When Jonathan Papelbon stepped on the mound last night looking to preserve a two-run lead, you could almost sense the Red Sox fans in Boston drooling over the prospect of a turning-point-of-the-season type of win. With the way this Red Sox season has gone, they certainly needed one.
But when Papelbon walked off the mound with his head down in the wake of his worst outing of the season, all the folks in Boston were left to ponder was this: What can possibly happen next?
Papelbon's failure to protect a two-run lead was as shocking as it was devastating. Everything had gone so right for the Red Sox, coming back from five runs down, then it all went away in an 11-9 loss. The damage came in the form of a tying two-run home run by Alex Rodriguez and a walk-off two-run shot by Marcus Thames, and that was that. "It just happened real fast there at the end," Dustin Pedroia said.
Manager Terry Francona, speaking mere minutes after Papelbon's failure, summed it up like this: "Had a chance to be a great win . . . You've got to accept it and move on."
But how will that be for a team that's been treading water all season and, at 19-20, is under .500 for the first time this late in a season since 1997?
Papelbon insisted he will leave this loss, and his failure, in the past. "As soon as I get out of here," he said, "I'll forget about it."
Spurred by a three-run homer by J.D. Drew, a go-ahead two-run shot by Kevin Youkilis, two solo home runs by Victor Martinez and a solo blast by David Ortiz to overcome an early 5-0 deficit, the Red Sox handed Papelbon a 9-7 lead in the ninth. But Brett Gardner led off the inning with a double to leftfield, and Francona sounded as if he sensed trouble there.
"Keeping Gardner off the base is huge," he said. "If we do that, Alex can hit it as far as he wants to because it doesn't matter."
But it did matter, and for the record, A-Rod did hit it far. With one out and Gardner on third after a long fly by Mark Teixeira, A-Rod connected on the first pitch from Papelbon and lifted a tying home run into the Red Sox bullpen in left-centerfield, just to the right of the 399-foot mark.
Papelbon referred to the pitch as a "flat fastball." He knew he didn't have his best stuff coming into the inning, "but I've gotten by without my best stuff before."
Not this night, however.
After Robinson Cano flew out to centerfield for the second out, Papelbon drilled Francisco Cervelli on the left elbow, putting the winning run on first. Then Thames smashed Papelbon's first pitch - another fastball - over the leftfield wall, and that was that for Papelbon and Boston.
Said Papelbon, "Just as frustrating as any other blown save."