The first five innings of Friday night’s series-opening tilt between the Yankees and Red Sox were crisp and closely contested. Josh Beckett came out blazing, spotting 96 mile-per-hour heaters and dropping hammer curves. He struck out the side in the first, two of three batters in the second, and struck out Derek Jeter for a second time to strand a Francisco Cervelli single in the third. Phil Hughes kept pace, retiring the first seven men he faced, then following a walk to Beckett’s personal catcher Jason Varitek with two strikeouts to strand him.
The Yankees finally broke through in the fourth when, with one out, Mark Teixeira battled back from 0-2 to work a walk and Alex Rodriguez followed with a single that moved Teixeira to second. Beckett rallied to strike out Robinson Cano on four pitches, then made Nick Swisher look silly on a check swing on a cutter inside before spotting a 96 mph heater on the outside corner for strike two.
At that, Swisher spun on his heel and took a walk out of the batters box, seemingly to gather himself. Swisher has a deserved reputation as a flake because he’s a motormouth and a goofball, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a smart ballplayer. In the bottom of the inning, he made a great play in right, sliding in front of a would-be double to cut it off and hold J.D. Drew to a single. On this occasion it was obvious that Swisher was determined to win the mental battle with Beckett as well as the physical one.
After stepping back in, Swisher took a fastball well high, then took a curve in the dirt and stepped out again. Bat under his right arm, lips drawn tight, eyes peeking out toward Beckett, Swisher had a look on his face like he had figured something out, as if he thought he knew something Beckett didn’t. He then stepped back in the box and hit a curve up in the zone over the wall in straight-away center to give the Yankees a 3-0 lead. After the game, Swisher said he was lucky to run into one. He’s humble, too.
The Sox got one back in the bottom of the fourth on Drew’s single (the first Boston hit in the game), another by Kevin Youkilis, and sac fly by David Ortiz, but when Boston threatened again in the fifth with two out singles by Darnell McDonald and Marco Scutaro that put runners on the corners, Hughes got Dustin Pedroia to fly out to center to strand them.
Then came the top of the sixth. Alex Rodriguez led off with a low line-drive through the shortstop hole that was hit so hard it rolled all the way to the wall for a double. Beckett then threw a 1-0 cutter down and into Robinson Cano and hit the Yankee second baseman on the top of the right knee. The impact was loud and frightening as Cano let out an audible shout. After a visit from the trainer, Cano took his base, but two pitches later he took himself out of the game (he’s day-to-day and likely won’t play Saturday).
Beckett’s 1-1 pitch to Swisher was a fastball, but Varitek, expecting a curve, lowered his glove and the ball hit off his left arm and rolled toward the Yankee dugout, moving the runners (Rodriguez and pinch-runner Ramiro Peña) up. After the Red Sox’s trainer visited Varitek (who later came out with a bruised left forearm), Beckett struck out Swisher, but then curiously intentionally walked Brett Gardner to face Francisco Cervelli with the bases loaded and one out.
Here’s where things got weird. In his previous at-bat, Cervelli had called time while Beckett was taking a long set to freeze Gardner at first. Beckett responded by coming up and in to Cervelli and making him jump out of the way. In this at-bat, Cervelli battled the count full, then called time on Beckett again. Again Beckett’s next pitch was up and in, but this time it was ball four and forced in a run. The first time it was clearly intentional, but Beckett wouldn’t throw at a guy to force in a run in a two-run game . . . would he?