Nixon an unlikely hero
Former Red Sox icon sparks Cleveland's winning rally
Posted: Sunday October 14, 2007 3:31AM; Updated: Sunday October 14, 2007 3:37AM
BOSTON -- He was a face of the Red Sox once, a Boston icon beloved by the faithful. Now Trot Nixon is 33, a part-time player on the Indians whose gray hairs emerge from his beard like bad weeds. This October he was supposed to be nothing more than a cheerleader, and, with 127 career playoff at bats, a Dr. Phil-like voice of wisdom in a clubhouse of players short on postseason experience.
But on Saturday night in the hallowed ballpark he called home for 10 seasons, Nixon was front and center, delivering the biggest hit of this interminable night -- a single off Javier Lopez in the 11th inning that broke a 6-6 tie, jump-started the Indians to an astonishing seven-run inning, and changed the tenor of the series.
"He's kind of difficult for left-handers, so I just shortened up everything," Nixon said of Lopez after the game. "I knew they had a couple lefties in the bullpen, and I was just excited to get a chance."
It wasn't supposed to end like this, not after Boston looked nearly invincible in their Game 1 rout, not after Manny Ramirez slammed a two-run shot to tie the game in the fifth, not after Mike Lowell slammed a home run in the next at bat to give Boston the lead, not after Hideki Okajima, Mike Timlin, and Jonathan Papelbon combined for 4 2/3 brilliant innings of relief.
"It didn't end like we wanted it, but, that was one of the most exciting games I think I've been a part of," Red Sox Manager Terry Francona said. "So much good baseball. Just didn't end very well for us."
For the second straight night, a highly anticipated pitcher's duel never materialized -- neither Curt Schilling nor Fausto Carmona were sharp, and the game became a fascinating battle of bullpens, a battle the Indians would win despite their lights-out setup man Rafael Perez getting lit up in the bottom of the fifth. With a two-run lead, one out, a man on first, and David Ortiz strutting to the plate, Indians manager Eric Wedge lifted Carmona in favor of Perez, who induced a ground out from Ortiz, but then left changeups over the plate for Ramirez and Lowell to bludgeon out of the ballpark.
In the top of the sixth, Francona turned to Okajima in a tie game. Okajima escaped a bases-loaded quandary, then retired the Indians' two best hitters. Arguably the two best lefthanded relievers in the American League in the regular season, Okajima and Perez were often unhittable; on this night, Okajima got the job done, and Perez didn't -- and that would seemingly be the difference in the game.
But then the rest of the Indians bullpen showed how good it can be. Jensen Lewis and Rafael Betancourt allowed just one hit in 4 2/3 innings while striking out four, but perhaps most impressive was the inning worked by Tom Mastny, who retired Ortiz, Ramirez, and Lowell in order in the 10th.
Now the series heads to Cleveland on Monday, where the Red Sox hold the pitching edge in Game 3 with Daisuke Matsuzaka taking the mound for Boston and Jake Westbrook for the Indians. But how will Matsuzaka perform in his first postseason road start? Will Manny stay white hot in his return to Cleveland? Will Eric Gagne pitch another meaningful inning again this postseason?
The Indians have to feel good about heading home after a split at Fenway -- thanks to the unlikely hero, the ALCS is now anyone's series.