If the May 23rd game between the Mets and Red Sox is the only major league game I attend this year, I can still say I saw one of the best games of the season. Most of the way, it was a tight pitching duel between Josh Beckett and Mike Pelfrey, full of great fielding plays, but in the ninth inning it became a special and memorable battle.
After the first inning, we thought it might be one of those four-inning marathons that are old hat to Fenway Park crowds. The Mets scored a cheap run in the top of the inning on a two-out infield hit by Carlos Beltran, an error by Beckett on a wayward pickoff throw (a questionable strategy since a knee injury was relegating Beltran to designated hitter duty because he couldn't run well enough to play the outfield), and an RBI single by Gary Sheffield, who has been a big surprise as a productive cleanup hitter in place of Carlos Delgado. The Red Sox came back with two runs on singles by Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia, a double steal, and Kevin Youkilis' two-run hit. Pelfrey threw close to 40 pitches getting through this inning, which took about 45 plodding minutes.
The tone of the game changed, and the action began to zoom by, when Beckett and Pelfrey found their stuff and took over. Beckett had a wicked breaking ball to go with his high heat, and the Mets scratched out only a trio of singles against him in the next seven innings. Youkilis helped with two lunging grabs of hard-hit balls, and shortstop Nick Green made a nice running catch on a bloop by Daniel Murphy that saved a run. But for the most part the Mets were no match for Beckett's stuff, and when they did hit the ball hard it was right at somebody.
It was a somewhat different story with Pelfrey. For one thing, he was striking batters out for the first time all season. In 41 innings before this start, Pelfrey had amassed 11 strikeouts, which is about the number you'd expect from a batting-practice pitcher. Saturday night he fanned six Red Sox. In between, he yielded only three hits in his last six innings, but he was helped quite a bit by his infield defense, which had all but sabotaged Johan Santana the night before. One of the toughest plays for an infielder is a high chopper which they have to take on a half-hop, a do-or-die play. Both David Wright and Ramon Martinez made the play successfully behind Pelfrey. Luis Castillo made a great stop on a wicked shot by Mike Lowell to end the first inning.
Tight defense, tough pitching, and a fast pace all made for a dramatic one-run game, and then came the ninth inning. That's when I got to witness first-hand the ceremonial production number known as a Jonathan Papelbon Save Opportunity. It begins with a little silent prayer at the bullpen gate, then a quick fist-bump with Boston police detective Billy Dunn (the bullpen security force) and a determined jog across the outfield while the speakers blare an Irish tune by the Dropkick Murphys. He pauses again at the edge of the infield for another private meditation on the joys of performing before a crowd that is going nuts from the music and the moment. Jason Varitek waits at the mound for a few short words, as if further motivation is needed, and with the crowd in an uproar, he prepares to polish off another Red Sox victory and lower his ERA (a sparkling 0.95 at that moment) a little more.
That it did not turn out that way proved a shock to everyone in the ballpark. Yes, Gary Sheffield was patient enough to start the inning with a five-pitch walk, but that was just a small bump in the road for Papelbon, who proceeded to strike out David Wright and Jeremy Reed on seven pitches, all fastballs in the 96-97mph range. The two Mets flailed helplessly at the ball, totally overmatched. As Ron Darling put it on the telecast, Papelbon fanned them "as if they weren't even standing there." So when rookie catcher Omir Santos took his .265 season average and one modest home run (albeit the first grand slam at Post-Shea Park) to the plate, the outlook was not rosy for the visiting nine. Out there in the right field grandstand, I was surrounded by quite a few Mets fans, and I didn't hear anybody yelling "all right, Omir, we've got 'em now!" or anything like it. It seemed a foregone conclusion that Santos would do well to nick a foul ball or two before biting the dust. Even if he got a hit, the on-deck hitter, Ramon Martinez, had even flimsier credentials as a hitter likely to do anything dangerous to a Papelbon fastball.
So it was that a mighty gasp swept through the crowd when Santos ripped Papelbon's first pitch on a line drive rising up toward the top of The Monster. It scraped the top of the wall and bounced back toward the field. The third base umpire signalled the ball still in play, no home run. Confusion prevailed as Sheffield, rounding third, saw the throw coming on and pushed off the third-base coach, Razor Shines (what a great baseball name!), and retreated to third just as the throw sailed past the catcher. Papelbon backed it up, and Sheffield held third--for now. The Mets immediately protested that it was a home run, and from where I sat it did look like it got over the yellow line atop the wall. But it happened so fast and so unexpectedly. Who knew?
