The final two games would feature Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester — two of the hottest pitchers in baseball who had won a collective nine straight games — going up against a struggling Justin Masterson and a rookie who had given up four runs in three innings the only time he had ever faced Boston, as well as an offense that ranked among the worst in the American League.
As the saying goes, that’s why they play the games.
The Tribe’s somewhat stunning 11-0 victory behind Masterson on Wednesday merely set the stage for an incredibly agonizing setback in the Thursday’s finale, which saw Lester lose an early five-run lead and Daniel Bard blow a one-run advantage in the bottom of the ninth after Boston had rallied to take the lead back on Adrian Beltre’s two-run homer in the top half.
The 8-7 setback sent the Sox home for nine straight games against National League opponents on a bad, and unexpected, note.
"We’re gonna get on the flight a little frustrated tonight," manager Terry Francona said moments after Bard gave up a game-winning two-run single to Russell Branyan, capping the once-unlikely series split for the Indians.
Lester entered Thursday’s start having won four straight starts while posting a 0.64 ERA. He carried an 11 1/3-inning scoreless streak, had never lost in six career starts against Cleveland and, oh yeah, struck out four and led 5-0 through two perfect innings that seemed to set the stage for a cakewalk. Career win No. 50 was there for the taking against the worst team in the worst division in the American League.
Las Vegas would need to offer up a wad of free buffet tickets to get any action on the Indians at that point.
However, a closer look revealed some chinks in the armor. Boston’s offense had not scored in 14 straight innings entering the game and was aided greatly in its four-run first when Cleveland third baseman Andy Marte committed three errors. The Sox stranded runners on second and third in the first and left the bases loaded in the second before stringing together another run of goose eggs, making the early wasted opportunities sting a bit more every time Cleveland made a push.
The Tribe got to Lester for three runs in the third and then used a pair of bloop hits to get three more in the sixth. Just an hour after “Dollar Dog Night” at Progressive Field was all the fans could rely on for a smile, they had plenty more to be happy about, their ragtag bunch now leading Lester.
Beltre’s blast off Indians closer Kerry Wood wiped away some of those smirks, but frowns were turned upside down in the “Mistake by the Lake” when Bard loaded the bases with no outs and then saw Branyan’s two-out bloop to right fall in for the game-winner.
Even the Indians, who have to dream big to even imagine themselves involved in a pennant race this year, could recognize the improbability of the series turnaround.
"That’s huge. You go down 0-2 and you come back," Branyan said. "We won a big one last night behind Justin Masterson. He threw and incredible game. And then tonight to come back in the bottom half [of the ninth], it was very exciting."
All the ninth-inning drama rendered Lester’s uneven outing a distant memory. But he remained upset with himself in the clubhouse, recognizing a wasted opportunity.
"We had the early lead, 5-0 lead, I didn’t get the job done," Lester said. "It’s a funny game. It’s probably the best I’ve felt all year and probably overthrew the ball, didn’t locate within the zone. Yeah, they didn’t square up a lot of balls, but I gotta do a better job….It was one of those games."
Actually, it was two of "those games," ripe for the picking for the Red Sox, but spoiled by the time they left town.