Monday, October 20, 2003

Coming to Grips

Several times in the past week, I've spontaneously and all-but-involuntarily burst out yelling, "How the fuck did they lose that game?!?". I've replayed the 8th inning over and over again, and I can't get past Grady Little's immense mishandling of the most critical situation in his managerial tenure.

Friday, October 17, 2003

American League Championship Series - Games 6 & 7

Red Sox 9, Yankees 6
Yankees 6, Red Sox 5 (11)
Red Sox lose, 4 games to 3 (mind you, Red Sox lose, not Yankees win)

I suppose I'll look back on this season in the coming weeks and months and remember the 2003 Red Sox fondly. I'm not nearly ready to talk about them now, though.

In short, and I'll expand upon this soon, the Red Sox manager cost his team a shot at a World Series title. With glory a few outs away, Grady Little froze, and in so doing added his name to the pantheon of Red Sox anti-heroes. Little had the chance to immortalize Pedro Martinez and himself, and instead cast shame on both men. By failing to make the most elementary of decisions, Grady Little banished the 2003 Red Sox to the same historical scrap pile as the '86, '78, '75, '67, 'and '46 versions of the Olde Towne Team, and ushered the Yankees to their 27th World Championship.

The Yankees weren't better than the Red Sox, just more ready to win, and guided by more stable and capable hands. No more ball left. No more targets, just a sick feeling in my stomach.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

American League Championship Series - Games 4 & 5

Red Sox 3, Yankees 2
Yankees 4, Red Sox 2

Up, down, up, down, and where the hell are the bats. 10 games into this rollercoaster postseason and the Sox have scored a total of 32 runs. The best offense in the history of baseball - at least by some statistical measures - has averaged 3.2 runs per game. Some might argue that the pitching is better in the postseason, and they would be right, to a degree. But 3 runs a game better? Holding the Sox to a .190 batting average better? I think not.

Who would have thought that my final few entries of the season would bemoan the lack of offense, and praise the bullpen? (And don't get all negative on me - maximum, I've got 9 games left to discuss.) The Sox pitching staff has allowed 36 runs in 10 games, and the bullpen has been absolutely sick. The best offense in baseball? Nowhere to be found. Nomar Garciaparra has left man after man after man on base, and even when he finally drove in a run yesterday, he did it with a groundout. Manny Ramirez has failed time after time, including yesterday, when he flailed defensively at a David Wells curveball with the bases loaded and two outs to end the inning with a meek groundout. David Ortiz is batting .188. Kevin Millar, .156, but he looks worse than that. Johnny Damon, Todd Walker, and Trot Nixon are the only Sox who are producing, and that doesn't sustain victories.

The Sox face the Yankees today in the Bronx, with John Burkett taking the hill against Andy Pettitte. This is a colossal mismatch on paper.

But here's the thing:

Haven't we been on this ride long enough to know that this Sox team is at its best when the chips are down? Aren't the Sox bats due to wake up and rip off back to back double-digit outbursts? Jump on the Positivity Train, boys and girls, next stop Game 1 of the World Series. Lotta ball left. Stay on target.

Saturday, October 11, 2003

American League Championship Series - Games 2 & 3

Yankees 6, Red Sox 2
Yankees 4, Red Sox 3

This Sox team refuses to make anything easy. One flat game, and one really ugly game, and the Yankees have ripped the momentum right back.

The Game 2 loss was pretty much preordained, in hindsight. Derek Lowe was game, but just a touch off after pitching in 3 of 5 ALDS games. I don't hang this one on him. I had a bad feeling after 7 of the first 9 Sox batters reached base and they only plated 1 run. Turned to my mother, who is visiting for the week (and, not incidentally, making it really hard for me to fully release my psychosis during the games), and said, "That'll come back to haunt them." And it did.

Today's game, though, was a different deal altogether. The Sox spotted Pedro a 2-0 lead after the first inning, but he couldn't keep them in check - the story of several Pedro vs. New York outings this year. It was ugly enough when Derek Jeter pounded a hanging breaking pitch over the Monster in the 3rd inning, but things took a turn for the surreal in the 4th. Pedro had given up a double to Hideki Matsui to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead and leave runners on 2nd and 3rd with no outs. His next pitch was a straight fastball at Karim Garcia's head, which drilled the Yankee batsman on the upper back as he frantically dipped out of the way.

