Thursday, June 28, 2007

Sox Swept in Seattle

SEATTLE -- The advertised "Showdown in Seattle" was between Daisuke Matsuzaka and Ichiro Suzuki, and the principals didn't disappoint. But there's little question that back in New England, the talk will be of manager Terry Francona's choice between Julio Lugo and a hyphen.

Francona opted for Lugo. In the aftermath of a 2-1, 11-inning Red Sox loss to the Seattle Mariners yesterday, he might have been better off taking his chances against the punctuation mark.

While Matsuzaka was masterful against the Mariners, limiting them to a run on three hits while striking out eight in eight innings, the Sox definitely saw too much of Ichiro, who knocked in the Mariners' first run with a bloop single off Matsuzaka, scored the winner on Jose Lopez's double in the 11th off Joel Piñeiro, and came within one fly ball of tying the major league record for put outs by an outfielder (12).

But the Sox may also have gone too far with Lugo, the slumping shortstop who whiffed with two on and two out in the eighth inning of a tie game.

Why did Francona elect to let Lugo, despite his crippling hitless streak, bat for himself against Brandon Morrow, who is in his first full season of pro ball? It was either that, Francona said, or send up a lefthanded pinch hitter, Alex Cora or Eric Hinske, to face a lefthanded reliever.

Seattle's best lefty, George Sherrill, already had been used -- Mike Hargrove had sent him to get David Ortiz, and for the second straight game, Sherrill was up to the task, retiring Ortiz on a fly ball with two on and one out in the seventh. Warming up in the Mariners' bullpen was one Ryan Rowland-Smith, a rookie lefthander from Australia who has the distinction of being the first player with a hyphenated last name to appear in a big league game. That makes him one out of about 17,000, which these days is about the odds of Lugo getting a hit.

Rowland-Smith, who pitched in the 2004 Olympics for Sox scout Jon Deeble, the man who is partly responsible for Matsuzaka being in a Red Sox uniform, has 2 1/3 innings of big league experience. And they weren't especially pretty. He'd given up three hits and two runs -- two hits and two runs in a blowout victory over the Sox Monday.

Nonetheless, Francona didn't want to see Rowland-Smith in the game. He sent Lugo to the plate. His decision looked savvy when the first three pitches were balls. It looked less so when Lugo went down swinging to extend his hitless streak to 0 for 31, dropping his batting average to a major league-low .190.

"The eighth inning seems like it was about three hours ago," Francona said when asked about his decision. "I honestly don't remember now. Walk me through the eighth."
Reminded that Kevin Youkilis had walked and advanced to second on a passed ball, and J.D. Drew was intentionally walked to bring Lugo to the plate, Francona offered his explanation.

"Did they have a lefty up? They had two other lefties," Francona said. "This was a situation where we have a hole open, and if we get ahead in the count, we can hit-and-run. We can manipulate the bat a little bit, do something like that. There was a lefty up in the eighth. That was kind of hard to bring a guy off the bench and have them face a lefty."

It probably was harder to see Lugo go down on strikes, after the Sox had spent much of the afternoon teeing off on Mariners starter Ryan Feierabend and coming up empty. When Lugo's turn came around in the 11th, with Jason Varitek aboard on a single, Francona sent Cora to the plate. Cora hit into an inning-ending double play against Jason Davis, the sixth Seattle pitcher.

Then everyone went home when Piñeiro, pitching in Seattle for the first time since he left the Mariners as a free agent, walked Ichiro on a full count and watched Lopez's double clear the glove of a leaping Manny Ramírez, who was higher than the ball was when it struck the wall.

By sweeping the Sox in three games -- that makes it eight losses in a row in Safeco Field -- the Mariners sent them back to Boston with a losing record (4-5) on their three-city, 10-day, nine-game trip.

"I'm ready to get the hell out of here," said closer Jonathan Papelbon, who left the potential winning run 90 feet away when he replaced Hideki Okajima in the ninth with runners on first and third and retired Richie Sexson on a first-pitch popup and Ben Broussard on a grounder to second, then worked a scoreless 10th.

"It's tough to get swept, obviously. I mean, I feel like we did everything we could to stay in that ballgame and have a chance to win. But things just kind of bounced their way, you know, and it was just like one of those neither-team-deserved-to-lose-that-game type."

Matsuzaka, who yesterday was as geographically close to his native Japan as he has been all year, may have been the best he's been all season. "He had the best fastball command he's had all year," pitching coach John Farrell said.

Matsuzaka set down the first eight Mariners before Jamie Burke, the backup catcher, hit a liner that Coco Crisp attempted to collar with a shoestring catch, but for one of the few times this season didn't come up with the ball. All he got for his trouble was an apparently jammed left thumb, which he had wrapped in a big icepack after the game. "Sorry, but I don't want to talk," he said.

The Sox had the Mariners' outfielders on the move all afternoon, but were held scoreless until the seventh, when Drew, pinch hitting for Wily Mo Peña, singled to right off Sean Green. Lugo, the next batter, bunted, and both runners reached, Drew sprinting to third when Green's throw to first was low and off the bag. Drew scored on Crisp's sacrifice fly, Ichiro running the ball down in the gap.

But after Lugo couldn't get it done in the eighth (Ortiz earlier left five runners on base and ended four innings with outs), the Sox couldn't touch the Mariners' bullpen, especially closer J.J. Putz, who set down Boston in the ninth, striking out Ortiz on a 97-mile-per-hour fastball.

Piñeiro, meanwhile, had a gimpy ankle, twisted when he stepped on Hinske during stretching exercises Monday night. He said it was still sore. Francona said he'd checked out before the game and was ready to go.

And that's what he did. He came, and went, when Ramírez couldn't run down Lopez's drive.

"We were already in a no-doubles defense," Francona said. "We were back pretty far already. Tough play. He gave it his best."

In this town, these days, that seems to be not quite enough. The exclamation points belonged to Ichiro and the Mariners.

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