I'm officially starting it, right here, if only for my own amusement. It's an idea I've toyed with in the past, but never gotten around to--as a pitching junkie, I definitely have a short-list in my head of the best single pitches I've ever seen from the Red Sox, and it has occurred to me before to start a list and update it as they occur. It will be an entirely subjective and incomplete list, to be sure, which is part of what's kept me from actually posting it. But I'm inspired to finally start it now by Jonathan Papelbon's last pitch last night to Michael Young.
So. Without further ado.
The Best Red Sox Single Pitches Ever
1. Derek Lowe to Terrence Long, 2003 ALDS: This one will probably always be at the top of the list. With the bases loaded and two outs in the deciding game of the Division Series while the Sox clung to a one-run lead, Derek Lowe worked at count of 1-2 on Long before sealing off the series with the most looping, sinking, darting, completely undeniable third-strike-looking I've ever seen. This pitch is at the top of the list completely on its own merits, but cements its place at the top with the bonus points it earns for the immediate aftermath, in which it inspired Derek Lowe's now-infamous "Bite my Tweeter" gesture, which made Miguel Tejada cry. This pitch made grown men cry. I doubt it will ever be bested.
2. Keith Foulke to Tony Clark, 2004 ALCS: Then again, the crying part is probably the only edge Derek's pitch has over this one. You certainly won't find a much bigger situation than this--two on, two out, bottom of the ninth, Yankee Stadium, Game 6--a Game 6 no one would've predicted would actually occur, and a Game 6 few would have predicted would be a save situation for Foulke, with Curt Schilling having started on his bum ankle. But Curt had already turned in his miracle, and it was up to Foulke to preserve the 2-run lead to force a historic Game 7. Tony Clark, meanwhile, represented the winning run for the Yankees.
Tony Clark isn't going to go down in history alongside Albert Pujols or anything, but in that situation, does it really matter who the batter was? Remember Aaron Boone, after all.
Foulke's trademark was how much he liked to "keep things interesting" at times while earning a save. True to form, he worked a full count on Clark before the at-bat would end.
At his best--and this October of 2004 was Foulke at his best, ever--Foulke's one-two fastball-changeup punch "missed bats" as they say in the trades. At his best, Foulke earned a lot of swinging strikes.
With the 3-2 count to Clark, Foulke delivered his best, most crucial swinging strike ever. Clark swung from the heels--I mean he swung for the downs--at a pitch not too far off the plate, maybe a little high, that winked past his bat, plopped into Varitek's glove, and history was made.
3. Jon Lester to David Wright, June 27, 2006: It's quite a step down between the top two and this number three, which occured during an interleague midseason game and had no playoff or clinching implications whatsoever. But another key part of making this list is the sheer beauty of the single pitch, regardless of situation, and this one definitely qualifies as one of the most beautiful pitches I've ever witnessed. And it did come with a little bit of a situation all its own.
Part of the pressure stemmed from the fact that this game marked the return of Pedro Martinez to Fenway Park as a Met. He wouldn't pitch until the next night, but his mere presence was enough to completely electrify the ballpark.
Two outs in the top of the fifth--and it's one of those innings where you look up at the scoretab at the top of the screen for the count or the pitch speed and you see ^5 and go, hot damn, is it STILL the fifth inning? John Lester was officially struggling; he walked Delgado, the bases were loaded, the Sox were only up by three.
In the blink of an eye, it's a full count to David Wright. And Wright proceeded to foul off what felt like 3,547 pitches after that. Lester seemed to throw to him dozens of times with that count still full and the bases still juiced and the Sox still only up by three.
I cannot imagine what it was like to be John Lester in that moment. It must have seemed like the fate of the world was hanging in the balance, as he brought his glove down slowly in front of his face and breathed deep, ready to throw his umpteenth pitch to Wright in an at-bat that had quickly announced itself as the probable turning point of the whole game.
His next curveball was a thing of sheer beauty. Wright fell for it hook, line and sinker, and his bat came up empty while Fenway exploded. You could see people leaping to their feet behind home plate before Varitek had even closed his glove around the ball.
The same way I can still tell you that the kid blinking back tears that they show in a game from early in the 2004 season on Faith Rewarded is not from that game, he's from the game where David Ortiz flied out to the warning track with what would've been the game winning home run, and that game was in September; the same way I can tell you in about half a second that that's the final pitch of the walk to Kevin Millar in game 4 if you flash the video clip in front of me; the same way I can recall countless other little Red Sox moments like that instantaneously when I see them again even years later, and feel that irresistible urge to lean back in my chair, nod at the screen and tell people, whether they want to hear it or not, "Oh, THAT was the game where..." that's the way I'll react if they show that last pitch Lester threw to David Wright. It was that memorable.
4. Jonathan Papelbon to Vladimir Guerrerro, April 14, 2007: This is another one without playoff implications. But I don't think many in Boston will soon forget the mighty duel that took place between Papelbon and Guerrerro this year, with Guerrerro representing the tying run with one out in the top of the eighth. He fouled off three blazing heaters from Papelbon, one after another, 94, 94 and 96.
Papelbon was himself playing with fire. Challenging Vladimir Guerrerro with straight-up heat is a great way to see your pitches launched over the wall. Everywhere he located, Vladi was following him. It was clear Guerrerro had him locked in--he could at least get his bat on it, which is more than most other hitters would have managed against Papelbon to begin with, with that kind of gas.
The last pitch, location-wise, was the most audacious. Right over the heart of the plate, maybe a little toward the upper right corner. Guerrerro gathered himself, swung...and foul-tipped it into Varitek's glove. His bat was just a little under it--a whisper higher, and we might not be talking about this one. Guerrerro in the end would go down with dignity--just as many of Papelbon's teammates were talking in awe of his ability even to get a piece of that pitch as they were about the pitch itself after the game.