Garcia yelled at Pedro, Pedro yelled back, both benches were warned, and Pedro went back to work. Make no mistake, Pedro threw at Garcia. I'll defend Pedro to the ends of the earth for his heart and guts, but he was pissed because he wasn't making good pitches, and he tried to drill Garcia. No doubt in my mind.

Alfonso Soriano grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, during which Garcia took out his anger at Pedro with a late, dangerous slide into Todd Walker's knees. As players from both benches moved to the top steps of the dugout, Pedro got into a verbal altercation with Yankee catcher Jorge Posada, during which it appeared that Martinez told Posada that he would throw at his head next. Yankee bench coach and Gollum understudy Don Zimmer was especially mouthy during the exchange, which ended with players from both teams milling about outside their dugouts.

Manny Ramirez led off the bottom of the 4th (sidebar: shocker that Nomar made another out. No. 5 is my favorite Sox player, but he has killed them in this series - mediocre offense from him today and they win easily.), Yankee pitcher Roger Clemens missed very high (but not really inside) with a 1-2 pitch. Manny took serious offense, walking several steps toward the mound and engaging Clemens in an academic discussion about the uses of the words "Fuck", "You", and "Off".

Both benches cleared, and trouble would have been avoided, except that the 72 year-old Zimmer charged Pedro and took a wild swing at the already-irritated Sox hurler. Pedro grabbed Zimmer around the head and shoulders and drove him to the ground. It looked awful initially, when the cameras only caught the last part of it and missed Zimmer's provocation. Pedro was defending himself, but history will not be kind to a 30 year-old athlete who injured a senior citizen. It was among the most bizarre situations in an already Dali-esque postseason for the Sox. Can't wait to see Shaughnessy's anti-Pedro rant in tomorrow's Globe.

The game calmed way down after the fireworks, with the Sox missing a golden opportunity to get back into the contest with runners on 1st and 3rd and no out in the 7th. To their credit, they did not roll over after the disturbance, and Pedro himself was unhittable after the 4th. The damage had been done, though, and the Yankees ran the table in the 8th and 9th behind Mariano Rivera to take a 2-1 series lead.

Things appear bleak for my boys, down in the series and facing a John Burkett start in tomorrow's game. By all rights, the Yankees should end this series in Boston.

But here's the thing:

I will continue to be positive about this team. I got away from it a little bit today because I was disappointed in Pedro's lack of composure, but this team will not die. They will batter David Wells in Game 4 and go into Game 5 rejuvenated. The 2003 Red Sox are not going out soft. Lotta ball left. Stay on target.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

American League Championship Series - Game 1

Red Sox 5, New York Yankees 2

The Yankees had everything tilting in their favor heading into Game 1 of the most highly anticipated ALCS in years. The New York nine were rested and ready to drum the Sox and their #3 starter, Tim Wakefield in front of a packed house in the Bronx. The national media was eulogizing the Sox after their draining series against Oakland. A funny thing happened on the way to a Yankee sweep: Tim Wakefield's knuckleball fluttered and danced its way past the Yankees' bats, Manny, Ortiz, and Walker went longball, Derek Jeter's abysmal range was exposed, the much-maligned Boston bullpen pitched three scoreless innings, and the Sox won without a whole lot of drama.

My take is that the Sox had absolutely no pressure to win Game 1, and they played the same brand of loose, freewheeling baseball that got them into the playoffs, and it paid off. Meanwhile, the heavily favored Yankees made a series of little mistakes - maybe because of tension - that wound up costing them: Mussina grooved a fastball to Ortiz after just failing to reach Manny's bouncer to the right side; Jeter just missed two ground balls that most shortstops would have routinely fielded; the Yankee bats failed to take advantage of scoring opportunities in the early innings, and so on.

