Indians pitching coach Carl Willis visits the mound in the middle of the at-bat to try to calm down Sabathia, who has just given up three straight singles to bring in a run. He has to throw a strike, but also try to avoid a big hit that puts Boston ahead.
Sabathia stops trying to get the Red Sox to chase his breaking stuff and regroups with a 96-mph fastball on the outside corner for strike one. Another fastball, this one further outside, induces Lowell to swing and yields a double-play grounder to second base. Inning over.
Even the AL Cy Young Award candidate Sabathia can't be blamed for early nerves in a situation like this. Some pitching coaches will visit the mound in the middle of a count, and some won't. By doing so here, Willis arguably prevented a breakout inning, albeit temporarily. Interestingly, Willis did not visit the mound in the decisive third inning until another run was in and the bases were loaded for Lowell, who hit a two-run double.
"In the first inning, I just said, 'Listen, we've got to be aggressive. We've got to start getting back to challenging these guys a little bit,' because we were falling behind. At the time, it was actually a 2-0 count, and I just wanted to see him go after him. 'Hey, if he's going to get you, make him put the ball in play.' He executed a couple pitches and got the ground-ball double play."
-- Willis on his visit
Red Sox manager Terry Francona has to pick out a lineup to trot out against Sabathia. Other than Manny Ramirez, 12-for-21 lifetime with three doubles and four home runs off Sabathia entering Friday, nobody has hit him particularly well over extensive at-bats except for reserve outfielder Bobby Kielty, 9-for-29 with four doubles and two homers against the large lefty.
Not only does Francona elect to start Kielty in right field over J.D. Drew, 0-for-3 with three strikeouts against Sabathia for his career, he bats Kielty sixth.
Kielty strikes out on three pitches leading off the second inning, but Sabathia intentionally walks him with first base open in the third. Next time up, Kielty ends Sabathia's outing in the fifth with a two-run single, making it a 7-1 game.
Sometimes numbers are tricky to prioritize, especially over a limited number of at-bats, but Kielty's success was too much to ignore. Moreover, with the way Sabathia pitched him in the fifth, the left-hander knew it, too.
"He was brought in here to give us some right-handed punch. He has the ability, especially on some better left-handed pitching, to give you a pretty professional at-bat with the chance that he'll run one out of the ballpark."
-- Francona, explaining why Kielty was in his lineup on Thursday
Bottom of the fifth, bases loaded and nobody out for Kielty, coming up for the third time against Sabathia in a 5-1 game. Right-hander Jensen Lewis is warming up in the bullpen.
The decision Despite Kielty's aforementioned success against Sabathia and his favorable numbers batting from the right side -- he's a .296 career hitter against lefties compared to .228 versus righties -- manager Eric Wedge keeps Sabathia in the game.
Sabathia falls behind on Kielty with back-to-back fastballs off the outside corner before coming over the plate with another heater, which Kielty lines into right field for a two-run single. Wedge then replaces Sabathia with Lewis, who gives up an RBI double to Jason Varitek.
With the way Beckett was pitching, holding the Red Sox there wasn't going to make a difference anyway. But those insurance runs made the rest of the game superfluous.
"We're in a playoff game. He's proven to me before, and he's proven to us before, that he can be a little bit off and find it, and that's what you're looking for. And sometimes for a pitcher to find it, it takes that situation to where you've got runners on and it's a big out, or you're trying to control damage and he gets it done there and he takes off. Unfortunately, it just didn't happen tonight."
-- Wedge, on Sabathia