The key is the fact that that pitch was gunned in there at 97 miles per hour. Any slower and it would've qualified as a pure meatball. Papelbon is among a select few--if not virtually alone in this category--who can throw a fastball by Vladimir Guerrerro, and he proved it with that pitch, as gorgeous a fastball as you could ever hope to see.
5. Josh Beckett to Mark Ellis, May 2, 2007: I'm sure as I update this list more will occur to me from the past, and I realize I'm skewing heavily toward more recent games, but at this point I'm remembering these things off the top of my head.
Ellis had been Beckett's personal plaything all night in this game against the A's, and was the final hitter Beckett faced in the 7th inning. He obligingly helped send Beckett off in grand fashion with a punchout that made me think Dennis Eckersley was going to choke on his own saliva ranting about it after the game. It was that good.
That final humiliation took just three masterful strokes--a 97 mile-per-hour fastball right up the gut, a 79 mile-per-hour curveball that broke from Ellis's nose to his toes as he swung and missed, and another nasty heater just off the middle of the plate, inside (no gun reading from NESN on that one, unfortunately, but it was definitely somewhere in the neighborhood of the first pitch).
There are some strikeouts where the umpire's body language suggests almost a joy in ringing a batter up after pitches like that, and this was one of them--a resounding K if there ever was one. There really is nothing like a called strike three from Josh Beckett. I salivate at the thought of one of those appearing in a more critical game; it would rank far above this one on this list.
6. Jonathan Papelbon to Michael Young, June 28, 2007: This one makes the list not only because it was a thing of gorgeousness but also because of the crazy drama that ensued beforehand.
The Sox were coming off a sweep at the hands of the Seattle Mariners, a devastating end to a very difficult road trip to the four corners of the continent. Papelbon himself had put in an inning and two-thirds of dominant but futile work in the last game, which I officially nominated as the worst loss of the season so far.
Offensively, this game was the same old story--Tim Wakefield had pitched brilliantly, but the Sox bats stranded small villages on base. Repeatedly, they left the bases loaded, and in the end had spotted Wake just 2 measly runs to the Rangers' 1. Once again, Papelbon came in to bail everybody out.
The tense pitches of the other day, however, were still weighing on his arm, and hitters fouled off pitch after pitch. He managed to get two outs, one on a well-struck fly to right, before facing Kenny Lofton, who himself fouled off several before tapping the ball weekly into the gap between first and second.
It was clearly an opportunity to close out the game, but Lofton took off running with all his might as soon as the ball left his bat. In the end, he and Papelbon would reach first together--replays show that Lofton's heel and Papelbon's toe touched the bag at pretty much the exact same instant. In that case, the ground rule is that the tie goes to the runner, and Lofton was called safe.
This was enough to toss a lit match into the festering pool of rocket fuel that is Papelbon with his adrenaline going, and to say he flipped out would be an understatement. He charged a few steps forward at the umpire, going nearly to his knees in his gesture of consternation and protest, screaming with chords standing out on the sides of his neck that the umpire had made the wrong call. Papelbon's teammates had to step in as the whites of the umpire's eyes began to show, and in that moment when Dustin Pedroia was the one who looked the raging Papelbon in the eye and calmly steered him away from first base, my heart filled with love for both of them. Papelbon was acting like a baby, to be sure, but at the same time I couldn't help but be in awe of his level of intensity as always. It should also be noted that he screamed and hollered but never once made a threatening gesture of any kind toward the ump, which is a) more than I can say for Papi and b) probably why he didn't get tossed.
And Pedroia. My admiration for him easily tripled in the moment when he put himself into the middle of that mess, when I saw the look on his face--concerned, maybe even alarmed, but ultimately calm. He stepped in and saved his teammate from himself, and in the process, probably saved the whole game. The ease with which he took that leadership was a great thing. That moment marks my first real "bonding" with Pedroia as a Red Sox; I must say, though, the more I see of him, the more genuine admiration and respect I have for him as a player.
After that, Papelbon seemed like he might be cooked, at least mentally. He gave his next hitter, Jerry Hairston Jr., a rude awakening indeed with a 94-mph plunking on the wrist. And so it was that Michael Young came to the plate.
And once again, foul ball after foul ball after foul ball ensued. The longer these foul-off fests continue, the less, I think, they favor the pitcher (correct me if I'm wrong, stat-heads).
But then, there it was. Papelbon delivered a called strike three of sheer, bending, jumping filth, and Young watched it fly like a heat-seeking missile from way off the plate outside back into Varitek's glove right on the bull's eye. Papelbon, for his part, hopped around on the mound like a frog for a few seconds, so utterly rapt was he at his own escape from the jam. Varitek, approaching him on the mound, was moved to pat him soothingly on the chest as they moved toward their teammates for high-fives and "Dirty Water" played.
Again, I'm skewing toward the more recent and fresh in my memory, and therefore this list is skewed toward Papelbon. But genuinely, Papelbon's talent seems to be at that single pitch, that one polished, honed, crafted offering of devastating beauty and effectiveness. That's why he's the closer. And why I find him riveting.
So, Sox geeks, here's where I need your help. Please feel free to add your own memories here, and hopefully it'll jog mine, and make this a more complete list.
ETA: Here's another one from last night that I can't believe I didn't write about--
7. Manny Delcarmen to Sammy Sosa, June 28, 2007: If it weren't for this pitch, to the 600-home run hitting roid-fueled Sosa with the bases loaded in the seventh, we wouldn't even be talking about Papelbon. Some swinging high cheese so sweet, Varitek leapt up and pumped his own fist after catching it.
In other words, yes, two of the seven best, filthiest, most crucial pitches I can think of happened last night. That was the kind of game it was.