Now, the Sox are under even less pressure, but the Yankees have the weight of the world on their shoulders. I honestly felt really good about Game 1 - based on the "no pressure" theory I posited above. I feel great about Game 2, because I have renewed faith in Derek Lowe. And - here's the kicker - even if the Sox lay an egg, which is certainly possible given that their adrenaline high has to fade one of these days, they've still split in the Bronx with Pedro on the hill for Game 3.

Lotta ball left. Stay on target.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

American League Divisional Series - Game 5

Red Sox 4, Oakland A's 3
Sox win series, 3-2

I will never, ever, ever say another bad thing about Derek Lowe's psychological makeup. The Sox hurler turned in one of the epic clutch pitching performances in baseball history last night, rescuing the Sox from a potentially devastating, and certainly season-ending loss, and catapulting the Sox into the AL Championship Series against the Yankees.

Lowe entered the game in the bottom of the 9th with the Sox clinging to a 4-3 lead after Scott Williamson had walked the first two batters of the inning. (Williamson was working for the 5th straight game, so I'm going to cut him some slack, and know that he's ready for the Yankees.) Ramon Hernandez bunted the runners over, leaving A's on 2nd and 3rd with one out, and the series winning run on second base.

The Sox drew the infield in to cut off the run from third, exposing themselves to potential doom if a dribbler snuck through to the outfield. A single almost certainly would have ended the series, as the Sox outfield was playing deep. Lowe, the league's most proficient groundball pitcher, had to pitch against type and not allow any contact at all. I was lightheaded from holding my breath, and next to exhausted from expending vast amounts of nervous energy. Lowe went 3-2 to pinch hitter Adam Melhuse before freezing the Oakland backup catcher with a sick frontdoor slider/cut fastball.

Lowe walked the next batter after battling for several pitchers, filling the bases and bringing Terrence Long to the plate. The Oakland Coliseum was absolutely batshit, and I was curled into a fetal position on my couch, mumbling to myself and talking to the television like a heroin addict in the throes of a particularly bad withdrawal. The count to Long reached 2 strikes, and Lowe broke off one of the nastiest pressure pitches I have or will ever see. The ball started at Long's midsection, then dove as if radar-controlled towards the outside corner. The umpire rang Long up, I leapt from the couch, Lowe punched the air, and the entire Sox team rushed the pitcher's mound in a mix of pent-up tension and joy.

Lowe's performance was the stuff of New England legends, but there were several other critical - if only slightly less nerve-wracking - plays that contributed to this win:

1. Jason Varitek hit a solo homer off of Barry Zito to open the 6th inning and tie the game at 1. Zito had been flat out dealing for the first 4+ innings - absolutely unhittable. Finally, in the 5th, his curveball started to miss the strike zone, and he started to struggle with his command. "He's losing it," I said to nobody in particular. I kept repeating that mantra in the 6th, as Johnny Damon followed Tek's homer with a walk, and then Zito hit Todd Walker after inducing Nomar to pop out (shocked, I'm shocked). Manny followed Walker, and...

2...just missed a 2-strike fastball, fouling it straight back. Zito had made Manny look silly in his first two plate appearances, but then the Oakland lefty tempted fate, coming back with another fastball in the same place, and Manny belted it to left. As the ball left the bat, Manny simply walked about ten paces towards first, then pointed at the Sox dugout with Crash Davis-esque glee as the ball richocheted off the concrete steps beyond the left-field wall. Fox broadcasters Steve Lyons and Thom Brenneman excoriated Manny for his hotdogging far beyond what was appropriate for the transgression. Yes, Manny showboated. Yes, it was probably over the top. But Lyons and Brenneman made it a Federal crime. Tell you what, Psycho. Next time you hit a three-run homer in a series-deciding playoff game, you get to judge Manny. Until then, keep your pants on and stick to what you know.

