Friday Night Flop

BOSTON—The NESN cameras captured Jonathan Papelbon biting his nails in the bottom of the eighth inning Friday. Is it time for the Red Sox to do likewise after the Yankees mounted a shocking comeback win against one of the best bullpen combinations in the game?

The Yankees scored six runs off Hideki Okajima and Papelbon in rapid-fire fashion in the eighth inning Friday to edge the Sox, 8-7, in front of a suddenly silent sellout crowd of 36,590 at Fenway Park.

It was the third straight Sox game in which someone blew a lead of at least four runs. After the Sox overcame deficits of seven runs and four runs, respectively, to beat the Devil Rays Tuesday and Wednesday, Kevin Youkilis said the Sox should be evaluated on their body of work and not a couple of dramatic victories.

"You can't just say we won the two games here," Youkilis said. "You've got to look at the whole season."

The Sox must take the long-term view now, because by itself, the loss Friday was disheartening at best and demoralizing at worst. After Andy Pettitte (who was 9-2 with a 3.13 ERA in 12 second half starts entering Friday) was battered for five runs on nine hits and two walks in four innings, the Yankees seemed willing to concede the defeat and save their bullpen bullets for Saturday and Sunday. The first two relievers to appear for the Yankees Friday were Jose Veras, who was making his second appearance of the season, and Sean Henn, who allowed nine runs in 2 2/3 innings in his previous big league outing Aug. 27.

Terry Francona, meanwhile, utilized the bullpen as if it were the playoffs. Mike Timlin relieved Daisuke Matsuzaka with two outs in the sixth and struck out Derek Jeter to preserve a 5-2 lead. But after the Sox extended the lead to 7-2 in the bottom half, Francona opened the seventh with Javier Lopez and lifted him for Okajima with two outs.

Okajima retired Hideki Matsui to end the seventh and Francona hoped Okajima could get the Sox at least two outs in the eighth before he turned the ball over to Papelbon. But Okajima, who hadn't allowed a homer to a left-handed batter all season, gave up consecutive blasts by Jason Giambi and Robinson Cano to start the inning. He walked Melky Cabrera and gave up a double to Johnny Damon before Papelbon came on and allowed an RBI single to Jeter, a game-tying two-RBI double to Bobby Abreu and the go-ahead RBI single to Alex Rodriguez.

In five pitches, Papelbon gave up more hits than he'd allowed over the previous 52 at-bats entering Saturday. Papelbon dressed and departed without comment within a minute of arriving at his locker late Friday.

"We made a couple mistakes," Jason Varitek said. "Execute pitches, we'd be better off. They hit some executed pitches. They did a good job."

Said Francona: "We got to where we wanted. I thought Daisuke pitched with a lot of heart. He competed real well against a very good lineup, as we witnessed. We got to ‘Oki' with the idea that even if things didn't go perfect, we had ‘Pap' ready for Jeter.

"It fell apart in a hurry."

It sure did in the short-term. Can the Sox live by Youkilis' words and shrug off the immediate by looking at the big picture? They've been in first place for 150 straight days, and while the Yankees are still 4 ½ games back, no team has been within four games of the Sox since May 1. So in order to win the AL East, the Yankees must make up over the next 15 days the ground no one has been able to make up over the last four months.

"It's one game," Youkilis said Friday. "Still up 4 ½ games. Doesn't matter. I'm not worried."

The bullpen, meanwhile, entered Friday with the best ERA (3.00) in baseball. "Our bullpen's been really strong," Francona said. "We gave up a lead to a real good hitting team. And it's disappointing. But we'll come back and do it again tomorrow."

They'd better hope not.


Diehard managing editor Jerry Beach can be reached at diehardmag@yahoo.com. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-501-5752. To subscribe to Diehard or diehardmagazine.com, please CLICK HERE.

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