Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Fortunate Son

Game 26 – Red Sox

Red Sox 7, New York Yankees 3
Record: 15-11

Have I mentioned that I love baseball? For sheer Aeschylean drama, it would be hard to match last night’s Sox/Yanks tilt. On May 1, no less.

Begin with an opening act recounting past epic battles between baseball’s 2 most prominent franchises. Athens versus Sparta, if you will. Spice that up with a villain, maybe a warrior that switched sides – a traitor to some, a mercenary to most, an idiot to all (even if that’s a good thing). Incorporate a surprising comedic/dramatic element, with a prodigal son overcoming all odds to join the fray, abetted by the authorities. Give the evil empire some early success despite the best efforts of the plucky underdogs. Spin a climax that features Adonis smiting his foes with a mighty club in the midst of a fierce, howling wind and close the action with the next generation’s hero dealing the final blow to the dying enemy. The Greeks couldn’t have written last night any better.

And if you think I’m being melodramatic, you didn’t watch last night’s game.

The first Sox/Yanks game of any season is highly anticipated, but last night also marked Johnny Damon’s first trip to Fenway in a Yankee uniform, which ratcheted the pre-game anticipation to post-season levels. Forgive the armchair psychoanalysis, but Damon looked uncomfortable from the jump, reacting awkwardly to the heavily negative reaction to his first trip to the plate and finishing the game 0-for-4 with a bunch of really ugly swings. After the game, Joe Torre expressed his “disappointment” in the fans’ reaction, which amuses me mightily. Cry me a freaking river, Joe, and buy a clue if you really believe that Boston fans should welcome Johnny Cakes (great Sopranos-related nickname courtesy of SoSH) back with open arms.

I can’t help wondering about Damon’s psyche after he saw the Fenway crowd’s reaction to Doug Mirabelli’s triumphant return to Boston. Acquired just yesterday from San Diego, Belli flew across the country in a race against time, allegedly disembarking from his plane at Logan at 6:48, and jumping into a police-escorted convoy to get to Fenway in time for the start – changing into his uniform on the way. Asked if he had ever ridden in a police car before, he replied “That was the first time naked.” I’ll leave that alone.

The NESN cameras recorded Mirabelli jumping out of his car and sprinting into the tunnel that leads to the Sox dugout, and the crowd roared as his name was announced as part of the starting lineup. He proceeded to drop 2 of the first 3 warmup tosses from Wakefield, but wound up backstopping flawlessly, even throwing out Bubba Crosby stealing on a well-time pitchout.

Aided by a 20+ mph wind that whipped towards the infield, Wakefield had no problems with the Yankees through the first 3 innings, but gave up 3 runs in the 4th, despite no solid contact. The final 2 runs scored on a dribbler through the infield that Mark Loretta shouldacouldadived to stop and save at least 1 tally. It was 3-1 after 4, with the Sox having left the bases loaded twice, and I had visions of yet another early-season game lost as a result of miserable clutch hitting. Entering the game, the Sox were “hitting” at a .690 OPS clip with runners in scoring position, a full 100 points below the league average.

The Sox did manage to string together a handful of hits in the 5th to tie the score at 3, setting the stage for the Sox’ Adonis in the bottom of the 8th. After a Mark Loretta single atoned for his mediocre defensive effort in the 4th (as did a nifty sprawling catch of a Jason Giambi liner) and gave the Sox a 4-3 lead, the Yankees trotted out former Sox pitcher Mike Myers to face Papi. It is only a slight stretch to note that Myers is on the Yankee roster specifically to minimize Ortiz’, so this at bat was freighted with longer-term meaning, even in the midst of this classic. Myers got 2 strikes on Papi, then let loose a fastball that got way too much of the plate.

All night long, seemingly mammoth blasts were kept in the park by the whipping wind – Giambi crushed a ball that settled softly in Wily Mo Pena’s glove in deepest center, and Mirabelli hit one that the camera operator expected to touch down on Lansdowne Street, focusing on the stands as the ball landed in Hideki Matsui’s mitt. Nature held no such sway over the mighty Papi on this night, as his ferocious lefty swing blasted a ball to deepest right center. As the ball bore through the jet stream, the crowd stood – at first silent, then in unified glee – and watched as it was caught. By Jonathan Papelbon, warming in the bullpen. As I said immediately to my wife, and as Jerry Remy echoed in the same words, it was just crushed. And so were the Yankees.

Papelbon applied the death blow in the 9th inning. Though no longer a save situation, the crown prince of the Sox pitching staff focused intently and simply dominated the Yankee 4 – 6 hitters. He struck out Alex Rodriguez on a high fastball, treating the reigning AL MVP with the same cool disdain he seems to have for all hitters. Hideki Matsui popped harmlessly to 3rd, and Papelbon sent the crowd home happy by whiffing Jorge Posada on another high fastball. Exit stage left, and curtain.

Homer himself would be proud of this one. Sure, 18 more to go, and I reserve the right to come back here enraged tomorrow, but that’s about as satisfying a result as I can ever remember in a May contest.

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