04/25/09 10:15 PM ET
Red Sox's grit trumps Yankees' wallet
Usual suspects help Boston claw back against Burnett
Yes, it is extremely early for major pronouncements, but there is never an inappropriate time to turn seemingly certain defeat into extremely uplifting victory. And extremely early is a terrific time to prove to everybody that you are completely capable of this kind of transformation.
This weekend, the Red Sox have fashioned back-to-back dramatic come-from-behind victories in what is for them the best possible circumstance -- against the New York Yankees. In so doing, they have stretched their winning streak to nine games. The Red Sox have also taken a troubling 2-6 start and reduced it to a footnote, a fluke, a piece of trivia that may count for nothing over the long haul.
If Friday night's thrilling victory seemed improbable, Saturday's comeback triumph seemed at one point to be completely out of the realm of realistic possibility. On Friday night, the Sox were down to their last out against a man who might be as good as any closer who has closed in the history of the game, Mariano Rivera. But Jason Bay crushed a game-tying two-run home run. In the 11th, Kevin Youkilis provided the fitting encore, a game-winning home run.
On Saturday, victory seemed like a much more distant proposition for the Sox. There was a fascinating matchup of former Florida Marlins flamethrowing phenoms, Boston's Josh Beckett and New York's A.J. Burnett. Both were topping out at 97 mph, but early on, Burnett had command as well as velocity, while Beckett had only velocity. Thus, the Yankees jumped to a 6-0 lead in the middle of the fourth.
All of this changed in the bottom of the fourth inning, when Burnett lost his edge in a large way. Two walks and two singles brought up catcher Jason Varitek with the bases loaded. Varitek's grand slam changed the complexion of not only the game, but the weekend. The Red Sox were within one run.
"Tek's big blast, I think, was huge," said Mike Lowell, who was to do some blasting of his own. A Jacoby Ellsbury solo homer and a two-run double by Bay put the Red Sox ahead in the fifth inning.
But the Red Sox had made a huge point by making the six-run lead disappear against Burnett. Burnett came into the afternoon with a 5-0 record and a 2.56 ERA in eight career starts against the Red Sox. He was supposed to be able to beat the Red Sox. And he was part of the Yankees' $423.5 million offseason shopping spree.
It is true that Burnett's portion of the three-player windfall was third at $82.5 million. But he was a part of the Yankees' master plan for regaining supremacy, so the Red Sox got a two-in-one deal here -- beating the Yankees, but also beating a big expenditure by the Yankees.
It is true that the Red Sox lost this lead and another, but they twice again regained it. Lowell drove in six runs in the seventh and eighth innings, with two swings of the bat -- a double and a homer. When the rules of baseball indicated that the game was over, after four hours and 21 minutes, the Red Sox were still standing with a 16-11 victory. Games in which 27 runs are scored aren't classics. But for the Red Sox, at least one aspect of this one was classic.
The Yankees were supposed to win on Saturday, based on having a six-run lead and an $82.5 million pitcher on the hill. In the same vein, they were supposed to win on Friday night, because they were two runs up, with one out left and the closer of all closers on the mound.
For the Red Sox, the ability to win games of this sort is a reflection both of who they are and how they play.
"They don't stop playing," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said of his team. "It's gratifying. It's better when you win, but even when you lose tough games with this group -- I think that's why we like them so much -- they don't stop playing."
So when the Red Sox were down by six runs and A.J. Burnett was pitching very well, the outlook for this game seemed to be somewhere between grim and desperate. But not to the Red Sox. The thought at that moment, Lowell said, was to work the at-bats and drive up Burnett's pitch count. That's easier said than done for a lot of people, but it is standard Red Sox operating procedure. This team not only preaches this approach but also practices it.
"Grinding out at-bats -- never giving up -- allows you to come back when you're down," Lowell said.
These were truly large victories. Lowell noted that the presence of the Yankees added to the general hype level but would not have been required to make these performances significant. When Lowell was asked, in light of his six RBIs, whether this was his greatest day, he retained perspective by delivering this droll response: "I'm going to have to say the birth of my kids might rank a little bit above that."
Good call. There is no need to exaggerate the importance of what the Red Sox were able to accomplish in their first two meetings with the Yankees this season. They performed the way that winning teams -- postseason teams -- perform: with resilience, persistence and determination. It is early in the season, but these sorts of victories are steps that have to be taken. The Red Sox are taking them at the first and best possible opportunity.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.