Resourceful Red Sox let one slip away
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- If Ronan Tynan can switch allegiances, then why can't Vladimir Shpunt?
The Irish tenor used to sing for Steinbrenner. Now he shows up at Fenway for the Fourth of July, Steinbrenner's birthday.
Could it be that Shpunt, the reclusive 71-year-old psychic who lives near Boston and was revealed by the Los Angeles Times to have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the Dodgers to watch their games on TV and transmit his positive vibes over the airwaves to help them win, has switched to NESN?
Think about it. Sox owner John W. Henry bought Dodgers owner Frank McCourt's Brookline estate for millions, only to tear it down and build a new one on the property. Who's to say that the two owners didn't cut a side deal that allows Henry use of the Russian Magical Mystery Man when the, uh, spirit moves him?
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Do you have a better explanation for why no matter who walks through the door of the Sox clubhouse these days -- the unknowns, the never-weres, the almost-but-not-quites -- they suddenly are vested with skills no one imagined they had?
It's happened too many times to be coincidental. Or rational.
The latest example is Eric Patterson, a failed prospect for the Cubs and an apprentice utilityman for the Athletics, who Monday night in his fourth start for the Sox hit two mammoth home runs and a double. Patterson has played 138 games in the big leagues. This was the first time he has hit two home runs in a game.
But how can you say you're surprised, after seeing Darnell McDonald hit a home run in his first Sox at-bat, then deliver a walk-off hit in the same game, or Daniel Nava hit a grand slam on his first pitch in the big leagues, or Bill Hall fill in all over the diamond, or Terry Francona stitch together more than two dozen outfield combinations, and win with all of them?
The last time we saw Sox bit players take top billing with such regularity was nearly a half century ago -- and they called that team of overachievers "The Impossible Dreamers." These guys, Nava and Hall and McDonald and Patterson, are the spiritual descendants of Jerry Adair and Dalton Jones, Norm Siebern and Jose Tartabull.
Some have opined that because these Red Sox lack the star quality of recent nines -- the Pedros and Mannys and Schillings and Damons -- they don't register as high on the excitement quotient. And if they played in Chavez Ravine, where the celebrities show up only for their own kind, that would be true.
But in Boston? Au contraire. This isn't Shakespeare, but on a nightly basis you can't beat this team for improbable storylines, unlikely heroes, dramatic tension and God knows enough adversity facing our protagonists to satisfy the Bard himself (and we don't mean Daniel).
This actually has been truth stranger than fiction, although a happy ending -- Shpunt or no Shpunt -- is hardly guaranteed. We saw that Monday night, when Shpunt's "V energy" evidently ran into cosmic interference somewhere along the line in Boston's 6-5 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.
There was definitely a breakdown in communication of some sort, and it cost Daisuke Matsuzaka dearly. The Japanese right-hander, staked to a 5-1 lead by a four-run rally in the Sox third that began with the first of Patterson's two home runs, was still leading 5-3 in the sixth when Sean Rodriguez doubled and Carlos Pena walked.
The next batter, Jason Bartlett, laid down a bunt that Matsuzaka reached quickly. He whirled to third, looking for the force. But the third baseman, Adrian Beltre, had charged on the play, and shortstop Marco Scutaro had made a beeline for second.
Matsuzaka held the ball, and everyone was safe. The next batter, John Jaso, whom Matsuzaka thought he'd struck out with a changeup, grounded a two-run single just under the glove of Hall at second, and the game was tied. The Rays took the lead for good in the next inning against reliever Ramon Ramirez on a bloop hit, a line single, a ground ball and a sacrifice fly.
"We just have to go to first, we've got to take the out,'' Francona said of the bunt. "Beltre's right behind him. We're just set up to get the out at first.''
Did Matsuzaka know?
"He knew that,'' Francona said. "Sometimes the game gets going fast and you glance to third. The play was just to take the out.''
Matsuzaka said he intended to make a play at third as soon as he fielded the ball, which is at odds with Francona's assertion that he knew no one would be there. Catcher Kevin Cash and Beltre were yelling at him, Matsuzaka said, but their voices were lost in the crowd.
When Matsuzaka was asked if he should have known ahead of time, he tersely replied that he had no interest in discussing that in present company.
"Through all that,'' Francona said, "the bunt ends up being a huge play.''
The Sox had just two hits after Patterson's second home run, which came in the fourth. They left the bases loaded in the seventh, Beltre and J.D. Drew striking out in succession. By then the game had dragged on into its third hour. Shpunt might have nodded off, or momentarily channel surfed to Psychic Television.
The loss dropped the Sox back into third place, a half-game behind Tampa Bay and 2 1/2 behind the Yankees, who beat Oakland 3-1 on Monday. The Rays, who split a pair of games last week in Boston, have beaten the Sox five out of six times in Fenway; Monday night was the first time in four meetings at the Trop they came out ahead.
Tuesday night, the Rays will throw Jeff Niemann, who is 6-2 with a 2.80 ERA, at the Sox. Boston will counter with Felix Doubront, the 22-year-old Venezuelan lefty who will be making just his second big league start. Put it this way: Shpunt might need some help.
Or maybe this isn't about Shpunt at all. These Improbables have found their own source of positive energy, and they've gone through enough already to not let anyone shut it down now. Not without a fight.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.
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