07/07/08 11:36 PM ET
Dice-K gives Sox what they asked for
Ramirez's RBI single all Boston needs to top Minnesota
By Mark Remme / MLB.com
But both Scott Baker and Daisuke Matsuzaka left no question about who would dictate the tempo and flow of Monday's showdown between Boston and Minnesota.
In the end, with some help from Manny Ramirez's RBI single in the eighth, it was Matsuzaka's team who came out victorious, as the Red Sox pulled out a 1-0 victory from the Twins at Fenway Park, pitting two second-place squads who are both battling to catch its respective division leaders.
"[Pitching coach] John [Farrell] and I were talking about it before the game, that I'd like to have Dice-K get comfortable out there, because it'd be really good for him," manager Terry Francona said. "And he did that. He got deep enough where we're not trying to get four innings out of our bullpen in a one-run game."
Matsuzaka pitched 7 1/3 strong innings in the contest, eventually leaving in the top of the eighth inning with two runners on base and lefty Hideki Okajima coming on in relief. Despite loading the bases in the first inning, Matsuzaka strolled through the Minnesota lineup and put together perhaps his best start of the season -- which says something since he owns a 9-1 record.
He and Baker, who pitched seven strong innings of five-hit baseball, took no-decisions despite dominant pitching that yielded little offense. Their pitching, along with stellar defense from both sides, kept baserunners and threats to a minimal for the majority of the contest.
It was the first time that Matsuzaka went at least seven innings in a game since May 10, also against the Twins, and it comes at a time when keeping middle relief to a minimum is a welcomed thought for the Red Sox.
On the last road trip, Boston used its relievers to the limit. And with Matsuzaka having a track record this season of short starts, the Sox were itching for a game where the route between a starting pitcher and closer Jonathan Papelbon was short and sweet.
"Of all our starting pitchers, I'm the only one who hasn't been able to get really deep into the games," Matsuzaka said through an interpreter. "So what I've been trying to do is go deep into the game and help out the bullpen, and I think that tempo that you see is one of the results of that."
Dice-K did just that on this night, scattering six hits and striking out five. But with two on and one out in the eighth, Francona elected to reach into the bullpen and use Okajima -- the one lefty in the bullpen with enough rest and experience to tackle the heart of the Twins' order, which happens to be chalk full of left-handed and switch-hitters.
Okajima's first test was 2006 American League MVP Justin Moreau, who promptly walked to load the bases. But Okajima settled down and recorded the final two outs of the inning without allowing a run.
The final out of that frame, a Delmon Young grounder to second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who flipped to Julio Lugo for the forceout at second, ensured a scoreless inning and electrified the sellout crowd at Fenway Park.
"You could just see the energy in the ballpark and our dugout pick up after that," Francona said.
The energy followed Pedroia into the batter's box. After being hitless in his first three at-bats, Pedroia sent a Brian Bass offering off the Green Monster and into the seats down the left-field line for a ground-rule double. After J.D. Drew grounded out to second, Pedroia advanced to third with one out and Ramirez stepping to the plate.
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire elected to pitch to Ramirez, instead of intentionally walking the slugger -- in the midst of a 2-for-19 slump heading into the contest -- to create a double-play opportunity.
Ramirez promptly slashed a single to right field, scoring Pedroia and putting the Sox up for good. It wasn't the easiest choice for Gardenhire, but he stood by his decision despite paying for it on the field.
"How's Manny been hitting lately?" Gardenhire said. "We'll take our chances. He's a great hitter, but you don't want to walk him or get to the next guy. Keep putting more people on base at this ballpark, I don't think that's too wise, either."
The solidified run allowed Papelbon to earn his 26th save, which he made good on in a 1-2-3 ninth inning. More importantly to Boston, the Red Sox cut the Rays' AL East lead to four games.
"We did some real nice things," Francona said. "If you throw a zero up there for nine innings, a lot of people are doing nice things."
Mark Remme is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.