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

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