BOSTON -- With Detroit Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler standing at third base after his triple over the head of Red Sox center fielder Mookie Betts with two outs in the eighth inning Friday night, catcher Ryan Hanigan went to the mound for a conversation with his pitcher, reliever Junichi Tazawa.
Porcello, facing his former teammates for the first time, responded with his best start in seven weeks. He gave the Sox seven strong innings in which he allowed just one run on five hits and didn’t walk a batter. But now, with the hyper-aggressive Cespedes at the plate and Kinsler and the go-ahead run just 90 feet away, Hanigan wanted to make clear to Tazawa that he wasn’t going to let this one slip away.
The Sox had been burned by walk-off home runs on their winless, seven-game road trip to Anaheim and Houston, and Hanigan did not want Porcello to come out as empty as Wade Miley, who allowed a total of one run in the two walk-off defeats.
The message to Tazawa was a simple one. “He said, ‘I’m going to put down [the sign for] the fastball," Tazawa said through translator C.J. Matsumoto.
That Hanigan did, on nine consecutive pitches in one of those elemental, one-on-one confrontations that become immortal in October (Bob Welch vs. Reggie Jackson, 1978 World Series) but still qualify as masterpiece theater on a Friday night in July.
"It’s the same show for everybody," Sox reliever Justin Masterson said after Boston’s 2-1, 11-inning win ended the Red Sox losing streak at eight games. “Everybody knows the heater is coming. Everybody knows Cespedes is trying to jump on the heater. That’s true gladiator, gridiron, going after it.
“That’s what makes baseball so great: the battle that takes place within a game. It may not be the biggest game of the year, but in one sense, the current game is the biggest game for us."
Tazawa got ahead of Cespedes with a called strike, missed with the next two pitches, then got a swing-and-miss from the Tigers’ left fielder to even the count. The drama was just beginning. Cespedes fouled off the next fastball, then laid off the one after that to run the count full.
“I knew it wouldn’t be the worst thing to walk him," Tazawa said.
With each successive fastball, Tazawa elevated the pitch even more -- to the top of the strike zone and beyond. Cespedes fouled off the next three pitches.
“I knew the high fastball was key," Tazawa said. “And when I kept getting foul balls, I knew I had a good fastball."
The adrenaline was running as high as his pitches. Tazawa had been knocked around the night before in Houston, where he uncharacteristically gave up three straight hits in relief of Alexi Ogando as the Astros rallied to tie. He was determined to keep the Sox even Friday.
“I can look back at the results now and say I enjoyed it, but there was some nervousness -- a very good nervousness," Tazawa said.
That nervousness would soon give way to elation, as Cespedes swung through the ninth pitch of the at-bat, a 95 mph fastball Tazawa said was higher than eye level.
“I was just so glad to be able to pass the baton to Koji," he said.
The Tigers went six up, six down against Uehara in his longest stint in more than a year, but the score was still tied when Masterson entered in the 11th.
On Tuesday in Houston, Masterson endured another low point in a season of lows. He was so disconsolate after the Astros hammered him for three runs in an outing that included three hits, a home run and a wild pitch that he walked out of the clubhouse before reporters had been allowed inside.
“It really hit me that night. I don’t know why," he said. “Maybe it was because I came back after two days off. I didn’t feel as good as I wanted to. I didn’t execute as good as I wanted to, but I said to Tommy [McLaughlin, the equipment manager], 'I don’t know why this is upsetting me so much, but I don’t feel good.'"
The next morning, Masterson said, he had regained his usual, upbeat outlook, which carried over to Friday night, when a broken-bat single, a wild pitch and a walk of Cespedes brought Victor Martinez to the plate with two on and one out.
“That was a predicament, but it didn’t bother me too much," Masterson said. "I yanked a few pitches on Cespedes, but some of that was because he likes fastballs down the middle. My heater is not as fast as it usually is, so I said I’m not going to throw a cookie down the middle."
During his confrontation with Martinez, Masterson took note of the big leads Kinsler kept taking at second base, to the point that he suspected the Detroit baserunner would attempt to steal third. With the count full on Martinez, Kinsler inspired Masterson to make an adjustment that the baserunner realized too late.
“I decided to go slide step on the slider," Masterson said.
With the accelerated move to the plate that Kinsler had not anticipated, when Martnez swung and missed, Hanigan was easily able to erase Kinsler at third. That ended the threat and set the stage for Xander Bogaerts ’ walk-off hit. It was his second of the season and only Boston’s third.
“It was a long day," Tazawa said in reflecting on the morning’s early wake-up call, flight from Houston, bus directly to the ballpark, 11 innings and nearly four hours of baseball. “I’m just relieved we got the win."