In 2000, my last trip to Fenway, there would have been no problem. The ball would have cleared the wall and disappeared into the screen, or it would have hit the top and bounced back. With those four rows of seats up there, it wasn't that simple. Of course, the people up there knew where the ball had landed, and so did the folks at home. It was only we poor schmucks sitting there in the rest of the park who had no idea. On the other hand, in 2000 there would have been no remedy, no way of changing the no-homer call. Today there is, and that's what happened next. The Mets prevailed upon Joe West and the umpiring crew to discuss the play, and they decided to make use of the current instant-replay system in place since last August. West vanished through the Red Sox dugout, and the rest of us waited with all the anxiety of fathers waiting for childbirth to occur. Would the Mets' rally be stillborn? Did Santos really blast a two-run home run off The Riverdance Kid? What the hell happened? Only the people at home knew for sure. All we could do was wait and buzz, fret and fuss and speculate.
After a couple of minutes that seemed like hours, West emerged from the dugout circling his hand over his head, telling us that Omir Santos did indeed hit a near-miracle home run. Stunned, Papelbon had to wait a few more minutes while Red Sox manager Terry Francona argued with the umpires, possibly claiming that Sheffield should be called out for making contact with the third-base coach. There's supposed to be no such contact, but the home run rendered that moot. Francona sat down, and the inning ended on a terrific leap by Lowell to spear a Martinez liner.
That took us to the Red Sox half of the ninth, when Santos' near-miracle was parlayed by the Mets into a series of mini-miracles. The suspense for my little cadre of Mets fans began during the long delay after Santos' hit, when we noticed J. J. Putz warming up alone in the Mets bullpen. "Where's K-Rod?" we asked. A few minutes later, when the Mets officially had the lead, our tone changed a little. "Where the hell is K-Rod?" As in, "now they really need someone to save the game, so where's our only pitcher who can overpower these guys?" Again, we didn't know what the folks at home had learned from the announcers, that K-Rod had been felled by pre-game back spasms and wasn't available. We figured something like that, but didn't know.
J. J. Putz had a couple of great seasons as a closer with the Mariners, but has been inconsistent so far as an eighth-inning specialist for the Mets. He was the man heading into the bottom of the ninth of the 3-2 game, and he immediately got in trouble (as Papelbon had) by walking the leadoff hitter, Youkilis. The next three batters treated Putz as if they were playing tee-ball, each one hitting the ball harder than the last. Al Gore fooled more people when he claimed to have invented the internet than Putz did on Saturday night. Yet somehow he got away with it.
First, Jason Bay hit a smash down the third-base line on which David Wright made a ridiculous diving backhand stab, saving an extra-base hit. He picked himself up and hurried his throw to second, wide and well short of the bag. Luis Castillo had to handle a wicked half-hop while stretching like a first baseman, but he managed to snag the ball and keep his toe on the bag to record the miracle force play.
J. D. Drew was next, and J. D. drilled a J. J. not-so-fastball to right field--but right at Angel Pagan, who didn't move a step, bracing himself as if lounging in a rocking chair and leaning forward just a bit to catch the ball. That was escape #2 for Putz.
Finally, there was Mike Lowell, who took several pitches to find one worth feasting on. Bay was off with the pitch, which Lowell ripped toward the hole between short and third. Martinez, who has committed a bunch of errors while filling in for Jose Reyes, took a couple of quick steps to his right, left his feet, and much like Wright a couple of batters earlier, got his glove on the ball shoulder-high as he landed face-first on the dirt, yet another miraculous grab. There was no option to get Bay at second, so he righted himself and winged the ball toward first on a low, fast hop, which novice first baseman Daniel Murphy handled in time for the game-ending out. Lowell slammed his helmet down, quite justifiably. The Mets fans went nuts. The Red Sox fans went nuts in their own special way. And everyone went home knowing they had seen one helluva game with a ninth inning that was one thrill after another.