"We try to always make decisions not based on emotion but based on what's correct," Francona said Wednesday. "Because you get into the seventh inning of a game, you want [Jonathan] Papelbon available every night. It's just not in our ballclub's best interest for the long haul. Now we go to ‘Pap' and he's got a lot left."
Francona's caution was once again rewarded in Game Two Thursday, when Hideki Okajima and Papelbon—the Red Sox' top two relievers this season—carried the Sox to a 2-1 win over the Rockies and a commanding two games to none lead in the Series. Okajima struck out four in 2 1/3 perfect innings and Papelbon allowed one hit over the final 1 1/3 innings to earn the save.
The two have combined for 17 1/3 scoreless innings this month.
"Those two guys, that was the story tonight," winning pitcher Curt Schilling said. "All year, our bullpen has been dominating, and tonight we had to have it and they both answered the bell."
They combined to answer it even more effectively than Francona could have envisioned when he took the ball from Schillling's hands. Francona was willing to use Papelbon for six outs, but Okajima was so impressive in escaping the sixth inning—when he stranded a pair of inherited runners in scoring position by retiring Garrett Atkins on a groundout and striking out Brad Hawpe—and setting the Rockies down in order in the seventh that he sent the southpaw out to start the eighth.
Okajima struck out the speedy Willy Tavares and Kaz Matsui (a combined 65 stolen bases during the regular season) before he was relieved by Papelbon. Okajima threw 28 pitches—21 strikes—and reached a three-ball count just once in recording seven outs for only the second time this season.
"If ‘Oki' doesn't throw as many strikes as he did, he wouldn't have been able to stay out there for as long as he did, but he was so good," Francona said. "His command was spectacular. I mean, that set up the whole game. Him being able to go out in the eighth and keeping their two fastest runners off base really helped us."
Papelbon gave up an infield single to Matt Holliday but picked him off first before he threw another pitch to end the eighth. Papelbon, pumping fastballs clocked as high as 97 mph, needed just 13 pitches to set the Rockies down in order in the ninth.
"I think that we all kind of just feed off of each other," Papelbon said. "That's what we did tonight: We just fed off each other and did what we normally do."
"Okajima was perfect, just absolutely perfect, every single pitch," Schilling said. "And that's a hell of a lineup to go through. And then ‘Pap' comes in, and his stuff—much like Josh [Beckett], his stuff is a little bit better now than it was all year. And that's saying a lot."
It's saying a lot for Francona and the Sox decision-makers as well. Papelbon, who missed the final four weeks of 2006 due to a shoulder injury, threw on consecutive days just seven times during the regular season and appeared in three consecutive games just once. He threw more than an inning just four times in 59 appearances.
Okajima, who played 11 seasons in Japan before signing a two-year deal worth a reported $2.5 million last December, emerged as the Sox' most reliable set-up man in the first half, when he posted four saves and a 0.83 ERA in 43 1/3 innings while recording more than three outs in 10 of his 39 appearances and earning a spot on the All-Star team.
But the Sox limited his workload in the second half, when he posted a 4.56 ERA with one save in 25 2/3 innings. He recorded more than three outs four times in 27 appearances and didn't pitch at all from Sept. 15-26.
"I think that early in the year and throughout parts of the year, Okajima gave us a huge, huge ability to get ‘Paps' some rest and protect ‘Pap,'" Jason Varitek said. "And then late in the year we were able to get ‘Oki' some rest. We asked a ton out of him."
The Sox have been able to ask a ton out of both pitchers this month. Okajima—who admitted late Thursday he's felt refreshed since the late September sabbatical—has thrown more than an inning five times in six appearances while Papelbon has recorded more than three outs six times in seven appearances.
"[Francona is] conscious about what's going on and how his players are playing and what they need during the regular season," Mike Timlin said. "You have to have a feel: Everybody's different, and how they get through a season is different.
"But right now—now's the time where you want to win every game. Now's the time where you take the reins off. You let the horses go, and if they can go as long as they can go, let them go."
Game Two marked the third pivotal postseason victory in which Okajima and Papelbon have thrived. They each threw 1 1/3 scoreless innings in Game Two of the AL Division Series against the Angels, which the Sox won on Manny Ramirez' 10th inning homer. And in Game Seven of the AL Championship Series Sunday, Okajima and Papelbon both tossed a pair of scoreless innings—with Papelbon earning the first six-out save of his career—in relief of Daisuke Matsuzaka.
And now Thursday, when the duo limited the Rockies—who led the NL with a .280 average during the regular season—to one hit in 11 at-bats as the Sox moved within two wins of their second championship in four years.
"That worked out about as well as it could," Francona said.
In the short- as well as the long-term.
To read more on the Red Sox from Jerry Beach, visit DiehardMagazine.com by CLICKING HERE
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