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2006: Diary of a Season
Red Sox 5, Devil Rays 1
The Red Sox went on to Toronto, where they dropped three of four to fall into third place in the division, behind the Yankees and the Blue Jays. Big Papi hit one home run over the weekend, giving him 53 on the season. It also made 32 homers on the road, which tied the American League record. At work on Tuesday, one of my co-workers offered me a free ticket to that night's game, because he couldn't go. Of course, I jumped at the chance. There was a ceremony before the game to honor Big Papi for breaking the Red Sox home run record held since 1938 by Jimmie Foxx, and the American League record for homers on the road set by Babe Ruth in 1927. Foxx's daughter and Ruth's granddaughter were on hand, and a large banner was displayed over the Green Monster.
When the game started, the bleachers hadn't completely filled in around me. Curt Schilling retired the first batter on a line drive to third and struck out the second batter. I looked down to record the out on my scorecard. The seat next to me was empty and still folded up, but under the seat next to that, a rat peeked out. I quickly picked my feet up, then froze. I was too freaked out to scream, and I didn't even say anything because I didn't want anyone's movement to scare it over toward me. I needed to get out of there - and fast - but couldn't figure out how to do that without my feet touching the ground. I tried to wait out the current at-bat, so I could climb up over the seats between innings, but Carl Crawford worked a full count and kept fouling pitches off. I decided I had to make a run for it before the row behind me filled in. Somehow I managed to step on my seat without my feet touching the ground first, then jumped into the row behind me and ran out of the section. When I re-emerged fom the concourse, Crawford had walked, and Greg Norton had knocked him in. I went over to the standing room area behind first base and stayed there for the rest of the game. Meanwhile, after one more walk, Curt got out of the inning.
At this point in the season, the only thing we had to look forward to was Big Papi's at-bats. Regardless of what else was happening in the game, everyone stood while he was at the plate. He was on one of his hot streaks, and tonight he kept it going with a single in his first at-bat. The Red Sox loaded the bases in the second but couldn't score, and in the third it was Papi's turn again, with two outs and the bases empty. This time he launched one deep into the right field stands - homer number 54! "MVP! MVP!" we chanted as he rounded the bases, and long after he had returned to the dugout. In the fourth, the Sox took the lead on doubles by Jason Varitek and Eric Hinske and a triple by Alex Cora. Two more walks loaded the bases for Big Papi, and this time he lined a single into center, driving in two more runs. MVP! MVP! MVP!
With the score now 5-1, Schilling cruised. At the end of the seventh, he had nine strikeouts and was up to 101 pitches, so it was a little surprising that he came out to start the eighth. He must have convinced Terry Francona he could go further, since this would be his last start of the year. But Tito had done it on purpose, waiting until just before the inning started before coming out to the mound to get him. That gave us a chance to give Curt a much-deserved standing ovation - not just for this game, but for his whole season - on his way out. Keith Foulke and Mike Timlin shut down the Devil Rays the rest of the way.
Devil Rays 11, Red Sox 0
I was back the next night, in my Tenth Man Plan seats. It was Red Sox legend Johnny Pesky's 87th birthday, and he was honored in a pre-game ceremony. The right field foul pole was officially named "Pesky's Pole", even though it's been called that for years. They presented him with a cake, and he threw out the first pitch. The name Pesky's Pole was allegedly coined by Mel Parnell, the All-Star lefty who played with Pesky in the 1940's and 50's, and was an announcer on Red Sox radio and TV broadcasts in the 60's. He said that Pesky would win games for him by hitting one off the foul pole, but it was more of a teasing reference to Pesky's lack of power than a recollection of an actual event. A lifetime .307 hitter and effective table-setter who consistently hit 20+ doubles and scored 100+ runs, Pesky only had 17 home runs in his career, and researchers have never been able to identify one as having hit the foul pole. But it's only 302 feet from home plate, a plausible distance for a left-handed hitter without much power to have knocked one out, and the name stuck.
Josh Beckett ran into trouble in the first, when he gave up a two-run homer to Greg Norton. Home runs and first inning struggles had been plaguing him all year, as he made the transition to the American League. But after that he settled down, and at the end of six innings, he had given up only three hits and no walks, and had thrown only 65 pitches. There wasn't much happening in the run support department, but the lineup was full of rookies and backups. Rookie outfielder David Murphy was leading off. He was followed by Mark Loretta and David Ortiz. Wily Mo Pena batted cleanup. Trot Nixon and Jason Varitek were next, followed by Eric Hinske, Dustin Pedroia, and Alex Cora. It shouldn't have come as a surprise that Devil Rays pitcher Tim Corcoran had no trouble shutting them down. Loretta doubled in the first, but Big Papi walked and they were both stranded. Pedroia was stranded after a double in the second. Papi's next at-bat came in the third, with two outs and the bases empty. He walked on four straight pitches, prompting boos with each ball. He was up again to lead off the sixth, and walked for the third time. It was frustrating being down 2-0, but we still figured that as soon as Corcoran came out of the game and the Devil Rays went to their bullpen, the Red Sox would mount a comeback.
Beckett came out for the seventh and gave up an infield hit and a walk. A double drove in both runners before he picked up a strikeout for the first out of the inning. But that was followed by a single, a run-scoring fielder's choice, and another single. A three-run homer by Rocco Baldelli made it 8-0 Devil Rays, and sent Beckett to the showers. Bryan Corey added to the carnage with a single, a triple, and two doubles, before Craig Hansen finally recorded the third out of what ended up a nine-run inning. With the Sox down 11-0, there wasn't much Big Papi could do. He flied to center in the eighth, and the game ended as a totally pathetic display by everyone else involved.
