Things weren’t looking so good. The Sox had gone 1 – 5 on the season opening road trip to Detroit and Toronto. Except for scoring 12 runs in a game in which Detroit scored 13, our offense was scoring 2.0 runs per game. Our starters had a 6.68 ERA to this point. Ouch.
The buzz before the home opener was not positive. One pundit said the Sox were opening at home on September 37, not April 13, because the 1 – 5 start was a continuation of the 7 – 20 September collapse.
Certainly, we needed a laugher. And we got one.
The atmosphere around Fenway was popping. I got to O’Leary’s on Beacon Street 2 hours before game time and scarfed down a beer, a jameson and a burger. Then I hit the bricks. The streets were sunlit and bright. Yawkey Way was jammed with working class fans. Though I did see one wing tipped baron towing a grandson while telling someone on a cell phone that they could hook up at the Four Seasons at 5 p.m..
It is always striking how Caucasian the Red Sox crowd is. The only people of color I saw in the park were those selling hot dogs or working security. The diversity of Red Sox Nation is limited to the fact that we reside in 6 different states. Not too many black dudes. But plenty of Maineiacs, Green Mountaineers, New Hampshireites, Rhode Islanders and others wearing Whaler caps.
I threaded my way through Will Call and into the park, noting a brand new staircase that has been built down to the field box level from where I entered at Gate A. Rather than fight the crowd beneath the RF grandstand to get to my seat, I walked out into the stands, climbing to the top and walking from GS 18 to GS 1, where I took the stairway down to the bleachers.
I found my seat in the front row of bleacher 41. There was nothing between my spot and the bullpen except the walkway and the row of folding chairs. I moved up to the ‘pen for a look.
I leaned over the railing, standing 7 feet from where Josh Beckett was snapping off pregame throws. From that proximity, his velocity looks impossible to hit and the ball slams into the catcher’s mitt with nasty violence.
You wonder how a man who throws that hard can embarrass hitters one inning and then be hit all over the park in the next. Mere mortals cannot hit this stuff.
Someone remarked that the Red Sox needed to get on the board early if they were going to beat David Price, Tampa’s starting pitcher this day. Price is a 6’ 6” lefty out of Vanderbilt University who strikes out many and walks few. He finished second in the Cy Young balloting in 2010. The 26 year old has been to 2 All Star Games. Price went 4 – 1 in 5 starts versus Boston in 2011.
This was not to be his day. He got through the first without a challenge. But he needed 27 pitches to get 3 outs in the second. Youk started it by grinding out a long at bat before singling. Ortiz did the same. Although McDonald & Ross struck out looking and no runs were scored, the Sox had started to wear Price out.
By the end of the third inning, the Valentine Men had run the lefthander’s pitch count to 84. The Sox had been patient, making him throw strikes, fouling him off. Price was now all done. He faced 8 batters and gave up 3 runs. He was ultimately bailed out by an inning ending double play. 84 pitches in 3 innings. There was no way they were going to bring him out for the 4th.
The guy who started the party was Kelly Shoppach. The 31 year old itinerant catcher has a habit of getting hit by pitches. He led the AL with 18 HBP’s in 2009. He has been hit 3 times already in 2012.
Mr. Shoppach started the 3rd inning rally by leaning into a Price fastball and taking his base. The next inning, he doubled and scored. In the 6th inning, he singled and stole second to extend the inning. In the 8th, he doubled again, driving in Ross and McDonald.
Was this the greatest day of Kelly Shoppach’s career ? Quite possibly. I don’t know. But I do know that on a day when it seemed a dozen soft liners fell for Red Sox singles, Kelly Shoppach was the party starter. And it was beautiful to behold. Especially his career first stolen base. He looked like a water buffalo tripping in midstride when he got within 10 feet of the bag.
Mr. Beckett pitched carefully and pitched well. His fastball varied at 90, 91 and 94 mph. His curve was clocked at 74 and his cutter at 87 mph. He claims to have been relaxed enough to hit the corners this day, with a confidence that comes from a great fielding performance by his team mates.
In all, it was a satisfying day. The F-16 Fighters flew overhead. The gigantic American Flag covered the Monster. An 11 year old girl from New Hampshire belted God Bless America, briefly forgetting the words, but supported and sustained by the crowd.
The Boston Pops concert chorus sang the national anthem. It was P-E-R-F-E-C-T-I-O-N.
Varitek and Wakefield threw out the first pitches. Dewey Evans and Jim Rice were on hand to catch.
The Sox scored 8 runs in the 8th and won 12 -2.
One annoying drunkard in section 41, who is pictured in the above photo gallery with a blond gal seated nearby, convinced the bleacher crowd to harass Tampa Right Fielder Ben Zobrist for the last 4 innings by shouting childish insults and mocking him. It was moronic and ignorant. I quietly cheered when Zobrist launched a home run that landed near the moron in the 9th inning.
Only cowards harass the right fielder from the bleachers. The player has his back to you. He can’t see his tormentors. This would never happen on the left field side of Fenway, where the left fielder would easily glance to his right and see the face of the (insert bad word) who thinks he’s a genius.
Speaking of bad karma, the Sox were visited by some when Reid Brignac, Tampa shortstop, landed on Ellsbury’s shoulder while starting a double play at second base. They say Ells may be out for two months. That is not only bad for super agent Scott Boros, who is ready to milk the Ellsbury market for all it is worth in the coming offseason. This is very bad news for the Sox. We are down to FOUR offensively potent position players as a result.
Bad news indeed. Unless Kelly Shoppach steps up and becomes the party starter on a more regular basis.