Commentary

Just another loss? Not quite

Papelbon says he'll put Yankees walk-off behind him, but a troubling trend is brewing

Updated: May 18, 2010, 11:49 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

NEW YORK -- This was not "The stock market has crashed, the oil slick is spreading, the wind is howling, the water is rising, the enemy is advancing," end-of-the-world stuff.

Though seeing Keith Olbermann -- the MSNBC news anchor and frequent bearer of bad tidings -- in the Red Sox clubhouse afterward Monday night gave this retch-inducing 11-9 loss to the New York Yankees the atmosphere of gloom and doom it so richly deserved.

This did not approach the level of the Bruins' scrape-off-the-ice, cancel-the-party, we're-truly-sorry-you-had-to-witness-this loss that will forever occupy the darkest recesses of a Boston sports fan's memory bank. But there surely was a parallel Monday night in the way the Sox teased their fans into believing they were about to witness the team's most satisfying win of the season, only to leave them wandering shell-shocked through the wreckage of 2010's worst defeat.

Papelbon It's just like any blown save. As soon as I get out of here, forget about it and move on to the next pitch. Closers, that's just the way we go about our business.

-- Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon

Jonathan Papelbon -- who hadn't blown a regular-season save in almost 10 months -- gave up a game-tying two-run home run to Alex Rodriguez and a walk-off two-run home run to Marcus Thames in the span of six batters in the ninth inning after the Sox, with five home runs, had rallied from a 5-0 deficit to seize a 9-7 lead.

Instead of celebrating the kind of win that can alter the course of a season seemingly adrift, the Sox delivered the kind of loss that leaves you wondering what manner of calamity now comes next.

"It's just like any blown save," said Papelbon, who stood in the middle of the visitors' clubhouse more than a half-hour after Thames took the trademark postgame whipped-cream pie in the face from his jubilant pinstriped teammates. "As soon as I get out of here, forget about it and move on to the next pitch."

"Closers, that's just the way we go about our business. Just like Mariano [Rivera] last night," said Papelbon, referencing the game-turning grand slam Rivera gave up to Minnesota's Jason Kubel the day before. "Forget about it. Move on. That's the nature of the beast."

Except for this: The beast that is the American League East is not leaving much margin for error.

The Sox are now one-fourth of the way through the season. They are a game under .500 (19-20), 8½ games behind first-place Tampa Bay, 6½ games behind the second-place Yankees.

"That's a pretty big hole," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "We need to start winning games."

The Sox have lost eight in a row here in Yankee Stadium, their longest such losing streak since the days of Mantle and Maris (9/30/1960 to 7/9/1961) nearly a half-century ago.

They have lost five of seven meetings this season to the Yankees, four of six in Fenway. In three of those losses, the Yankees have scored 10 or more runs.

All those dismal trends could have come screeching to a halt Monday night, which would seem to challenge Terry Francona's oft-uttered maxim that no loss is greater than any other, unless it's the one that sends everyone home at the end of a season.

"How can it be?" Francona said Monday night when asked if this loss was more than a loss. "Every game, we set out to win. When you lose late, the emotion is still with you, because it ended about six minutes ago. Sometimes you have a little more time to digest the outcome.

"That had a chance to be a great win. I understand your point. [But] you got to accept it and move on."

For the moment, it's more plausible to believe that Theo Epstein's wedding was held at a Coney Island hot dog stand than the idea that this team was built on run prevention. No team has given up more runs in the American League to date than the Sox.

On Monday night, Daisuke Matsuzaka gave up that five-spot in the first on five hits, a walk and a sacrifice fly, and eventually was charged with seven runs in 4 2/3 innings.

Outfielders Jeremy Hermida (two) and Darnell McDonald (one) played three balls into extra-base hits that made Matsuzaka's night more miserable than it deserved to be, though McDonald said running into the fence jarred the ball loose from his glove on Mark Teixeira's RBI double in the second.

But then the Sox broke out the long ball, and the Yankees had no answer. David Ortiz hit his sixth home run of the month in the fourth off Phil Hughes, who had begun the night as the Yankees' hottest pitcher, one who looked like he was about to improve on his 5-0 start and 1.38 ERA.

J.D. Drew, slotted in the No. 3 hole, hit a three-run home run off Hughes in the fifth. Victor Martinez -- in a 2-for-28 slump, off to his worst start in five years and dropped to the No. 5 spot in the order -- homered from the right side in the fifth and homered again in the eighth from the left, becoming the first Sox player to homer from both sides of the plate since Jason Varitek in 2005.

And Kevin Youkilis, who probably qualifies as the most despised of Boston's visitors to the Bronx, put the Sox ahead for the first time all night with a two-run home run in the eighth off Chan Ho Park. That made it 8-7 Sox. One batter later, Martinez made it 9-7. And after Daniel Bard struck out Derek Jeter to end the eighth, all that was left was for Papelbon to polish off the Yankees in the ninth.

Except maybe that isn't quite the automatic it once was. Just as familiarity has allowed the Sox more success against Rivera -- the greatest closer of them all -- than other teams, so are the Yankees showing signs of figuring out Papelbon.

Elias Sports Bureau did the math. In his past 18 appearances against the Yankees, dating to June 3, 2007, Papelbon is 0-5 with a 7.85 ERA. He has seven saves against the Bombers, but they have hit five home runs in 18 1/3 innings off him, are batting .293 overall and slugging .547.

Those are numbers that do not inspire great confidence.

"We have all the confidence in the world in Paps," Pedroia countered. "We all have his back."

But Rodriguez and Thames pounced on what Papelbon called "flat fastballs over the middle of the plate."

When he throws those, Papelbon said, "bad things usually happen."

And no one needs Olbermann to report that the Sox can't afford much more bad news in a season that already has had more than its share.

"I can't even find the words," Matsuzaka said afterward.

He wasn't the only one.

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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