The front man on this band of Red Sox, indelible in word and deed, Johnny Damon stood before his locker last night and wrapped his arms around Manny Delcarmen, the 23-year-old with a slingshot arm. The future. Of the Boston Red Sox.
“Good luck with your career if we don’t . . . “
Damon stopped, unable to be entirely honest with himself.
“ . . . cross paths.”
The Red Sox’ season ended last night, beaten by the Chicago White Sox, 5-3, eliminated in the first round, swept in a postseason series for only the fourth time in their 105-year history. And, along with the season, the Red Sox careers of many quite possibly came to an end.
“The whole clubhouse could be different,” Damon said. “Mike Timlin. Bill Mueller. Kevin Millar. Myself.”
If this was curtains, Damon didn’t want to go down like he did. Swinging, to end the sixth and down swinging in the ninth. The sixth inning promises to linger in the minds of all but especially Jason Varitek, Tony Graffanino, and Damon for days to come.
“It seemed to last forever,” said general manager Theo Epstein, a free agent himself.
The sixth began with the game tied at 2-2 and the starting pitchers in relative control. By inning’s end, the teams would combine to use seven pitchers, who combined to throw 61 pitches.
Tim Wakefield walked Jermaine Dye to begin the inning ahead of 40-homer hitter Paul Konerko. Konerko, a son of New England whose family phone number growing up in Rhode Island ended in “1917” which happens to be the year the White Sox last won a World Series turned on an inside Tim Wakefield knuckleball, clearing everything in left.
Manny Ramirez, an intrigued spectacular, turned immediately and stared up into the light tower, shielding the blinding light with his black glove. And he watched as the ball disappeared into the night.
“It was in,” Wakefield said of the pitch. “I thought he might hit it foul. But he’s such a good hitter.”
Konerko finished his swing with a flourish, exploding through the ball and then rapidly recoiling his bat. Ramirez, ever one for showmanship, equaled Konerko’s display leading off the bottom of the inning.
Freddy Garcia left an 0-and-1 changeup over the plate and Ramirez, who’d homered earlier in the game, hammered it onto Landsdowne Street. Still in the box, he tore off the velcro straps on his batting gloves, then began to trot. Exit baseball. Exit Garcia.
Damaso Marte entered, and Trot Nixon singled. Bill Mueller walked. John Olerud walked. And Ozzie Guillen, who chose Orlando Hernandez over Brandon McCarthy for his postseason roster, summoned the veteran Cuban righthander.
“I know this kid is going to show up with cold blood,” he said.
Terry Francona pinch hit for Doug Mirabelli. He knew the matchup, Varitek vs. El Duque: 1 for 18 career with one home run. Why go to Varitek in that situation?
“All-Star catcher,” Francona said.
Varitek popped a 2-and-1 pitch to Konerko in foul territory. Graffanino, who received a pregame reception that had him on the verge of tears, went to 3-and-2 and began fouling pitches off. The 10th, a slow curveball, he popped up to the shortstop behind the mound.
“Graffanino had a great at-bat.” Hernandez said. “I called for that pitch inside. My catcher was surprised, but I thought that was the only way I could get him out.”
Graffanino, too, expressed surprise.
“You just have no idea what he’s going to throw,” Graffanino said. “There weren’t any slow pitches there.”
And then came a curveball.
“You’re not expecting it after all that hard stuff,” said Graffanino, yet another free agent. “That took guts.”
And that brought up Damon.
He, too, went to a full count. The seventh pitch came in at 78 miles per hour, biting toward the ground. Damon identified it as a sinking fastball. A fraction of a second later he realized the eyes that helped him to 196 hits this season had lied. Slider.
“I recognized it,” Damon said, “but it was too late. He’s got all kinds of pitches and kinds of angles. I didn’t expect that slider.”
Catcher A.J. Pierzynski emphatically pumped his fist, ball in hand. El Duque’s age (he’s listed at 35) has long been in question, but his extreme delivery and big-game ability again proved timeless.
“They had [momentum],” Graffanino said. “We were getting some of it back. They sprinted to the dugout. They were inflated. We were somewhat deflated.”
The Sox went 0 for 5 in the game with runners in scoring position, and delivered only four hits in 24 such at-bats in the series.
“We did a great job getting it to 3-and-2,” Francona said of his team’s sixth-inning at-bats. “We just couldn’t lay off balls. You don’t always want to sometimes, but you have to tip your hat.”
Hernandez pitched three scoreless innings, building an impeccable bridge to closer Bobby Jenks. Jonathan Papelbon, meanwhile, gave the Red Sox 2 2/3 scoreless innings, the 24-year-old who had never pitched above Single A before this season keeping his team in the game.
Papelbon entered with two on and one out in the sixth and got two outs, the first on a Joe Crede fly to Trot Nixon, who made an outstanding play along the stands in foul territory. Papelbon then fanned Juan Uribe swinging at a slider.
The Louisiana kid recorded a 1-2-3 seventh. And he went through the White Sox in order in the eighth, ending the inning by punching out Aaron Rowand looking. Then, as he did at the end of the sixth, Papelbon came off the mound pumping his fist, the epitome of adrenaline unleashed.
“I was pumped up that we had a chance,” he said later. “We had them where we wanted them.”
Nixon led off the eighth with a smash toward right field, but Konerko got in the way, snaring it. Edgar Renteria’s ninth-inning ground out to end the series (sound familiar?) ended the game, but Nixon’s smash, with six outs to go, seemed to effectively halt any chance of a late Sox surge.
“Konerko makes a great play,” Papelbon said. “Stops any moment or spark we have.”
The White Sox tacked on a final, deflating run in the ninth, off Mike Timlin, on a sacrifice squeeze.
“They played well,” Timlin said. “They played hard. They played right.”
And, everything went exactly as the White Sox planned. The White Sox scored first and often, trailing for only four of 27 innings in the series. Guillen was able to set up his postseason rotation as he pleased. The Red Sox were not.
“We didn’t have the chance,” Timlin said. “It’s not an excuse. Don’t take it that way. We just didn’t play well enough.”
Francona, then, was left to address a team that won 95 games but none in the postseason. After he did, he walked into Fenway’s red-brick interview room. The plasma TV on the wall blared, with postgame scenes and sound. ESPN’s Chris Berman’s booming voice could be heard, shouting, “Party on in Chicago,” as Francona walked into the room.
Someone muted the TV. The first question to the Sox manager: What did you tell your team?
“I just actually thanked them,” he said. “Being together that much I thought I needed to thank them.”