Mariano Rivera has been the gold standard for this generation, and he showed why yet again, firing two shutout innings in Sunday's tense contest between the Red Sox and Yankees. Jonathan Papelbon, who just might be the one to grab the torch of last-call greatness once Rivera finally retires, just wanted to keep pace.
On this night, Papelbon blinked just enough for the Yankees to be walk-off winners in this riveting 5-4 contest in 10 innings.
After winning the first two games of the four-game series, the Red Sox lost the last two against their rivals to finish a thoroughly frustrating road trip with a 3-7 record. Five of the seven losses were of the one-run variety.
"Of course it's frustrating," said Papelbon. "You want to win every game. We weren't able to do that. We've got to go back home and try to win some ballgames before the break."
As for this outing, Papelbon -- who along with Rivera was selected to the American League All-Star team earlier in the day -- couldn't catch a break. Robinson Cano led off the 10th with a single up the middle. Melky Cabrera sacrificed him to second. Papelbon struck out Wilson Betemit, meaning he was a mere one out from getting the Red Sox back in the dugout and enabling them to face someone besides Rivera.
But Brett Gardner, filling in for the injured Johnny Damon, was a pest. After falling behind 0-2, Gardner worked the count to 2-2. The rookie then slapped the eighth pitch of the at-bat up the middle.
The only chance the Red Sox had was for shortstop Alex Cora to make a hero play. He came close. Cora sprawled across the diamond just in front of the grass and got some glove on the ball. However, he didn't get quite enough. The ball squired off his glove, hit the lip of the grass and then took a wild bounce into the outfield. Cano came racing home to end the ballgame.
"I was just trying to strike him out," said Papelbon. "He hit a ball up the middle that was able to hit the lip of the grass and bounce up. It seems like that's what's going to happen if you're going to get me this year -- broken bat or find a way through the infield somehow. Yeah, it's frustrating. You have the guy, 0-2, and you figure you'll put him away, and it doesn't happen."
As for Cora, there wasn't much he could do.
"I was trying to knock it down; didn't knock it down," Cora said. "You just try to do your best, you try to knock it down, that's it. It's the end of the story. That's what they teach us since Little League. With two outs, man on second, try to knock it down. I didn't knock it down and he scored."
Second baseman Dustin Pedroia had a pretty good idea the play would not have a happy ending.
"It's helpless," Pedroia said. "I thought AC did a great job trying to get there, and I took an even deeper angle in case it got by him to try to dive and keep it in the infield. It kind of hit the lip after he touched it and the ball went sideways. The guy had a great at-bat."
The Red Sox now trail the red-hot Rays by five games in the American League East. The Yankees are nine games back -- and four behind the Sox.
Sure, Rivera is tough. But the Red Sox had an opportunity to break the tie in the top of the ninth. Sean Casey led off with a single and Coco Crisp bunted pinch-runner Brandon Moss to second base.
Jason Varitek pinch-hit for Julio Lugo and broke his bat on the first pitch, grounding weakly to Rivera. Moss moved to third. The drama built as Red Sox manager Terry Francona called on slumping slugger Manny Ramirez to pinch-hit. But in a matchup of superstars, Rivera struck out Ramirez on three consecutive called strikes.
"I was kind of surprised, yeah, definitely," Rivera said. "Yeah, I was kind of surprised he didn't take the bat off his shoulder. I don't know what he was thinking. That's Manny."
Earlier in the game, the Red Sox had stolen the momentum with a three-run top of the fifth inning against Chamberlain to take a 3-1 lead. Kevin Youkilis and Casey led off the inning with singles to right, setting up runners at the corners with nobody out. Chamberlain then unleashed a wild pitch, allowing Youkilis to score the tying run. Pedroia fought off a 97-mph fastball and blooped it into right-center for a two-run single.
Chamberlain wound up going six innings and allowed four hits and three runs, walking four and striking out five. He did irk Youkilis in his final inning, the sixth, when he threw one high and tight on the right-handed hitter. Chamberlain was suspended last year for throwing two pitches behind Youkilis. After being brushed back, Youkilis glared at Chamberlain, but nothing came of it.
"What I want to say I'm not going to say because I'll probably get fined by Major League Baseball," said Youkilis. "That's all I've got to say about it."
Chamberlain's explanation for his repeated lack of good aim against Youkilis?
"I was trying to throw a two-seamer in, because he'd been standing away and got two hits on two balls away," said Chamberlain. "We were going to try to throw it under his bat and run it under his hands. It got away. There was nothing about it. I was trying to get him out. He'd been on base two times and I didn't want him on base again."
Wakefield turned in a typically fine effort for the Red Sox, giving up four hits and three runs over 6 1/3 innings.
The Yankees chipped away in the bottom of the sixth. Derek Jeter's RBI single up the middle sliced the deficit to 3-2.
Kevin Cash struck an RBI double to left in the seventh, allowing the Red Sox to reclaim their two-run lead.
The roller coaster continued in the bottom of the seventh. With one on and one out, Wakefield was removed in favor of lefty specialist Javier Lopez. That move didn't go well for the Sox. Jorge Posada struck a single to right to put runners at the corners with one out. Cano stepped up with the big hit, a line triple to center that brought home two runs to tie the game.
"We got in a situation where we got to where we wanted to," Francona said. "We turned two [switch-hitters] around, and then [Lopez] faced Cano, and none of it worked. He threw a pitch to Cano out over the plate and let him get his hands and arms extended."
That merely set up a fitting end to a three-city journey in which very little went right for the Red Sox.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.