3. In the bottom of the 7th, with the score now 4-2, Oakland's Jermaine Dye lifted a two-out popup to shallow center. Damian Jackson raced out after the ball, and Johnny Damon sprinted in to get it. The two collided in one of the most gruesome baseball moments I've ever seen, rendering them both prostrate. As they lay motionless, Nomar stepped between them, retrieved the ball and slung it to second, where thirdbaseman Bill Mueller - in one of the great heads-up plays of the series - had moved to cover the empty bag. Nomar's throw beat the sliding Dye to end the inning.

4. Alan Embree and Mike Timlin slammed the door on the A's in the bottom of the 8th, after Pedro surrendered back to back hits to make the score 4-3. Huge, huge performance in this game and in the whole series by the Boston bullpen, who surrendered 2 earned runs in 16 innings to keep the Sox alive.

5. Mad props to Whitney Lester, who donned an A's cap in a successful attempt to jinx the Oakland nine. Of course, this followed two horrible losses that were registered when he was openly rooting for the Red Sox. I'm in the process of purchasing him some Yankee paraphenalia. Which leads me to...

The American League Championship Series

Sox versus Yankees. Good versus evil. Years of frustration versus dynastic dominance. Blah blah blah. The Yankees have all the advantages in this series: they're at home for 4 games, they have their pitching rotation set perfectly - while the Sox have to start the series with Tim Wakefield, Johnny Damon may not play at all in the series - at least at this writing, the Yankee bats are booming, and their bullpen is rested. So why do I think that the Sox are ready to Cowboy Up and make some magic? To steal from my all-time favorite movie goosebump scene, you tell the Yankees the Sox are coming, and hell's coming with them.

Lotta ball left. Stay on target

Monday, October 06, 2003

American League Divisional Series - Games 3 & 4

Red Sox 3, Oakland A's 1 (11)
Red Sox 5, Oakland A's 4

Told ya so.

The Sox won two of the most wrenching, bizarre, seat-of-the-pants, edge-of-the-seat spellbinders I've ever seen to force Game 5 of the ALDS. And now Pedro goes on full rest against Barry Zito, who is pitching for the first time in his career on three days' rest. Oh, and did I mention that Tim Hudson told reporters, "I'd rather have Barry Zito than Pedro Martinez any day."? Hudson, probably embarrassed about having to leave yesterday's game after 1 inning, just yanked hard on Superman's cape.

I'm getting exhausted recounting this team's resiliency and refusal to go quietly. They were on the ropes late again yesterday, trailing 4-2 after the top of the 6th. They were down, 4-3, heading to the bottom of the 9th with Oakland closer Keith Foulke taking the hill. And I knew - knew - that they were going to win. Nomar doubled with one out, but Walker popped up to put the Sox on the brink.

I was sitting forward on my couch, gripping and regripping my daughter's soccer ball (with pretty ladybug designs), rocking back and forth like a mental patient (or Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone). Manny woke from his series-long slumber and ripped a groundball to left, but he hit it so hard that Nomar had to stop at third.

David Ortiz, who - as much as anyone - symbolizes the Sox magic this season, stepped up with two on and two out. Ortiz had been mired in an 0-for-16 slump in the series, when even mediocrity would have meant at least 1 more Sox victory. The big Dominican worked the count to 3-and-2, and...smoked a laser to right. I leapt off the couch with both arms raised, thinking it was into the seats. The Sox crowd let out a feral roar as Oakland's Jermaine Dye raced back to the wall. The ball arced over Dye's glove, short-hopping the rightfield wall. Dye's throw to the infield sailed over the cutoff man's head as Manny slid gleefully across the plate with the go-ahead run.

Red Sox Nation was delirious. Though my daughter was napping, I could not control my emotions, screaming "Yes, Yes, Yes" at the top of my lungs. (Coupled with several "Fucks" from earlier in the game, and aided by open windows on a beautiful fall day, my outbursts surely have my neighbors questioning my sanity, or what goes on in my house.) My daughter woke up crying, and I had to sprint upstairs to comfort her, saying, "Daddy's yelling because he's happy, not upset. The Red Sox do that to Daddy sometimes." I think she understood.

Scott Williamson absolutely slammed the door on the A's in the top of the 9th. (Side note: So that's what it feels like to have a closer. Interesting.) Game over, and Game On!

