10/11/08 3:35 AM ET
Francona crafts relief remedy vs. Rays
Skipper's pitching choices in Game 1 a cure-all for several jams
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
The Red Sox have had enough struggles at Tropicana Field this season to appreciate how valuable a win here is at any time, especially in the postseason. The fact that Matsuzaka was keeping them ahead with the strongest outing of his playoff career only gave more reason to value this one.
Matsuzaka had never pitched six innings in a postseason game, but he took a no-hitter into the seventh. He gave up two singles that inning, but ended it with his shutout bid still intact while the Rays lineup reset to the top of the order for the eighth.
Heading into that inning, Matsuzaka was still on the mound after 107 pitches over his first seven frames, but Justin Masterson had already been loosening up in the bullpen. Hideki Okajima wasn't far away, either. Francona knew he'd have a choice to make, and while he had an idea which way to go, he didn't want to rule out any of them before he had to.
"We actually warmed up Masterson a little bit before the inning started," Francona said, "just so we could keep all of our options open. We didn't intend to have him start the inning, but we don't have three mounds down there [in the bullpen]."
Even if he did, he wouldn't have enough late-inning options to address every at-bat with another setup man. He could have someone else face leadoff man Akinori Iwamura, who has had his share of success off Matsuzaka. Then he'd have to find someone else to face B.J. Upton, whom Matsuzaka had held to 1-for-13 in the regular season and 0-for-3 on Friday. Still looming was Carlos Pena, a situation that almost requires a left-hander if he has a chance to change the lead.
It was Upton looming on deck, Francona said, that led him to stick with Matsuzaka against Iwamura to open the eighth. After Iwamura singled to left and Upton slapped an infield single that third baseman Kevin Youkilis knocked down, there wasn't much debate left with runners on first and second and nobody out.
Two batters later, there wasn't a threat left for the Rays to tie the game.
Okajima entered to face Pena, but fell behind with a 3-0 count. Rays manager Joe Maddon stuck to his regular-season philosophy and let his slugging first baseman swing on a 3-0 pitch, a decision that yielded a home run off Arizona's Dan Haren during Interleague Play this summer.
"I gave him the green light right there, absolutely," Maddon said. "I felt good about it, actually. It does not matter to him, right- or left-handed pitcher. We're down by two points and there's two guys on. That's a three-run homer staring us in the face, so I was good with it. I've done that often with our guys in different situations, with certain guys."
Maddon made his decision, he added, knowing that Masterson was waiting in the bullpen to face cleanup hitter Evan Longoria, who was 0-for-7 with three strikeouts against Masterson lifetime. Once J.D. Drew made a shoestring catch on Pena's drive to right, Masterson was in.
In this case, he didn't necessarily need the strikeout.
"The approach was to keep the ball down, keep the ball moving," Masterson said. "If anything, we wanted a ground ball, if not a strikeout, in that situation. Kept the sinker down, tried to keep the slider down, and got what we wanted."
It came after Masterson fell behind on a 2-0 count and brought it back even with back-to-back swings and misses. With the count at 2-2, Masterson went back to the slider. Longoria slapped it to shortstop Jed Lowrie, who started the inning-ending double play.
It was another notch for Masterson, the rookie in Boston's bullpen who has played a veteran-like setup role.
"He's earned that right for us to have trust in him," Francona said. "That was a huge situation in the game, and he executed exactly like he was supposed to. There's no reason for us not to have the trust in him, put him in those situations.
"He throws the ball. He executes pitches. The situation isn't too big. The game doesn't start speeding up."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.