each reared its head on that frigid night, with a game full of wasted offensive chances ending in the ugliest of ways as Xander Bogaerts short-armed a routine throw to first and Mike Carp (coming in cold off the bench for Mike Napoli and his sideways finger) couldn’t pick it out of the dirt. Alexei Ramirez pranced home from second, Burke “Not in the NL Anymore” Badenhop hung his head, and the Sox dropped to 5-9 on the year, another starter hurt in the process.
Fast-forward 48 hours and the boys boarded the plane home last night with spring in their steps. After grinding out a win in the ugliest ballgame you’ll see all year, their ace turned in a gem to win perhaps the prettiest ballgame you’ll see all year. Easter has come a few days early, Red Sox Nation. It seems our men have risen from the cold tomb.
The first hero we have to thank is Jackie Bradley Jr. Can we please stop any debate about whether this guy belongs? His two-out 14th-inning double to bring home the winning runs early Thursday morning may well end up as the biggest hit of the early season for this team. Consider this: the Red Sox were 2-for-16 (.125) with runners in scoring position heading into the at-bat. They’d stranded a preposterous 16 runners in 13 innings. On another chilly night, they hadn’t managed a single hit between innings one and nine. The only reason they were still playing was because the White Sox’ miserable bullpen had seemingly gone on strike against throwing strikes, walking 11 Sox in eight innings. Yes, Bradley was facing a position player because Robin Ventura had gotten a little trigger-happy with his pitching changes in the ninth, but the fact remains that JBJ came through when nobody else seemingly could. After Daniel Nava and Jonathan Herrera drew two-out walks, Jackie knew if he extended his at-bat long enough, he’d get a pitch to hit. Rather than jump out of his shoes at the chance to be a hero against a bad pitcher, he stayed patient and delivered. When his team needed it most, he showed the mature approach that some of us have been raving about all along. Yet the questions remain about whether center field is his once Victorino returns. I’m sorry, Carp, but we need JBJ a lot more than you right now. Please, Cherington, don’t blow this one.
Now, before we move on from Wednesday night/Thursday morning’s game, there’s one more hero who needs a shoutout: Chris Capuano. My boy from Western Mass. came home to the Sox as a lifelong starter in the NL, and without missing a beat has become a massively valuable piece of our bullpen. He’s yet to be scored upon, has a 0.67 WHIP in nine innings, and there’s no way we win that game without his gutsy 2.2 frames of relief. The elementary school kids at St. Thomas the Apostle in West Springfield must be prouder than ever.
On to Thursday. Thank God for Jon Lester, folks. And thank God that behind him and just-as-nasty Chris Sale, the collective Sox decided to stop playing JV baseball. (Because, seriously, I’m pretty sure the last game I can remember that included one team walking 15 batters happened during my sophomore year of high school ball). Three thoughts from an exciting win:
1. Never doubt the mental fortitude of the defending champions. While we were all panicking that the season was over in April, these guys were grinding along same as always. Here’s some proof. First, watch Adam Eaton’s ridiculous robbery of David Ortiz’s would-be home run in the first inning, because I’m a sucker for great defense:
Now, consider how Papi reacted to this magnificent play. In true Ortiz fashion, David stood there between first and second, looked out to Eaton with a smile, and gave him a round of applause. Applause, when he’d just been robbed of an extra-base hit for the second time in a week. Applause, when he’d entered the game hitting just .237. Applause, in the first inning of a much-hyped pitchers’ duel in which both teams knew runs would be at a premium. So relax, Sox fans, when David Ortiz rules your clubhouse, things are always pretty chill.
2. Know who else has some serious mental (and physical, and yes, intestinal) fortitude? Xander Bogaerts. Our not-so-little 21-year old got himself into a little accidental trouble on the ol’ Twitter-verse after Wednesday’s game (and seriously Xander, props and all on your many past and future extracurricular conquests – even if it makes you seem more and more Jeterian every day – but don’t you think after a 14-inning game you should have been getting some rest? Of course, who knows when that lovely picture was actually taken – the random letter “L” in the post seems to indicate this could have been a result of the ol’ dreaded pocket-tweet). So more importantly, how does Bogaerts respond, keeping in mind that he’s slumping at the plate and in the field and a normal 21-year old might just feel like the whole world’s against him at this point? He does this:
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a big league home run (last I saw, it was measured at 444 feet). That’s a big league home run off a big league ace to break up a no-hitter in the sixth inning of a scoreless tie. And between that, Lester’s brilliance, and the Gray Wolf’s big double in the ninth (could David Ross get any more awesome?), you’ve got just enough offense for a win. Watch out world (ladies especially), the kid from Aruba with the goofy first name is for real. Now if only the currently inactive Stephen Drew or Jose Iglesias could teach him a thing or two about playing shortstop.
3. This is a dangerous game we’re playing with Jon Lester, but it’s working – for now. Make no mistake, Cherington knew exactly what he was doing when he offered Lester four years and $70 million. And he knew exactly what he was doing by not panicking when Lester politely declined and talks were suspended until after the season. What was he doing, exactly? He was telling Lester in no uncertain terms, “Go prove on the mound that you’re worth more than that.”
So far, so good. Jonny has been every bit the ace he was during the stretch run and postseason of 2013, and with each passing start the calls for Cherington’s head grow louder. Guess what, y’all? Ben is pretty happy being the villain right now, because there is no guarantee whatsoever that Lester would be pitching this well if the Sox had opened the checkbook in spring training and handed him, say, six years and $120 million. Is it awesome that he genuinely wants to stay in Boston? Yes, and I sure hope he does. But lest we forget, this is the same guy who slipped into beer-and-chicken infamy in 2011, the same guy who had a 4.82 ERA and served up 25 bombs in 2012. Lester proved a lot last year, and he’s proving it even more with each start this year, but he’s not superhuman just yet. And what human working in a sane profession wouldn’t relax a little if his employer had just told him, “all you have to do is stay alive for the next six years and we’ll give you $120 million”?
So I’m trusting Cherington on this one – for now. Do I want to see Lester in Boston for the rest of his career? Absolutely. Was it a little bit conniving of the Sox to give him such a low starting offer? Absolutely. But Cherington’s business savvy is the reason this team will be a contender for years to come, and don’t think for a minute he won’t make Jon a fair offer after this season. And after the way he pitched last night, chances are higher than ever it could be a damn pretty offer. This could certainly become an offseason bidding war between big-market teams, but if it does, I’m still feeling good, because one, we have the money, and two, Jonny Lester loves that Dirty Water.
And now that he’s helped lift the Sox out of the grave, we could be hearing that anthem more and more often at Fenway. What a difference a couple of days make.
Cover photo credit: eagletribune.com