Monday, April 09, 2007

North Mississippi All-Stars

Game 6 – Red Sox
Red Sox 3, Rangers 2

The 2007 season meandered sleepily along through the first 5 games, easing me slowly into the grind without much drama or angst. The soundtrack, accordingly and fittingly, has been more Sunday at The Masters than AC/DC. Last night, though, baseball roared back into my bloodstream, bringing with it elevated heart rates, late night fist pumps, and the season’s first involuntary “holy shit” utterances.

Nearly all of that physiological stimulus came courtesy of Jonathan Papelbon and his electric stuff. Ranger batsmen were breaking bottles and destroying tables in the saloon when the bullpen doors swung open to let the big right-hander enter, and the Rangers’ partisans were in full throat. To steal from Kenny Rogers, you could’ve heard a pin drop by the time he was done.

The Sox led, 3-2, with 1 out in the bottom of the 8th, and runners on first and third when Terry Francona summoned Papelbon to face Michael Young. Papelbon’s got this glare that would skirt the boundary between silly theatrics and intimidation if it didn’t come as part of a package deal with his exploding fastball and bat-breaking splitter. He fixed Young in his sights and proceeded to summarily dispatch one of the game’s great hitters, blowing 2 fastballs by the Rangers’ shortstop before closing with a wicked knee-high fastball on the outside corner that earned a called third strike. The dangerous Mark Teixeira couldn’t catch up to a high fastball, and the threat was doused when his towering popup settled into Mike Lowell’s glove. Fist pumps all around, in recognition of Papelbon’s dominance and of Francona’s exquisite use of his bullpen in the pivotal 8th inning.

The Sox failed to dent the Ranger bullpen in the 9th – shocker – and Papelbon started with a fresh sheet in the home half of the inning. Sammy Sosa still swings from his heels, but the 2007 model had no chance against Papelbon’s high gas, popping up mightily, but harmlessly to Kevin Youkilis. Hank Blalock and Brad Wilkerson really didn’t need to bring bats to the plate, as helpless as the both were against Papelbon’s momentum. Neither came close to hitting anything Papelbon delivered, as both he and the Sox fans in attendance (and in one living room in Leesburg, VA) got more and more intense. Papelbon’s final delivery was a fastball, low and outside, and the home plate umpire kindly put Wilkerson out of his misery, even though the pitch probably missed by an inch or so – wouldn’t have mattered, as Wilkerson’s chances of reaching base in that situation were lower than the Nationals’ projected winning percentage. (Some portentous foreshadowing, that.)

Papelbon’s 5-batter performance was as epic as the season’s first week could possibly allow. The stakes weren’t particularly high in the season’s grand sweep - had he blown the save (which would have carried no shame whatsoever), the Sox might’ve limped home from a 2-4 road trip. But even then, I really wouldn’t have forecasted any long-term hangover – the soothing balm of Tuesday’s home opener probably would’ve washed away any lingering ill feelings. Even with the win, the Sox still find themselves a mediocre 3-3 with no real offensive spark. Psychologically, though, Papelbon’s staredown of the Rangers finally and irrevocably shuts the door on second-guessing of the rotation/bullpen decision-making process, and reminds the Sox in no uncertain terms that they’ve got one of the league’s elite stoppers at the back of the pen.

The Sox got 2 other boosts from the series finale in Texas, equally important though slightly less dramatic. Curt Schilling served notice that the rumors of his demise may have been slightly exaggerated, shaking off a first-inning homer by Sox-killer Frank Catalanotto and silencing the Rangers to the tune of 7 IP, 1 ER, 4 hits, and 6K. On the offensive side of the ledger, David Ortiz ended his season-opening mini-slump with homers in his first 2 plate appearances to account for all of the Sox’ runs.

And slightly less important, but fortuitous nonetheless, the Sox and Rangers had the courtesy to do absolutely nothing of consequence in the game’s middle innings, meaning that I was able to watch the season premieres of the Sopranos and Entourage in their entirety and still catch every meaningful pitch of the game. I could really stand to see less Janice over the final 8 episodes, Mr. Chase, if that wouldn’t be too much to ask. Entourage seems to be astride the motorcycle, revving the engine, just waiting for the right moment to head skyward over the shark’s seeking jaws.

The Sox head to Boston for tomorrow’s home opener carrying a 3-3 record despite scoring only 19 runs. I expect they feel both a little bit fortunate and a little bit overdue at the plate. I also think they’re all looking over at the kid wearing No. 58 with a mix of awe and gratitude that he’s on their side.

One final note of annoyance that’s building into a full-on rant: I can’t overstate my disdain for Sox fans that go to opposing ballparks and start the “Let’s Go Red Sox” chant. I find it bush league annoying bullshit, like the stereotypical Ugly Americans who go abroad and insist on eating at McDonald’s. I don’t mind that the Sox have a large fanbase – frankly, it’s one of the reasons they can maintain the payroll and exorbitantly high standards they’ve established under this ownership team. I do have a problem with loudmouth obnoxious guests. Cheer as loud as you want for the Sox’ actions on the field, but show a modicum of courtesy otherwise – channel Sam Wyche, only replace Cleveland with the city of your choosing, perhaps the one over there on the island.


Whitney said...

Ditto on Papelbon; Papi probably merited more praise for his performance, but you're so used to it, it was almost overdue by Game 6 of the season.

Also ditto on fan class. I think you, like me, went to enough NYY@BAL games over the years to have seen the worst offenders and know what it means to display even trace amounts of courtesy and class in any stadium. You aren't changing the results of the game, no matter what you tell yourselves. You're just worsening a whole lot of fans' -- young and old -- time at the ballpark.

Red Sox fans cannot continue to hurl condescension at the Yankees' franchise and fan base while rapidly darkening to pot-black status.

rob said...

papi was nicenice, but papelbon was like something out of stephen king's gunslinger series. a post-modern rider of the apocalypse, laying waste to all comers with no regard to color or creed. in a completely non-hyperbolic manner of speaking.

and i hate that your final sentence is accurate.