Varitek's heads-up play saves day for Sox
Catcher prevents go-ahead run from scoring in eighth inning
BOSTON -- With the rain pouring down, the Blue Jays were about to put an even bigger damper on the Fenway faithful, not to mention the Red Sox. It was the top of the eighth inning with one out in a tie game and John McDonald had smashed a double into the corner in left field, and Travis Snider was roaring home from third with the potential go-ahead run.
Alex Gonzalez flagged down the relay throw from Jason Bay and swiftly unleashed a throw to the plate. As well as the whole thing was executed, it was going to be for naught, because Snider had the throw beat.
Or so it seemed. As Snider was about to cross home, Jason Varitek instinctively stuck his leg out to block Snider's path to the plate. Snider never touched the plate. Varitek applied the tag, and the Red Sox had a game-saving play in what wound up a topsy-turvy 6-5 victory on Friday night.
Reliever Daniel Bard, who thought he had given up a crushing hit, marveled at the work of his teammates, particularly Varitek.
"It looked like Snider could have broken his shin on that -- that was impressive," said Bard. "That's how they teach it. That was impressive. I'm not going to lie, especially since you know that ball was wet. The rain was coming down pretty good for like three pitches before that. That ball bounced around the corner and they got it in, and that was the play of the game if you ask me."
Bay and Gonzalez were the setup men, but Varitek was the finisher on a night the Red Sox took a 2 1/2-game lead over the Rangers in the American League Wild Card standings.
The Red Sox (74-54) took the lead in the bottom of the eighth on a fielder's-choice RBI grounder by pinch-hitter Casey Kotchman. And Jonathan Papelbon nailed down save No. 31 by wiggling out of a bases-loaded one-out jam in the ninth.
Still though, the postgame talk centered around the ruggedness of the captain.
"He's a warrior, man," Bard said of Varitek. "He's intimidating when you see him walking out in his full gear, and that's exactly why. He's a competitor, and that's the reason the Red Sox still want him here, because he does stuff like that for the team. That's not going to show up in the stats or it's not going to be in the box score tomorrow, but that's as big a play as you could ask for on a night like tonight."
For sure, it was a night that could have been demoralizing for the Red Sox. For the third consecutive start, ace Josh Beckett struggled. The right-hander gave up five hits and five runs over five innings, walking five and striking out nine. Over his past three starts, Beckett has a 9.82 ERA and has given up 10 home runs.
"I was happy we won," said Beckett. "Besides that, I'm obviously not that impressed by myself. We ended up pulling it out, and that's the good thing about being on a good team."
Beckett would have been in line for the loss, if not for Bay belting a towering two-out two-run homer to left field in the bottom of the fifth to tie the game at 5.
As soon as Varitek had snuffed out the run at the plate in the eighth, the rain intensified to the point where the tarp came onto the field. The rain delay lasted 49 minutes.
Hideki Okajima, at long last, finished that eighth after the delay by retiring Aaron Hill on a flyout to right. Though he faced just one batter, Okajima (5-0) earned the win, thanks to that Boston rally in the bottom of the eighth.
It started with a leadoff walk by David Ortiz. J.D. Drew followed with the key hit of the inning, a one-out double to center that moved Ortiz to third.
Drew has been red-hot of late.
"He has that ability," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "We saw last June when he did that, and we were a different team then. And when he swings the bat like this, we can be a different team now."
Jays manager Cito Gaston opted for an intentional walk of Varitek, and Francona sent Kotchman up to hit for Gonzalez. The left-handed-hitting Kotchman, facing Shawn Camp, hammered a hard grounder that initially deflected off the glove of first baseman Lyle Overbay, giving Ortiz time to score what wound up to be the winning run.
There was more drama still. Papelbon came out throwing gas, and he struck out Adam Lind on 96-mph heat. Then there were back-to-back bloop singles by Overbay and Vernon Wells. Papelbon then grazed the button of Randy Ruiz's jersey, an incidental hit batter that loaded them up with just one out.
Papelbon then got nasty, striking out Rod Barajas and Snider to end the game. Papelbon has held opponents to one hit in 12 at-bats with the bases loaded this season, striking out nine.
"I think it's just a matter of digging a little bit deeper and focusing a little bit more on what the job is at hand, and not try to lose focus on, 'Hey, they got a couple of hits on me, or a broken bat here.' None of that," said Papelbon. "I'm just staying focused on what my approach is and what my game plan is."
After getting out of a bases-loaded jam in the first, Beckett wasn't quite so lucky in the second. The right-hander retired the first two batters of the inning, but then he got himself into a mess by walking Jose Bautista and McDonald. Hill rocketed a three-run homer to left, giving Toronto (58-68) a 3-0 lead.
The Red Sox got the rally they were looking for against Jays starter Scott Richmond in the fourth. With two on and one out, Drew smashed an RBI single to right. Varitek followed with a sacrifice fly to deep right, scoring Ortiz. Jacoby Ellsbury unloaded for a ground-rule double to the triangle area in right-center, tying the game.
It didn't stay tied for long, as Beckett made another two-out mistake in the fifth, and Barajas made him pay with a two-run homer to left.
"He left a breaking ball up to somebody that has a few home runs under his belt," said Varitek. "He misfired a fastball to Barajas for the second home run. I think with Josh, he's so powerful -- you catch a good part of the bat, the ball is going to go."
While Varitek had little trouble elaborating on Beckett, he was typically humble about his own heroics.
"You only survive off of good throws," said Varitek. "At that point of the game, you have to try and stay in there the best you can. I felt like my foot was down solid, so I knew there was a chance."
As it turned out, Snider had no chance.
"Lesson learned," Snider said. "I went for the hook slide, and at the last second, his foot came out and kicked my foot out from the going to the plate. It was a good move by him, and something I'll definitely put in the memory bank and learn from. I needed to go hard and go in straight instead of trying to go around."
Tactical mistake by Snider or not, the Red Sox were thrilled by the result.
"What a professional play," Francona said. "He got his leg out and fended him off. [Snider] obviously was going to beat the throw, and he didn't give him a chance to get his leg in there. I've seen him do that before."
Chances are, Varitek will probably do it a few more times.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.