The ball hung in the air for four excruciatingly long seconds, practically taunting Andrew Bailey on its way to the bleachers in center field.
It had barely been a week since he lost his job as Red Sox closer. He was taking the mound for just the second time since the demotion, but the situation was crucial.
The Sox had watched the five-run gulf between themselves and the Toronto Blue Jays in the first five innings shrink to the kind of thin lead that could disappear with one swing by the seventh, and Sox manager John Farrell called on Bailey.
“John’s showed faith in me, putting me in these situations,” Bailey said. “I’ve had success in these situations in my career. I’ve just got to get back to challenging guys and getting outs.”
The first pitch Bailey threw was 95 mile-per-hour dart down the middle of the plate to Jose Reyes.
When he saw Reyes freeze up, he knew he had the Jays’ leadoff hitter on a string. Four pitches later, Reyes was swinging futilely at a 94-m.p.h. fastball high and out of the zone.
He was just as blunt with the next hitter, Jose Bautista.
Fastball. Fastball. Cutter. Fastball. Strikeout.
Then, Edwin Encarnacion stepped into the box. Encarnacion’s power isn’t exactly the kind that sneaks up on you. Of the 22 homer runs he’d smashed coming in, 13 traveled at least 400 feet, according to ESPN’s home run tracker.
But Bailey had gone right after Reyes and Bautista with his fastball, and he had no intention of changing things with Encarnacion.
Bailey fed him a 94-m.p.h. heater. Encarnacion met it head on with the kind of swing that spoils one-run leads and all the efforts made to protect them.
Pitching prospect Allen Webster was in line for his first major league win.
Farrell had Andrew Miller up in the bullpen to throw to the lefthanded hitters behind Encarnacion.
But when Bailey saw his heater hang-glide deeper and deeper to center field, he realized he had played chicken with the wrong hitter.
“The 1-0 count fastball to Encarnacion against a good fastball hitter, I’m sure that if he rethought it, he might think a little bit differently, knowing that we had Miller ready to go for the lefties behind him,” Farrell said.
“That might be a little bit of a different mind-set for him in the role that he’s in right now, where as a closer, as successful as he’s been in the past, always on the attack mode.”
When it finally landed in the seats, all Farrell could do was murmur to himself. The blast left Bailey shellshocked. It was the seventh homer he had allowed this year and the fifth he had given up in his past seven outings. This was a pitcher who had given up 13 homers combined in the past four seasons.
In the scheme of the Red Sox’ 7-5 win, the homer was more of a blip than a blast. Miller came on to finish the inning. The Sox rallied to score twice in the bottom of the inning.
But it was difficult for Bailey, who in the same inning saw both how close and how far he was from shaking off his recent struggles.
“We got the first two guys and just tried to challenge the third guy,” Bailey said.
“I’m not going to get away from my success over my career. I’m not going to change anything. Still got to be aggressive, man. You’ve still got to throw strikes to get people out and now it’s just when they’re hitting me, they’re hitting me hard.”
After allowing three runs in his first 19 appearances this season, Bailey has given up runs in each of his past five outings. In the six games he pitched prior to Friday night, he had a 16.62 ERA in 4⅓ innings.
Even though he was no longer the closer, Farrell put him in a tight situation, and Bailey said that’s where he wanted to be.
“I feel like that’s where I belong,” Bailey said. “Any situation where the game’s on the line you feed off those. I have all of the confidence in the world to go out there and continue to throw strikes and get people out.”
Against Reyes and Bautista, he looked like the pitcher with the miserly 1.47 ERA in his first 19 games this season.
“His velocity has been there,” said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “It hasn’t been an issue with velocity, it’s been, kind of command. He was a little bit out over the plate, not getting ahead. But he looked great tonight.
“Unfortunately, everyone’s going to harp on one pitch, and that’s not fair to him, but in the process of things he’s getting better.”
But it’s a process he’s still working through.
“I’m getting there,” Bailey said. “This is a very frustrating time, but I know that I still have confidence, but I’m not going to change things out there.
“Obviously, I have to execute pitches a little bit better, but that’s really all I have to change and I’ll get out of this for sure.”