Red Sox 9, Orioles 0
I made sure to get to Sunday's game early. It was the final game of the season, meaning it would be another six months before I could come back, so I wanted to make the most of it. I got there shortly after the gates opened at noon. It was raining and the tarp was on the field, so there was no batting practice. My friend and I stayed in the right field grandstand, where we'd be under cover, and waited for the game to start. At 2:00, the Jumbo-Tron announced, "Showers are expected to last until 3 - 3:30 pm. We still expect to play today's game." It was cruelly fitting that before we could say goodbye to this season, we'd have to wait out one more rain delay. When there was no sign of any action at 3:45, the announcement changed to, "We still expect the rain to subside. Umpires will re-evaluate at 4 pm." At 4:30 we were told, "We expect to pull the tarp shortly and begin play after preparations." At 4:45, it said, "We expect to begin today's game at 5:25." A light rain was still falling, so we stayed in the Section 1 grandstand, rather than going out to our uncovered bleacher seats.
Just after 5:30, the game did get started. Devern Hansack, who had been a key figure in the Sea Dogs' Double A championship team, was making his second start for the big league team. This was our last chance to say goodbye to Trot Nixon, who would likely be moving on as a free agent this winter. He was drafted by the Red Sox in 1994 and had played his whole career here. He was an intense competitor - the original "Dirt Dog" - who would crash into walls chasing down fly balls, and treated every at-bat as seriously as we fans did, as if it were a life-and-death matter. Throw in several clutch hits against the Yankees (Roger Clemens in particular), his active involvement in charitable events in the community, and that perpetually filthy cap, and he was a fan favorite. But now he was on the wrong side of 30, had missed a lot of time due to injury, and had hit only eight homers all season. The Red Sox needed someone who could consistently fill the number five spot in the order, and it was clear he'd be moving on to some other team where he could be more than just a backup outfielder. We gave him standing ovations when he came out to take his spot in right field, and in every at-bat.
Hansack set the Orioles down in order in the first, and Trot started off the bottom of the inning with a single and stole second. Mark Loretta was hit with a pitch, and it was Big Papi's turn. He popped up, but Mike Lowell followed with a three-run homer, his 20th of the year. Hansack walked a batter in the second, erased him on a double play, and pitched a 1-2-3 third. Big Papi walked in his next at-bat, and that was followed by Lowell's infield hit and Eric Hinske's walk to load the bases. Carlos Pena walked, forcing in a run, and Gabe Kapler cleared the bases with a three-run double, giving the Sox a 7-0 lead. It had stopped raining in the top of the fourth, when the Red Sox made the announcement that as a gesture of appreciation for the fans, we could sit anywhere in the park, including the Green Monster and the right field roof. The Green Monster looked pretty full already, but we were close to the right field roof, so we went up there and found a table, as Hansack was again retiring the side in order. (Of course, we had just finished wiping off the table and seats with paper towels when it started to rain again. We each got a coffee, but they were out of lids, and it was raining into the coffee cup.)
Loretta hit a home run in the bottom of the fourth, and Papi followed with another full-count walk. As soon as he got to first base, Terry Francona took him out for a pinch-runner - the snail-paced Doug Mirabelli, of all people. I was appalled that he was taking him out so soon, without the chance to extend his home run record beyond 54, but Tito must have known this game wasn't going the full nine innings. Taking him out once he reached base gave us a chance to bestow him an appreciative ovation as he walked off. In the fifth, it rained harder, so I had to put the scorecard away. Dustin Pedroia replaced Loretta at second, and after Hansack had recorded two outs, Tito sent David Murphy in to play right field. As Trot walked off, we gave him a long standing ovation, and he stood in front of the dugout for a few moments and tipped his cap.
I was so focused on Trot and Papi and keeping my scorecard dry, that I didn't even notice that Hansack had gotten through the first five innings without allowing a hit. (Unfortunately, he wouldn't get credit for a no-hitter unless he went nine innings, even if it wasn't his fault the game was shorter than that.) It was raining even harder in the bottom of the fifth, so we left the roof seats and moved around behind home plate under cover. Hinske homered to give the Sox a 9-0 lead, but as soon as the fifth inning was over, around 7:00, the grounds crew rolled out the tarp. So that's why Tito had taken everyone out so early! It was pretty clear the game wasn't going to resume, but we still had to wait a half-hour before it could officially be called. At 7:45, the official announcement was made ending the game. They also announced, "We hope to see you here Opening Day, Tuesday, April 10" and "139 days till pitchers and catchers report." We went down next to the Red Sox dugout, where Fenway Ambassadors were handing out bumper stickers and other small souvenirs. I wound up with a foam stress ball with the Red Sox logo on it. I thought that was perfect for a Red Sox fan, but it might have been more helpful if they had handed them out on Opening Day instead of on the final day of the season! At 8:00, after eight hours at the ballpark, we finally headed out into the long offseason.
A third-place finish certainly wasn't what I was looking forward to in June, when the Red Sox had the best record in baseball, but in the end there were too many key injuries to make that a reality. I did have some memorable days and nights at the ballpark along the way. I went 16-13, and got to witness three walkoff wins, Big Papi's record-setting home runs, a Josh Beckett gem, a thrilling win over the Mets, and excellent infield defense all year long. But all that was left now was to count down the 139 days until pitchers and catchers would report to spring training, and wonder what memories Next Year would bring.
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