- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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BOSTON -- Scott Williamson was emotionally scattered as he sat in the office of Boston general manager Theo Epstein one day late in the regular season. His wife was recovering from complications after the birth of the couple's child in early August, and Williamson had pitched badly in his first weeks with the Red Sox and been booed lustily in Fenway Park. Williamson was such a concern that there was talk he would be left off the postseason roster.
So his ascension to postseason hero fits perfectly in the grand scheme of the Boston bullpen, where closers have come and gone day by day. Williamson has pitched extraordinarily over the last five days and that is good enough for now.
After losing the first two games of their best-of-five series with the Oakland Athletics, the Red Sox won the last two games, including their comeback victory in Game 4 on Sunday. David Ortiz smashed a two-run double in the bottom of the eighth inning -- off an entrenched closer, Oakland's Keith Foulke -- to drive in the tying and lead runs in Boston's 5-4 win.
It was the eighth consecutive loss for Oakland when the Athletics have had a chance to finish off a Division Series -- eight match points, eight consecutive defeats, over four years, a legacy of failure. And Athletics manager Ken Macha was in precisely the exact situation he wanted in the eighth inning of Game 4. Jermaine Dye had hit a two-run homer in the sixth and Oakland carried a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the eighth, and Macha summoned Foulke, who had rested for two days, to get the last six outs. "To me, we got right were we wanted to go today to get to our closer," Macha said afterward.
Foulke is an established closer, a veteran, and has been cited by some teammates as the Oakland MVP this season. His best pitch is a changeup, however, his fastball topping out in the range of 88-90 mph. It's been more than a decade since any team has won the World Series with a soft-tossing closer like Foulke; the championship-caliber teams have typically been loaded with pitchers who miss bats.
Nomar Garciaparra doubled in the bottom of the eighth, and Manny Ramirez came to bat with two outs. Macha jogged to the mound to discuss the options with Foulke: Oakland could have walked Manny Ramirez and pitched to Ortiz, who was hitless in 16 at-bats in the series. But Foulke pitched to Ramirez, who smacked a single to left field -- and the ball was hit so hard that Garciaparra had to stop at third.
With Ortiz at the plate, Foulke tried to overpower the slugger with high fastballs, throwing about 88 mph. But Ortiz overpowered Foulke's fastball, ripping a double over the head of Dye in right field, driving in two runs.
The bottom of the eighth ended, and Williamson jogged in from the bullpen to pitch the top of the ninth, as the Red Sox closer -- a job filled by many and held by no one this year. Boston went with the closer by committee to open the year and quickly bagged the system after repeatedly blowing leads. Byung-Hyun Kim was acquired from the Diamondbacks and shifted from the rotation to the bullpen, but Kim has shown himself to be ill-suited for the expectations of Boston; he flipped off the Red Sox crowd after being booed before Game 3, and later said he couldn't pitch.
After six months of trying to develop a bullpen hierarchy, Boston manager Grady Little has been forced to rely strictly on the hot hand of the day -- and Williamson, in particular, has come through in this series. After throwing two scoreless innings in Oakland in Games 1 and 2, Little called on Williamson in the 10th inning, and Williamson wound up getting the win -- throwing harder than at any time this season, catcher Jason Varitek said, finishing off hitters with a nasty breaking ball. "This is the time of year when heroes are made," said first baseman Kevin Millar. "His confidence is up."
Williamson said his meeting with Epstein and pitching coach Tony Cloninger helped him. "They really got the confidence back in me that, hey, they haven't lost the confidence in me to go out and do what I can do," said Williamson. "They got me over here for a reason. When I left the office with Theo, I went back to my old ways of throwing.
"I've got my family issues and personal life behind me now. We've got all that situated, with my wife being sick, and my baby being sick, really bad. It's tough to go out and play baseball when you're worrying about your family."
Fans in Fenway Park were in a frenzy after Ortiz's two-run double, and when Williamson took the mound for the top of the ninth, Burkett watched from the dugout and tried to imagine the adrenaline Williamson was feeling.
Whatever he felt, Williamson seemed to channel it all into his pitches, blazing fastballs over the plate. It was the most focused he had been since coming to Boston, Varitek said. Williamson was staring down his target, and throwing as if to deliver his fastball through Varitek, the catcher said.
He struck out Eric Byrnes, blew away Mark Ellis -- Ellis glanced back at Williamson in disbelief -- and then retired Erubiel Durazo on an easy pop-up, one of the most pain-free innings for any Boston closer this season. "He is surely capable of that," said Little.
The Athletics, unsure of where they would play after today, did not check out of their hotel before Game 4, and so afterward, they had to pack and fly across country, all the momentum of this series now against them like Category 5 winds. The Red Sox happily dressed and walked out of Fenway Park, loaded with four days of clothes, in case they have to go to New York.
The Athletics and Red Sox had to make the same journey westward on the eve of Game 5, but it figured that their trips would be very different.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
Scott Williamson has stepped up to give the Red Sox some much-needed reliability as the closer of the moment.