The first half of the 2014 season has been exceptionally rough for the Red Sox, but they ended it on a high note Saturday night, with a ninth-inning homer from Mike Napoli lifting Jon Lester to a much-deserved win over Masahiro Tanaka in a very impressive pitchers' duel.
New Yankee Stadium has a way (not unlike Fenway) of imposing itself on games. It certainly made its presence known tonight as well, but it would be a disservice to Jon Lester and Masahiro Tanaka to treat them as anything than the two main players in this game. We have seen a few potential pitchers' duels end in lopsided victories or downright shootouts this year, but tonight the men on the mound lived up to their billing.
For Lester, this wasn't exactly a finesse inning. Throwing 74 of his 118 pitches for strikes, the southpaw lived in the bottom half of the zone. On some levels this sort of aggression is enabled by New York's more lefty-friendly design, but Lester still played his role to perfection. When he missed, he missed low, managing to avoid the kind of mistake pitches that cost you runs and the games rather than just a few more pitches.
Tanaka was a bit more nuanced. As might be expected from a right-handed pitcher, he attempted to live on the outside part of the plate, his slider doing quite a bit of work against a Red Sox team that had trouble pulling the trigger against his off-speed offerings.
Ultimately, though, it was two fastballs that would prove Tanaka's undoing, the first coming in the third inning to one of the last guys you'd expect to do damage: David Ross. The last time he played was June 22nd in Oakland, clubbing a 403 foot shot to center against Tommy Milone. The layoff apparently did not cause much in the way of rust. On just the second pitch Ross saw, he once again found the seats with a left field blast that had more than enough distance.
Tanaka did not have to deal with the deficit for long, however. A Stephen Drew error allowed Brian Roberts to reach base against Jon Lester in the bottom of the inning, and after Lester hit Yongarvis Solarte, a Brett Gardner sacrifice and Derek Jeter groundout were enough to even the score even before Boston's lefty had allowed his first hit of the night.
In fact, that first hit would wait until the sixth--an inning which might have seen Lester crack on three straight singles had David Ross not made his presence felt once more by gunning down Brett Gardner at second to break the rally up before it could really get out of hand. Lester ended the potentially troublesome frame by retiring Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran, then wrapped up his outing with two more scoreless frames, finishing off his night with a strikeout of Teixeira for good measure.
To that point, however, Tanaka had not blinked again. The Red Sox had threatened in a big way, with Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz reaching on a single and double to start the fourth, but Tanaka had struck out Napoli and Drew back-to-back before escaping the inning with a Xander Bogaerts ground out. Other than a two-out double from Brock Holt and a single that Dustin Pedroia thew away on the basepaths in the sixth, Tanaka just hadn't been touched.
Then, however, came that second mistake pitch. With two outs in the ninth, the bases empty, and a 1-2 count to Mike Napoli, Tanaka was in just about the perfect situation. He could throw any pitch he wanted, wherever he wanted it. He chose a fastball, and while he tried to throw it low-and-away, he only managed the away bit, and didn't manage that quite as well as he'd probably hoped. Napoli put a good swing on the ball, producing the sort of line drive that usually nabs two bases.
But this is New Yankee Stadium, and that porch in right is just too generous when it comes to hitters. Napoli's line drive just barely cleared the wall, and as Masahiro Tanaka looked back in something close to disbelief, Napoli rounded the bases, headed to the dugout, and declared "what an idiot!" for the whole home audience to hear.
I'm sure that won't come up tomorrow.
Whatever Napoli said, however, the score was now 2-1, and that meant it was Koji Uehara time. Boston's closer hasn't had the cleanest record of late, but tonight he was his old self, rackign up two quick strikeouts and finishing the ninth with a McCann fly ball, securing a victory in game 81 for the Red Sox.