The heady anticipation, and relentless rain, of the early season returned to Fenway Park this weekend.
Jon Lester was called off the mound, spitting nails, after working himself into a bases-loaded situation on Friday night in the top of the first inning, and the game was cancelled, wiped from the official record. He would return tonight with a blistering shutout performance that sealed a Sox sweep and the final gasp of the season for the defending AL champ Rays. Josh Beckett's brilliant Saturday night outing was also truncated at five innings due to rain, though in Beckett's case, this first effort counted as an official game and a win.
And today, perhaps the single most pleasant surprise of the late season took the mound in the form of Clay Buchholz, who put in a start more remeniscent of his no-hitter against the Orioles than his stage-fright meltdowns last season as the skies finally cleared this afternoon.
At one point during today's game, I noticed Clay stop and pay some close attention to one of his cleats between pitches after putting a couple of runners on. I can't claim to know what the situation was, but I remember a time Shonda Schilling said Curt would stop and tie his shoe to give himself a few extra seconds between pitches when he got flustered, and I wondered if Clay was using a similar trick.
Whatever the case, Buchholz has obviously matured and ripened considerably since making his debut two years ago, perhaps more than we could have expected given how in disarray he was at the end of last season. In the mental game, Buch faces tall odds--before his no-hitter, he'd never thrown more than 100 pitches in a game, in fact pitched only a few games compared with most of his fellow minor leaguers.
But it seems like he's caught up -- and then some. Beckett, Lester and Buchholz looked like three horsemen of the Apocalypse facing down the Rays this weekend, and are the consensus top of the rotation going into the playoffs.
At the time of Buchholz's no-hitter, I made this observation:
Something tells me Josh has made an adoption. It makes sense, after all--not only do they share a home state, but they share a story to some extent, as Josh was 21 when he broke in to the majors. In fact, of all the players in the league, Josh might be the only one who can identify to such an extent with what Buchholz is experiencing right now.
"It's like Koko's kitten," I told Sam in the midst of babbling at her about OMG TEH BUCHHOLZ on the phone. "It's a total breakthrough in socialization for Josh." We immediately both got a mental image after the simian imagery of that statement of Josh walking around with Buchholz clinging to him like Mr. Peepers. Or at least piggy-back style.
Beckett's influence with Lester is, by now, bordering on trans-corporeal possession; Lester has turned into a lefthanded version of Beckett, especially when he narrows his eyes at the hitter from the mound. That face--that is Josh, and some of that fabled pitching id he commands.
While I'm hoping last night was a taste of Commander Kickass returning to smashing postseason form, his obvious influence on the rest of the staff is enough to make him valuable even at less than 100 percent. Trading Hanley Ramirez is looking more and more like one of Theo Epstein's best-ever moves--if not the best. Trading Nomar took more guts, but Beckett has been the foundation for the starting pitching staff if not the centerpiece of the whole team following the Duquette-influenced early years.
Another move that's starting to rank up there as we speak? This year's trade for Victor Martinez.
At first, as with Beckett, I was a little cranky about it, having heard about Martinez crying at his press conference and feeling a bit like the Sox might be chopped liver to him. Or that he might become an Embedded Cleveland Indian, after the 2007 ALCS -- and dammit, he cried then, too. It's hard to know what to make of a guy coming in whose most vivid experiences with the team have both involved weeping.
But in addition to being a consummate professional, on the field and off, Martinez has such a timely bat I could kiss him every time he comes up to the plate. A special bonus is the way he's become David Ortiz's hetero lifemate, at least partially filling the Manny void.
So now we know: whenever I don't like a trade, bet on a blockbuster.
Anyway. July and August were strange, disjointed months in the Red Sox annals, most memorable for the pitching rotation upheaval and the team-wide, month-long slump culminating in the brutal sweep at the hands of the Yankees. I don't want to speak too soon, but the last few weeks have me thinking of the season as more of a U-curve instead of the L I saw a few weeks ago (in more ways than one).
We hit rock bottom on the first weekend in August in the Bronx, but now this second weekend in September, which put the Rays away for good and opened up a little more daylight between the Sox and the Texas Rangers in the Wild Card, it feels like we're headed back to where we were before the All-Star Break: Anticipation Nation.