Red Sox Make It a Pair Against the Rockies

Jonathan Papelbon
Red Sox pitcher Jonathan Papelbon reacts after getting Colorado Rockies' Brad Hawpe to strike out to end Game 2. (Elise Amendola - AP)
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 26, 2007

BOSTON, Oct. 25 -- It seemed like ages since the mighty Boston Red Sox needed their bullpen to do something like this: inherit a slim lead in a low-scoring game against a hungry, powerful opponent and carry it home across a vast expanse of innings. But here, Thursday night, was just that sort of game, opponent and situation -- Game 2 of the World Series, the Colorado Rockies, a one-run lead with 11 outs to go.

The math could be done in a number of ways, with any number of relievers getting those 11 outs, but with no margin for error the Red Sox put them all in the hands of their best: Seven outs from lefty Hideki Okajima, then four more from closer Jonathan Papelbon.

And then? Exchange high-fives on the field with your teammates, hit the showers, pack your bags for Denver. This delicate 2-1 victory at Fenway Park, so different from the lopsided one the night before, gave the Red Sox a two-games-to-none lead in the best-of-seven series, which, following a travel day, resumes Saturday night at Coors Field.

"That was just phenomenal to watch," said Red Sox starter Curt Schilling, whose 11th career postseason win, against only two losses, was locked down by Okajima and Papelbon. "A 2-1 game in the fifth that ends up 2-1, with both of these offenses -- that's a testament to how incredibly efficient and dominating these bullpens were tonight."

The Rockies, who had won 21 of their previous 22 games when the World Series began, have now lost consecutive games for the first time since mid-September -- a point when they were 4 1/2 games back in the wild-card race with 14 games to play and baseball in October seemed a silly little dream.

Having lived to make the playoffs from that awful spot, the Rockies certainly won't concede defeat now. They head home to Coors Field, where their home-field advantage is every bit as acute as the Red Sox' is here, and where the Red Sox, with no designated hitter, will be forced to sit David Ortiz, Mike Lowell or Kevin Youkilis in each game.

"We've been down to one strike [from] going home," said Rockies Manager Clint Hurdle. "All we have to do is win, what, four out of five? That's how you look at it."

A bundled-up crowd of 36,730 watched Schilling, the Red Sox's 40-year-old starting pitcher, battle Rockies rookie Ubaldo Jimenez for 5 1/3 workmanlike innings, then -- with one out in the sixth, the go-ahead runs on base and an aging right arm he was having trouble getting loose -- turn the game over to the bullpen. In this case, with little margin of error, that meant Okajima and Papelbon, arguably the best set-up/closer combo in the game. And only them.

Okajima was simply dominant -- cleaning up Schilling's mess in the sixth, setting down the side in the seventh, then striking out the first two batters in the eighth. With Matt Holliday, the Rockies' left fielder and potentially the most valuable player of the National League, due up, Red Sox Manager Terry Francona turned to Papelbon.

"That was the best-case scenario," Francona said of Okajima's collecting the first two outs of the eighth. "But [Papelbon] was going to face Holliday, regardless."

Papelbon, the lanky, dance-happy right-hander, nearly lost one of his limbs when Holliday rifled a single through the box. But before Todd Helton, the next Rockies batter, even got to see a single pitch, Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills signaled for a pickoff throw, which catcher Jason Varitek relayed to Papelbon -- who promptly spun toward first and picked Holliday off by a wide margin, a stunning end to the inning.

"It definitely was a different feeling," Papelbon said of pitching in a close game, after so many blowouts. "For me, I had to keep my emotions in check out there."

The ninth? Bang, bang, bang. Inning over, the final pitch a 97-mph heater against which Rockies right fielder Brad Hawpe stood no chance.

"It was a phenomenal effort," Francona said of Okajima and Papelbon, "on both their parts."

On the surface, Jimenez -- a 23-year-old Dominican who had a 5.85 ERA at Class AAA and a history of wildness when the Rockies called him up in August -- seemed the type of pitcher the Red Sox would eat alive, a hard-throwing kid who can't always command his pitches and who had never encountered an offense as relentless as theirs. The Red Sox had scored 12, 11 and 13 runs in their past three games, and over the previous three weeks they had destroyed some of the best pitchers in the American League.

But Jimenez was very nearly the equal of Schilling. Mixing a slow, overhead curveball, a hard slider and an occasional change-up along with his high-90s fastball, Jimenez survived some lapses in command, an Ortiz blast in the third that curled just foul, and a handful of dicey predicaments to pitch into the fifth inning. He allowed single runs in the fourth and fifth, both of which began with walks.

The Rockies' bullpen, overshadowed in defeat by their Red Sox counterparts, nonetheless held the one-run deficit right where it was, with left-hander Brian Fuentes (two scoreless innings) the top performer.

By the top of the sixth, Schilling's slim lead was out of his own hands, those 11 outs that would carry home the victory. But it was in good hands, the left hand of Okajima, the right hand of Papelbon. And now, the Red Sox are halfway to clinching the World Series, having proven they can win the blowouts, but they can also win the tight, tense ones.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company