Commentary

Red Sox's mettle will be tested

Originally Published: October 14, 2007
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- For 11 innings, the Cleveland Indians played desperation baseball. They survived losing a first-inning lead for the second consecutive night, overcame losing a two-run lead in the kind of way that buries most teams, stared down the hottest offensive tandem in baseball in a crucial late situation with no room for failure, and played two games in Boston with neither of their elite pitchers able to escape the fifth inning.

But the American League Championship Series now is tied at one game apiece, courtesy of Cleveland's exhausting 13-6 win over the Boston Red Sox on Saturday. The victory was capped by a seven-run knockout punch in the top of the 11th inning, but it was defined by the Indians' ability to counter each moment in Game 2 that appeared to signal a Boston mandate.

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Now, entering Monday's Game 3, it is the Tribe that comes home from Boston having lost nothing and gained everything. The Indians relearned some things about themselves, and this variety of psychological victory is not insignificant. Trot Nixon, whose one-out bloop single off Javier Lopez in the last frame ignited the exclamation point, acknowledged his young teammates might have been a bit intimidated by the Fenway postseason crush during their Game 1 loss. Before Game 2, one Red Sox player predicted that Cleveland starter Fausto Carmona would fall apart once he heard Boston's October crowd firsthand. The mind games, even at this late date on the calendar, do not stop.

"I'm so proud of these guys for the way they've persevered throughout the entire year," Nixon said. "No one was picking us to win. They persevered in New York in a hostile atmosphere. We didn't play the way we wanted the first night. Maybe we had some big eyes out there, but I think they learned a lot in that first game and were able to come out against a top-flight pitcher like Curt Schilling and get after it a little bit."

To that point, it appeared the Indians would struggle through, just valiant enough to lose -- if for no other reason than the Red Sox were home, with the final at-bat.

That advantage now turns to Cleveland -- and quickly. This series has turned into a best-of-five, with the Indians hosting three games. The Tribe has pierced the air of invincibility that permeated the Red Sox, who convincingly won their first four playoff games, by proving it can beat them in October.

I'm so proud of these guys for the way they've persevered throughout the entire year.

--Indians outfielder Trot Nixon

Conventional wisdom holds that momentum in a playoff series contains as much carry-over effect as the gifts of the next game's starting pitcher, meaning Jake Westbrook and Daisuke Matsuzaka now are more important than anything that occurred in Game 2.

Pressure is constant, but in Game 3, for the first time in this postseason, the Red Sox are the ones who need to learn something about themselves, most clearly, how much they can count on Matsuzaka. He is pitching to keep the Red Sox from a deficit against a revived Indians team and will be their Game 7 starter, if necessary. As of now, Matsuzaka has not proved he can handle this kind of prime-time exposure.

When the Red Sox paid a combined $102 million for Matsuzaka, the plan was for him to stand where he is now -- but as a proven veteran with a reputation for rising against pressure. He was to be a Japanese version of the great Orlando Hernandez, whose regular-season win totals always have been modest in comparison to his postseason exploits.

But his first taste, a 6-3 Red Sox win over the Los Angeles Angels in Game 2 of the AL Division Series, was not encouraging. He lasted just 4 2/3 innings, giving up seven hits and three runs.

To his credit, Matsuzaka pitches with an ace mentality. Like Schilling, his determination increases with men on base. He pitches with a grim sense of duty, and because of his toughness, the damage always seems as if it could be worse.

The problem is, Matsuzaka creates much of his own trouble. Despite his resolute demeanor this season, he often committed the type of pitching mistakes that plague losing pitchers and prevent good pitchers from becoming great.

Matsuzaka led the Red Sox in hits allowed, earned runs, home runs, walks and hit batsmen -- all categories great pitchers avoid. He threw four more innings than Josh Beckett but walked twice as many men. In nine of 32 starts, Matsuzaka yielded as many walks as hits, and Boston lost six of those games.

Worse, he is prone to quickly giving away leads, as he did against the Angels after the Red Sox scored twice to take a 2-0 lead. By the bottom of the second, Boston trailed 3-2.

For the Indians, they must be bolstered by their response to three important sequences in Game 2.

Leading 1-0 in the third, Carmona struck out two but gave up a base hit to David Ortiz -- who entered the game hitting .778, a number even slow-pitch softball players don't often reach -- to load the bases for Manny Ramirez. Carmona walked Ramirez on four pitches to tie the game.

The next hitter, Mike Lowell, ripped a two-run single to give the Red Sox the lead and continue the theme that the best Indians pitchers could do nothing with the heart of the Red Sox's order.

The Sox chased out Carmona after four innings, 95 pitches and five walks. They didn't hit him hard but executed nearly perfect at-bats by not swinging at pitches that were even the slightest millimeter out of the strike zone. Carmona, who threw the same darting pitches that made the New York Yankees chase out of the zone, would not be helped by a patient Red Sox team.

Daisuke Matsuzaka
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesDice-K went 1-1 with a 4.26 ERA in two starts against the Indians during the regular season.
With the momentum, Schilling -- another big-game pitcher -- retired Travis Hafner on a fly before yielding three straight hits. The third was a three-run homer to Jhonny Peralta that snatched back the lead for Cleveland. Grady Sizemore, the wondrous center fielder, banged a line-drive homer into the Boston bullpen an inning later to make it 5-3, Cleveland.

When the Red Sox erased the deficit and set the Fenway crowd aflame with a three-run fifth -- highlighted by consecutive home runs from Ramirez and Lowell -- the Indians' knees did not knock. They responded the very next inning, manufacturing a run around a leadoff walk by Peralta.

And finally, with the Red Sox ready to break their hearts and the fans set to pounce, the Indians did not blink. In the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and the winning run on second in a 6-6 game, Rafael Betancourt, pitching his third inning of relief, fought and beat Kevin Youkilis through an 11-pitch at-bat. In the 10th, reliever Tom Mastny cleanly sliced through Ortiz, Ramirez and Lowell -- the second time in the series the three were retired in order. The vaunted Sox mustered only one hit after the sixth inning.

For the first time this series, it was Exhibit A of the Indians' taking a big punch from the Red Sox and countering with a roundhouse of their own.

"There's no one who should feel bad in the clubhouse but me," said Schilling, who entered the game with the best winning percentage in postseason history. "Everything about this one falls on me. The way [Carmona] was early in the game and the way we were hitting and our at-bats, you knew we were going to grind it out on him and run him out of the game early. We put together a great inning, take a lead and get up to the Peralta at-bat, and I let it get away. ... This was all about me coming up small in a big game."

The Tribe had something to do with that. Now, it's the Indians' turn to show the Red Sox how Cleveland rocks.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.

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