Bill Hall did all he could, helping put Boston in the lead against Mariano Rivera (foreground), but his Red Sox ultimately fell, their playoff chances taking a huge blow. Photo: daylife)


In the bottom of the 10th inning, veteran left-hander Hideki Okajima needed a double play but he didn’t get it. With the sacks packed full of New York Yankees, a 3-1 pitch to Juan Miranda—a 27-year-old who struck out ever 3.4 at-bats against left-handers in Triple-A this season—from the Boston Red Sox reliever missed inside. Game over. Boston’s season essentially over.

After struggling for most of the season, Okajima’s countryman Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched brilliantly, doing his part to try to keep Boston’s hopes alive. He shutout New York over the first six innings nursing a 1-0 lead made possible by a Victor Martinez RBI single in the third that scored Bill Hall. The movement on Matsuzaka’s pitches was extraordinarily effective, and his pitch selection and placement kept their plethora of star hitters off balance. That was until the seventh, when the player I loathe the most cashed in for Yankees.

Alex Rodriguez, whom I snickered at throughout my trip to Yankees Stadium earlier this month, entered his plate appearance having tallied 495 at-bats. This one would net him $66,666 (he makes $33 million this season) whether he delivered or not. Matsuzaka had allowed a one-out single to Mark Teixeira just prior, and Teixeira would soon score, as Rodriguez crushed a misplaced 0-2 fastball into the first row of the right-field seats. In baseball terms, money earned.

It was his fourth home run of the series, so it certainly didn’t come as much of a surprise. Boston couldn’t do something about the 2-1 deficit in the eighth. And worse yet, they had to face the infamous Mariano Rivera in the ninth.

Boston has broken through against the best closer of all time many times before, but what transpired was still surprising. Rivera entered his outing having blown two saves in the month, which he had never previously done in September. The number would grow, but not in the manner one would think.

As ESPN announcer Orel Hershiser pointed out, closers have historically had difficult times holding runners. Since their job is to get three outs they primarily focus solely on the hitter, as was the case with Rivera tonight. Young outfielder Ryan Kalish worked a walk with one out then took advantage of Rivera’s focus on Hall, who was the hitter. Two bases were swiped by Kalish during Hall’s lengthy at-bat, both stolen quite easily as catcher Jorge Posada failed to even attempt to throw him out.

Hall, who has been a very effective player for Boston this season, rewarded Kalish for his efforts, hitting a frozen rope past Rodriguez at third to score the tying run and end a seven-pitch battle, and then he harnessed his inner Kalish, stealing second and third. Posada missed badly on both throws, and Boston was in business, with a runner on third and only one out. Pinch-hitter Mike Lowell did what was necessary, lifting a fly ball deep enough to center to score Hall. Boston had the lead.

But it wouldn’t last. Closer Jonathan Papelbon, who has struggled this season, made things far too interesting as usual. He couldn’t hold the advantage given to him by his scrappy offense, allowing three runners to reach with one out and then a tying single to MVP candidate Robinson Cano. The strike zone was incredibly small for Papelbon, but it was the same as it had been for Matsuzaka. Sure strikes hitting the outside edges of the zone and the lower portion were called balls. Umpire Phil Cuzzi was consistent, but consistently wrong.

Papelbon managed to persevere in spite of Cuzzi’s blindness, retiring the still dangerous Posada and Lance Berkman to limit the damage. Boston lived on, but they wouldn’t live long.

Miranda’s game-winning walk was far too anticlimactic considering the excitement that had led to that. Prior to the inside pitch that had Boston walking off the field and down the tunnel dejected, it was a classic Red Sox-Yankees affair. The Red Sox were still playing for something. As Hall said after Friday’s win over New York, “I don’t think ‘spoiler’ is what we’re looking at. We want to sweep the series and go to Chicago and sweep there, too. We’re looking to win out.” That can’t happen now, but it’s the thought that counts.

The Red Sox shouldn’t have been in the position to make this game meaningful. They lost Jacoby Ellsbury early on, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia hit the shelf mid-summer, and pitchers Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and Matsuzaka (in spite of his brilliance tonight) have struggled mightily. Still, trudging out an injured Marco Scutaro, a well past his prime David Ortiz, an underachieving J.D. Drew, a banged up Martinez, and a slew of call-ups and journeymen—like Kalish and Hall, respectively—Boston scared New York in their second-to-last series of the season. And though the team expected to make the playoffs in spite of their depletion, that’s good enough for me.

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