09/19/2003 10:10 PM ET
Sox lower magic number to seven
Burkett picks up win with seven scoreless innings
By Ian Browne / MLB.com
CLEVELAND -- Not only is John Burkett still here, but he is one of the reasons the Red Sox are looking good in the pursuit of their first playoff berth in four years.
Three months ago, Burkett himself acknowledged that his spot in the rotation -- not to mention on the team -- was possibly in jeopardy.
But the 38-year-old right-hander pitched himself right out of danger with consistency every fifth day. Friday night at Jacobs Field, Burkett took it to another level, lifting the short-handed Red Sox to a 2-0 victory over the Indians at Jacobs Field.
With the win, the Sox reduced their magic number to seven for clinching the Wild Card berth.
"I [said] earlier I just wanted the responsibility to pitch in these kind of games, it's a lot of fun," Burkett said. "It's what I've been fighting for all season long and now I'm getting that chance."
It was arguably Burkett's finest effort of the season, as he twirled seven scoreless innings (plus two batters in the eighth), allowing three hits and walking one (the final batter he faced), while striking out three.
"It all comes back to Burky," said Sox manager Grady Little. "Burky made pitches. What did we have, three double plays? They were big. Each one of them meant a lot. That all comes from the man on the mound."
Burkett improved his record to 11-8 and lowered his ERA to 4.84 by pitching at least six innings for the ninth time in his last 10 starts.
"In some areas, our starting rotation has exceeded our expectations all the way up and down," Little said before the game. "And I think the first thing that comes to my mind when we're talking about that is John Burkett. Back as early as May, this guy kind of felt like he kind of had his back to the wall and he's been outstanding just about every start he goes out there."
Who could have predicted all of this back on May 30, when his ERA rose up to 6.28 after being battered by the Blue Jays?
With Johnny Damon (strained left abdomen), Bill Mueller (back spasms) and Trot Nixon (strained left calf) all on the bench, the Sox needed everything Burkett had, and he gave it to them.
"He was able to get ground balls at people and keep his pitch count down," said Sox catcher Jason Varitek. "Any time you can get a starter that far into a game, it's big."
As you would expect, runs were tough to come by on a night the Sox were minus one-third of their starting nine.
A two-run third -- highlighted by a solo homer from Nomar Garciaparra -- turned out to be all the offense provided by the Sox.
Thanks largely to Burkett and reliever Mike Timlin, the limited supply of runs was enough for the Sox to notch their 90th victory of the season.
Alan Embree rescued Byung-Hyun Kim (two hit batters) from a rocky ninth, as the power left-hander picked up his first save of the season by getting Ben Broussard on a grounder back to the box.
It was Embree's first save since saving both ends of a doubleheader on July 2, 2002.
Little made it clear that relievers won't have much leeway for getting out of their own jams the rest of the season, even Kim at last call.
"We're in a position where we can't really wait until someone gets it together there on the mound," Little said. "If we see that we can better ourselves at a point and time anywhere, we're going to do it."
Though most of the night was about pitching, the Sox put their first burst of offense together in the top of the third. Gabe Kapler led off with a double to right, moved to third on Damian Jackson's grounder to second and scored on a sac fly to center by Todd Walker.
While that run was nicely manufactured against Indians starter Jason Stanford, Garciaparra made the next one a lot quicker. He followed Walker by lacing a solo homer to left to make it 2-0. It was No. 26 on the season for Garciaparra.
The blast put Garciaparra ahead of Jackie Jensen for ninth place on the team's all-time homer list with 171.
Burkett was dealing for the Sox, giving up just three hits in the first seven innings, facing just two batters over the minimum in that span.
He came back out for the eighth. Broussard reached on a fielding error by Jackson, who had just moved to second for defensive purposes. Chris Magruder followed with a walk, prompting Little to go to his bullpen.
On came Timlin, who deftly fielded a sacrifice bunt attempt by Jhonny Peralta and nabbed the lead runner at third. Timlin then struck out Brandon Phillips and Coco Crisp, getting out of the jam unscathed.
"Mike Timlin did a fabulous job coming in for me," Burkett said. "First and second, nobody out, you're thinking they're probably going to get a run. He made a really good play on the bunt. He was able to get out of the inning with no runs. That was a huge situation right there."
As for the Sox, they keep grinding along, even with some core players temporarily out of the mix.
"Very impressive, that's impressive," Little said. "That's what championship seasons are all about."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.