NEW YORK – Soon after John Lackey(notes) scurried out of the Boston Red Sox's clubhouse with animus on his mind and tears in his eyes, the shenanigans started. A losing locker room is no place for rookie-hazing gear, and finally, for the first time in what seemed like forever, Boston's wasn't suffused with that stench.
So they laughed, all of them that were left, at Lars Anderson's(notes) black pasties and Ryan Lavarnway's(notes) dog collar and Jose Iglesias'(notes) corset and especially Junichi Tazawa's(notes) pink negligee. Laughter wasn't as much the best medicine as a digestif for what had just cured them: a victory, a beautiful, dramatic, sweat- and angst-filled, 14-inning, gotta-have-it win.
The Red Sox's 7-4 triumph over the New York Yankees on Sunday night didn't save their season. Three games this week against Baltimore allow them that opportunity. No, this reminded the Red Sox of who they are, a concept lost upon them during a September in which they've gone 6-18 and seen a nine-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays in the wild-card race whittle to one.
Everything has gone wrong in that stretch, and to see so many things go right edified everyone in a Red Sox uniform but Lackey. Hours after he exited the game following one of his best performances with Boston, he was still steaming about a text message from a media member "talking about personal stuff" he alleges he received 30 minutes before the game.
Turns out it was from TMZ, which thought it a perfect time to query Lackey about filing for divorce from his wife, Krista, who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. The story broke Monday morning, taking away the mystery and adding to the gravity of the performance. The worst pitcher in the American League this year was facing his biggest game since the 2002 World Series knowing he soon would look like the most insensitive man alive.
"This is unbelievable I've got to deal with this," Lackey said. "Unbelievable."
Actually, that sums up the day at Yankee Stadium, which started in the morning for the first game of a doubleheader and stretched late into the evening for the second half. Boston looked dead, then alive, then lifeless once more until finally mustering play after great play. Whether via Dustin Pedroia's(notes) glove, Jonathan Papelbon's(notes) arm or Jacoby Ellsbury's(notes) bat, they came in time to send a message to the rest of the American League.
One that decidedly was not of the textual variety.
"Smile, bro," Pedroia said. Such words sounded foreign inside the Red Sox's little bubble. While smiles weren't explicitly banned, they've come in short supply over the last month. So goes the price for being the best team in the AL midsummer only to see every semblance of that disappear and yield a rotten core.
The Red Sox's meltdown is the biggest story in baseball right now, the blazing sun to the little brown dwarf that is Atlanta likewise gagging away a wild-card lead. Boston's concern hadn't translated into anything beyond platitudes – that they'll turn it around, and that they're not concerned, and that they're going to be fine like always – and they treated everything the same. No fights. No table-flipping. No yelling. No blame. Just get together and win.
Come the first inning, it looked like more of the same. Lackey allowed three runs, aided by some defensive mishaps. The Yankees had throttled the Red Sox already in the first half of the doubleheader, 6-2. This was turning painful, like the Yankees almost might feel sorry for Boston.
Not so. Boston scraped together a run in three consecutive innings, and Lackey kept pitching inning after solid inning. The Red Sox's 4-3 lead didn't last very long, as Lackey gave up a hit and Red Sox manager Terry Francona came to relieve him. "You've got to be [expletive]-ing [expletive]-ing me," Lackey said.
Hardly. Francona's job security became intertwined in this mess, and to think he's going to allow his season's success to rest on the overpaid shoulder of John Lackey is the sort of thing that gets people fired. Francona instead went with a mish-mash of relievers, coaxing two solid innings out of Franklin Morales(notes) and 2 1/3 brilliant ones from Jonathan Papelbon.
"You've got to go out there and grind to shine every day," Papelbon said. "That's patented. Don't use it."
Sorry, Paps. It turns out the laissez-faire Red Sox had some fight in 'em, enough toil to last through the nine innings of the first game and nine more in the second before extras beckoned. In the top of the 13th, Pedroia dove headfirst into first base to steal a single from an umpire with a bad angle, and come the bottom half of the inning, he laid out to steal a hit from Curtis Granderson(notes).
"This is grinding season," Papelbon said. "And now we've got to go ball in Baltimore. If you don't like this, you ain't got blood going through your veins. If you don't like this, if you're not gonna play tired, if you're not gonna play hurt and you're in this clubhouse, you ain't got blood running through your veins."
Boston's veins were plenty plumper Sunday night than they've been. Ellsbury, the prohibitive favorite for AL MVP who hit two homers in the first game to reach 30, awaited a 1-0 Scott Proctor(notes) pitch. Ellsbury was looking inside. Check. He wanted a fastball. Check. He targeted low and inside. Check.
Proctor, 34, does not pitch anything like he did his first time in a Yankees uniform. He started Ellsbury off with a curveball for a ball. Ellsbury figured Proctor didn't want to go 2-0, so he'd throw a fastball straighter than the pinstripes on his jersey. And once it crossed Ellsbury's wheelhouse, it took a ride about 400 feet until the scoreboard showed Red Sox 7, Yankees 4.
"This," Ellsbury said. "is our playoff."
Maybe because 24 hours ago, the idea of the real playoffs no longer seemed like a foregone conclusion. This jag took its toll on everyone, from general manager Theo Epstein to Francona to his players to the staff that folds their underwear. The Red Sox came to crave a win like they'd gone cold turkey and needed just one hint of what they were missing.
"It doesn't matter how we do it," Pedroia said. "It doesn't have to look pretty. But a win's a win. It doesn't matter how you get it. And we'll take it."
Everyone but the guy who, aside from Ellsbury, had the largest part in it. Lackey slinked out of the clubhouse after questioning the Red Sox's director of media relations about her role in preventing things like a stray text message 30 minutes before a start. He had declined to talk about how well he pitched after the three-run first inning – Lackey went six innings and gave up three earned runs – because he was so intent on tracking down the text-message culprit.
TMZ revealed itself, and Lackey will step into the clubhouse in Baltimore facing a new firing squad of questions about his personal life that he's almost certain to dismiss with a huff and snort.
"Considering the circumstances, we needed a win," Lackey said. "I felt like I pitched pretty good."
And his teammates played pretty good, too, hard and strong because, Pedroia said, "lots of people are writing us off, so we're going to play our butts off."
Consider them rearless after Sunday. Twenty-three innings of intense, season-changing baseball and they're still here, standing as tall as they have in weeks. It's off to ball in Baltimore, to grind until you shine, to do how you do.
The Red Sox sent a message, all right. They're not dead yet. Not by a long shot.
- Red Sox