The Red Sox topped their pale-hosed opponents from Chicago 6-3 on Tuesday. But questions arose regarding Boston's consistency after some late-inning carelessness and laziness nearly cost them the game.
It started in the top of the seventh with the Red Sox up 2-1. Jon Lester had pitched a magnificent game to that point, allowing just one run on two hits. He'd retired the last 12 White Sox batters in order.
Even after giving up a single, a walk and a sacrifice to lead off the frame, Lester was one pitch from getting out of it unscathed. With runners on second and third with two outs, he threw a nasty curveball to Chicago shortstop Alexei Ramirez, who took a huge cut as the ball dropped nastily into the dirt. Ramirez missed it by a foot. Strike three. Or so we thought.
To be fair, catcher Jason Varitek usually eats up those 59-foot curveballs like boneless buffalo wings at Chili's. But Lester's deuce deuced so much that it hit the front lip of the plate and — even though Varitek appeared to be in perfect position to knock it down — it ricocheted off to Tek's right and bounced to the backstop. Ramirez made it to first without a throw and the game-tying run scored from third.
To make matters worse, the next batter, second baseman and No. 9 hitter Jayson Nix, ripped a single off the glove of third baseman Mike Lowell to put the White Sox up 3-2.
A clutch pinch-hit RBI single from Victor Martinez in the bottom of the seventh evened the score again at 3-3. But the Red Sox hijinks started up again in the top of the eighth.
Leading off for Chicago, Carlos Quentin dinked a low pop-up toward the back of the pitcher's mound. While all four infielders hustled to get into position to make the catch, it was obvious that lefty Hideki Okajima, who had relieved Lester in the middle of the previous frame, had the best chance at making the play.
"The ball goes up and it's got to be Okie's ball because of the [lack of] height," said manager Terry Francona after the game.
But instead of simply backing up and making a routine play any Little Leaguer would make without hesitation, Okajima tried to make a Willie Mays-style basket catch with his back to the plate.
Not so much.
The ball dropped to the infield grass and Quentin reached first. It was eventually ruled a (terribly undeserved) hit.
During the ensuing at-bat, Martinez (who had replaced Varitek behind the plate), in attempting to make a simple toss back to Okajima after a pitch, missed Okie (who was off to the side of the mound) by a foot. The ball soared into center field and Quentin took second on the second Red Sox error in less than two minutes.
"[It was like] someone punched me in the stomach," said Francona of Okajima's mishap, "and before I could even look up I got hit with the other hand. The ball's going flying into center."
Somehow, by the grace of Johnny Pesky, Boston managed to get out of it. After giving up a Paul Konerko single which pushed Quentin to third, Okie got Jermaine Dye to pop up and struck out A.J. Pierzynski. Manny Delcarmen came on in relief and got Alex Rios to fly out to shallow center.
"We kind of created our own rally for them with the pop up and the ball [going] into center," said Francona, "but we found a way to wiggle out of it.
"Rather than mope, [Okajima] beared down and made pitches. And Manny did also. That was impressive."
The Boston bats came alive in the bottom of the eighth, as a Jason Bay solo blast and clutch rips from Martinez and Jacoby Ellsbury brought home three runs. Closer Jonathan Papelbon shut the door in the ninth and that was that.
The Red Sox win maintained their wild-card lead of 1 1/2 games over the Rangers and three games over the Rays, both of whom were also victorious on the night.
Boston managed to pull out a hard-fought victory despite several instances of bad luck in the seventh and general sloppiness in the eighth. Thankfully, it didn't affect the outcome on Tuesday.
Will the Red Sox be as lucky down the line against tougher AL opponents like the Yankees, Rays or Angels?