Game 5 tonight. Lotta ball left. Stay on target.

Friday, October 03, 2003

American League Divisional Series, Games 1 & 2

Oakland A's 5, Red Sox 4 (12)
Oakland A's 5, Red Sox 1

I'm very, very hesitant to type this entry, because I'm emotionally and physically drained by the Sox efforts in the first two games of the ALDS, and I don't want my psychic state to color my fondness for the 2003 Boston Red Sox. That said, what an unmercifully painful cockpunch these first two games provided.

Game 1 was moments away from being an all-time great Sox victory. It had so many positive elements - great, clutch performance by Todd Walker, stone cold willpower from Pedro, a come-from-behind surprise, a terrific performance by Mike Timlin, and then...and then the manager stepped in and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. B.H. Kim recorded two outs in the bottom of the 9th - he scuffled, and he had men on first and second, but he was one out from victory with Erubiel Durazo headed to the plate. Grady yanked Kim in favor of Alan Embree to get a lefty versus lefty matchup against Durazo. But Embree hadn't pitched in 10 days, and isn't markedly better against lefties than he is against righties.

Predictably, Durazo lined an Embree fastball (he has no other pitches) to left to plate the tying run and ensure that I would be up until the wee hours of the morning. Oh, I haven't mentioned that the game started at 10:00 EST? Another exquisite postseason baseball touch brought to you by the fine people at Major League Baseball and their friends in the television industry.

Later, at 2:45 am, A's catcher Ramon Hernandez made like Jake Taylor in Major League, and dropped a pretty bunt down the thirdbase line to score the winning run, while the Sox infield stared at it with an "oh, shit" look on their faces. But it never should have got to that moment, and here's why:

1. Grady got managed into a corner in the top of the 8th. The Sox had runners on 2nd and 3rd with 1 out and Trot Nixon coming to the plate, leading 4-3. A's lefthander Ricardo Rincon was on the hill, so Grady pinch-hit with right-handed hitter David McCarty. Predictably, A's manager Ken Macha replaced Rincon with the right-handed Chad Bradford. Grady responded by pinch hitting for his pinch-hitter, sending Adrian Brown to the plate to bat from the left side. Keep in mind, now, that all the Sox really needed in this instance was a fly ball to score a critical insurance run. David McCarty is no Manny Ramirez, but he's an acceptable option when you need to put a ball in play. Adrian Brown's not even a very good AAA hitter, and he only had 15 ABs in the regular season. I knew that he would not make contact with the ball when I saw him at the plate, and I was right, save for one meek foul tip.

2. The aforementioned yanking of the Bunger. If Grady was going to pull his "closer" to take advantage of a matchup, he should have taken advantage of a matchup, and brought in a true lefthanded specialist. Though I hate him, Scott Sauerbeck does fit that description.

3. Johnny Damon reached base in the late innings with 2 outs. Nomar, who had hit the ball well, came to the plate. Damon stole second, opening first base for the A's, who quickly walked Nomar to face...Damian Jackson, who had entered the game to replace Todd Walker at 2nd base. Inning over.

4. During the A's game-winning rally, with Derek Lowe on the mound (the presumable Game 3 starter, by the way), the A's had runners on 1st and 3rd with 2 out. Terrence Long, a weak hitter under the best of circumstances, took strike 1 from Lowe. Scott Hatteberg stole second. Grady ordered Long walked to load the bases, even though he already had a strike, and even though it put much more pressure on Lowe to throw strikes, and even though he sucks.

There's more, but I'm too depressed to continue, and too tired to remember with any sort of clarity.

Game 2 was a foregone conclusion, as the Sox sleptwalked through the whole thing while the A's danced on their lifeless bodies.

Here's the thing, though:

The Era of Positivity has not ended, goddammit. The Sox will win Game 3, they will win Game 4, and Pedro will take the hill in Oakland on Tuesday like a gladiator. I haven't given this much of my heart to this team to see them swept. I remember 1999, and I remember the greatest comeback in my lifetime. Cowboy up, motherfuckers, because there's still a lotta ball left. Stay on goddamn target.