Jonathan Papelbon was in Pittsburgh, setting down the Pirates 1-2-3 in the bottom of the ninth to preserve a 1-0 victory for the Phillies. Theo Epstein was in Chicago, where the local tabloid had a cover shot of him walking across Lake Michigan. J.D. Drew no doubt was counting his money after another grueling day of hunting in Georgia. Terry Francona was in a broadcast booth at Comerica Park, happy he didn’t have to take questions from the Boston media after another excruciating loss.
So much for the departed.
The 2012 Red Sox started their season of redemption almost the way they finished last September. Wearing road grays, they jogged off the field, spitting out pieces of their broken luck after a one-out, walkoff RBI single to left field. This time it was Motown instead of Crabtown.
The Detroit Tigers beat the Sox, 3-2, Thursday in a nationally televised season opener. It was Bullpen Implosion, The Next Generation.
The Sox battled mightily, rallying for a pair of runs off indomitable Tigers closer Jose Valverde in the top of the ninth. But the tying outburst only made things more painful in the bottom of the inning when Mark Melancon and Alfredo Aceves reminded us that they certainly are not Daniel Bard and Papelbon.
One down, 161 to go. Who’ll be the first to say, “Wait ’Til Next Year?’’
In his first game as manager, Bobby Valentine was fully immersed in the baptismal waters of Boston baseball’s Lake Woebegone. Bobby V used five of his 13 pitchers in a 3-2, nine-inning game. He brought his “closer’’ into a tie game, on the road, in the ninth. He ordered a stolen base in the middle of the Sox’ only rally. He used everyone on his “short’’ bench, other than his backup catcher. But there was nothing he could do to stave off the painful loss.
“I saw a lot that I liked,’’ said the 61-year-old skipper.
There were things worth celebrating. For six innings, we were treated to an old-timey 0-0 pitching duel between two of the game’s best. Boston’s Jon Lester was gritty and good, keeping the potent Tigers off the board until Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila hit back-to-back, two-out doubles in the seventh to give the Tigers a 1-0 lead. Avila’s double was a mere opposite-field fly that prompted some to say, “Carl Crawford would have had it.’’
Unfortunately, Lester on one of his better days is no match for the best pitcher in baseball: Detroit righthander Justin Verlander. The pride of Old Dominion, Verlander was MVP and Cy Young last year when he led the league in wins (24), ERA (2.40), and strikeouts (250). He picked up where he left off, blowing the Sox away on two hits over eight Pedro-esque innings. Verlander walked only one and struck out seven different Sox hitters. Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis, and Ryan Sweeney were among the Sox batters who went down looking at hellacious, jughandle, two-strike curveballs.
After Verlander was lifted, the Tigers rallied for another run off a pair of Sox relievers (Vicente Padilla, Franklin Morales, anyone?).
Had the Sox simply rolled over and lost, 2-0, we all could have tipped our hat toward Verlander and called it a day. No harm, no foul. But the Red Sox, to their credit, did not quit. And that is precisely how a Tigers win became a Red Sox loss.
Dustin Pedroia started the ninth-inning surge with a double off Valverde, who had converted 54 consecutive save opportunities, counting postseason play. A single by Gonzalez and a sacrifice fly by David Ortiz made it 2-1. Down to their final out, the Sox were rescued by newcomer Sweeney, who stroked an RBI triple to right. Alas, Sweeney was stranded when Cody Ross lined to short.
The bottom of the ninth - festooned with bloop hits, well-placed grounders, and Ramon Santiago getting hit by a curveball that he appeared to swing at - was a nightmare for Red Sox Nation. The Tigers won it on Austin Jackson’s ground single to left.
The crowd at Comerica went wild. It sounded a lot like Camden Yards from last Sept. 28.
“It’s disappointing, but we’ve got a long way to go,’’ said Pedroia. “We’re gonna be just fine. We rallied. That’s what the Red Sox do. We’re gonna fight to the end.’’
“We’re not going to give up, and we’re not going to back down,’’ said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “We’re not scared.’’
Good. The Sox should not be scared. They have considerable talent. They were the best team in baseball for four months last year, and most of that cast has returned.
But Red Sox fans are scared. They fear the Boston bullpen. They are afraid of a return to the Bad Old Days before the current ownership bought the team 11 years ago.
For six months, the Sox have been trying to clear the stench of the final days of 2011. Game One in Detroit only brought it all back for a day.