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NEW YORK -- The fear coming into this wraparound weekend was that the Boston Red Sox would come to Yankee Stadium and be sucked into a giant Bronx sinkhole.
Because Jon Lester, Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon showed no fear, that did not happen. After a pulsating 2-1 win over the New York Yankees on Monday afternoon, the Red Sox headed into a Canadian sunset still visible -- and viable -- in the American League playoff scene.
|Jonathan Papelbon, who relied heavily on his splitter in closing out the Yankees on Monday, said it was "probably as good as I've felt all year."|
"Do these people know I saved the game?'' Papelbon said to team publicist Pam Ganley, feigning surprise that a gaggle of reporters was waiting on him to button his last button, tie his last shoelace, and put his last hair in place so it could hear him describe how he navigated the game's final four outs.
"They know I didn't blow it, right?'' said Papelbon, who saved the bookend games of this series without allowing a hit, a drastic departure from his last visit here, back in May, when over two games he allowed as many runs (five) as he recorded outs and was burned by home runs by Alex Rodriguez and Marcus Thames.
This time, the Sox bullpen had the blowtorches. After Lester gave the Sox 6⅓ scoreless innings, his last act a strikeout of Curtis Granderson with the bases loaded, he yielded to Bard, who whiffed Derek Jeter and Nick Swisher on six consecutive high-octane fastballs to end the seventh.
Then, after Mark Teixeira took Bard deep with his third home run of the series to halve the Sox lead, Papelbon needed just one pitch to end a two-on, two-out threat in the eighth, getting Austin Kearns to roll out to second. Papelbon then struck out three Bombers in the ninth, including Swisher and Teixeira with Jeter in scoring position.
"Probably as good as I've felt all year,'' said Papelbon, who was the last man out of the clubhouse to catch the team's flight to Toronto, where the Sox make their second stop on their three-city, 10-game trip.
By splitting this four-game series, the Sox are in the same position relative to the Yankees as they were when the weekend began, six games behind (seven in the loss column), now with just 49 games to play. The Yankees' grip on the division race remains as firm as ever.
But with Tampa Bay spiraling into a losing streak, the wild-card race has grown tighter, with the Sox -- joined by the Minnesota Twins -- pulling within striking distance of the Rays.
The loss of Kevin Youkilis for the rest of the season after thumb surgery Friday was keenly felt by the Sox offense, which scored only two runs in each of the last three games of the series in New York. Scoring two or fewer runs in three straight games didn't happen in the team's first 96 games. It now has happened twice in the past 17 games, the first time when the Red Sox lost two out of three to the Mariners in Seattle.
But with an agitated Lester bent on ending a personal four-game losing streak and Bard and Papelbon both in peak form, the Sox made the two runs they scored off Phil Hughes in the second inning stand up.
"You saw two pretty good teams going at it,'' manager Terry Francona said. "A fun day of baseball.''
The fun for the Sox kicked in to a higher level in the seventh courtesy of Bard, whose velocity did not dip below 98 mph in his half-dozen pitches to Jeter and Swisher.
Bard could think of only two things he has experienced that produced an adrenaline rush akin to what he felt in that moment.
"Standing at the altar when I got married,'' he said, "and seeing a big deer in the scope. That's about it.''
Bard is not a thrill-seeker. No driving at high speeds or bungee jumping for him.
"I get my thrills from this and hunting, I guess. It was a good nervous in the wedding, you know. Everybody is nervous. Your heart is pounding out of your chest, but that's a good nervous.
"This was a good nervous too. The chance to do something significant and succeeding. Here, it's just a matter of controlling it.''
For Papelbon, no novice at negotiating the high wire, the most encouraging aspect of his outing was his control of an old friend, the splitter. He struck out Granderson with a split, then walked Jeter on a full count, just as he had done Friday night, this time without the Yankees' captain fouling off five straight two-strike pitches.
He started Swisher with a splitter for strike one, then punched him out with an elevated fastball. The split was the weapon of choice against Teixeira, who fouled one at the plate to stay alive, before swinging at and missing another that dived out of harm's way, Papelbon giving a small fist pump in celebration.
"I've kind of been able to get the feel for it here as of late,'' Papelbon said.
Will we be seeing it more?
"Probably a good chance,'' he said jauntily.
As Papelbon walked out the door, handing a gratuity to the clubhouse man as he left, the unspoken message was this: There's probably a good chance we'll be seeing the Sox sticking around. As Francona likes to say, "We'll keep playing until they tell us to go home.''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.