The Hunt for a Red October
The joys of baseball in fall
By Adam Hoff
This time last year I was writing a column about my love for baseball in spite of extreme heartache. This time around, that passion for the sport was bolstered rather than put to the test.
In case you’ve been under a rock for the past two weeks, we were just treated to one of the finest sets of LCS series in the history of baseball. A back-and-forth grudge match between two high-powered NL teams and a historic, mesmerizing, apocalyptic version in the AL. Here are some thoughts.
There’s a first for everything. Discounting two ancient hockey series, no team has ever recovered from a 3-0 deficit in one of the major American professional sports. In the NBA the record is like 0-86. In baseball, teams down 0-3 were 0-25. In fact, no baseball team ever found a way to even force a Game Seven. What these Red Sox did was simply unprecedented and unbelievable. The only thing I can compare it to is when my dad’s slow pitch softball team lost the first game of a double elimination tournament and then came back to win like 13 straight games in two days to win their fourth straight state championship. Seriously.
While watching Dave Roberts leading off first base in Game Four I had this prickly feeling that felt like “What if?” I dismissed it because I knew it simply wasn’t possible for the Sox to win four straight. I felt the same jolt of wonder when Ortiz singled home the winning run in the 14th inning the next night. Again, dismissed out of logical reasoning. In fact, at this point I was saying things like, “Wow, at least the Red Sox have the moral victory of getting it back to New York. It’s going to be that much worse for their fans when they lose though.” After the Schilling game anything was possible, but I still found a way to discount them by showing little to no faith in Lowe on the mound. Well, you know how it turned out. The Sox used a little bit of everything to win each one of those games: clutch hitting, redemption stories, courageous performances, stifling relief pitching, and some good old Pay-Rod choking. I still can’t believe what happened. Honestly, it was the greatest sports achievement of my lifetime – you can’t convince me otherwise. Just to come from 0-3 against any team is mind-blowing. But to do it to the Yankees … wow. Which leads us to the next point.
The Yankees lose! Theeeeeee …. Yankees lose! How fitting that the Yankees should be on the flip side of this coin? The team with the $180 million payroll. The team with the big, bad owner. The team with freaking A-Runt. Almost as sweet as watching Boston rally was watching New York choke. And while you hate to even mention this side of things for fear of taking away from Boston’s accomplishment, you have to admit that the Yanks gagged in Game Seven. You can attribute the first two to some Fenway magic, Ortiz brilliance, and good old fashioned heart. And you can chalk Game Six up to Schilling’s courage. However, Game Seven was nothing short of a grade-A choke-job by NY. A-Rod and Sheffield went 0-8 and never even put a ball in the outfield. Kevin Brown got what he deserved for punching a wall and always being a creep by absolutely bombing. Torre choked by bringing in Vasquez to face Damon (was he even there for the previous match-ups?). The list goes on. The question is: what happens when Mt. Steinbrenner erupts this offseason?
For starters, I bet Cashman’s gone. He’s got another year on his contract, but he’s the perfect fall guy. Never mind that half the billionaires on the roster were Steinbrenner’s call. I bet Kevin Brown is gone. George will void his contract (citing the wall punch) just to make Brown look like crap. Lofton’s done. Gordon won’t be back. Loaiza’s gone. Even Torre might be gone. The one thing you can count on though is that there will be some “demise of the Yankees” talk for a few months, then they will go get Carlos Beltran and Carl Pavano and half of the other good free agents on the market and once again be the frontrunner next year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the payroll exceed the $200 million mark. Baseball; such a fair sport.
The Pedro Fiasco. The Sox wound up winning so this has been overlooked, but the sight of Pedro pitching in the seventh inning was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever witnessed. Not just in sports. Ever. The arguments against putting him in there are almost too obvious to list, but I will anyway.
1) Lowe was throwing a one-hitter. Was Francona watching the game? I know he was throwing on two-days rest, but he wasn’t going to pitch in the Series until Game Four, so why not ride him for a while? Plus, he only threw 69 pitches in six innings. In the bottom of the sixth, the game reached that dead zone where everyone knows its over. Even the “God Bless America” rendition during the stretch felt flat. It was over.
2) It got the crowd back in the game. Extending from the previous point, things were dead as could be in Yankee Stadium. The place was devoid of hope and emotion. Why put in the only guy that the crowd will automatically respond to no matter what? Keep Lowe in and they stay quiet. Put Timlin or Embree or Wakefield in and they stay silent. But put Pedro in and the crowd goes nuts just because they are supposed to. On instinct. Sure enough, they scored two runs and it didn’t feel dead anymore. However briefly, it felt like Sox-Yanks again, which has typically never been a good thing for Boston.
3) Pedro is fragile! Is there a more notorious “pitch count” hurler in all of baseball? Fans watch his pitch count like it’s the official score. And you are going to bring him into a live game? On one day of rest? After throwing 117 pitches? What year is this! Here is a guy that needs at least four days rest to be himself and is even better when he gets more time off than that. Why would you do this to his arm? Maybe the whole “Red Badge of Courage” thing with Schilling got to Francona’s head or Pedro’s head. Whatever. You simply can’t bring him in.
4) There goes your Game One starter. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Francona just burned his starter for Game One. If you let Pedro (to quote Pulp Fiction) “go back in there and chill them homies out” in the dugout and let him rest up, he could have started Game One, in Fenway, on his usual four days of rest. Now he has to pitch on the road and his arm is probably turned to mush. Great work.
Glad to get that out of my system.
The Kapler interview. Did anyone catch Baseball Tonight after the game? The guys in the studio threw it down to Gammons for some analysis and suddenly Gabe Kapler was commandeering the microphone and launching into an impromptu. The surprising thing was that he said some really nice things, things a die-hard fan might say. Good stuff. The hilarious part was watching Gammons try to roll with it like it was planned.
The Unsung Hero. There’s always an unsung hero that needs to be recognized. Right now you are thinking Schilling, Ortiz, and Johnny-Come-Lately. But what about Keith Foulke? Nobody else on the Sox roster had to face a do-or-die moment more than their changeup specialist. The only sequence that really stands in out was the 3-2 fastball to Tony Clark to preserve Game Six. However, he threw about 25 pitches just like that in the previous two games. They weren’t as memorable simply because you never could have imagined how important they would become down the road. Hats off to Foulke though; he doesn’t have the stuff of Lidge or the pedigree of Rivera, but he was just as gutsy and just as clutch in the ALCS.
I Love it When They Call Me Big Papi. Just when I thought this sport was Barry Bonds and then everyone else, we’ve had some performances that will go down in the annals of baseball lore. Carlos Beltran is clearly the next Bonds (check out their early careers … Beltran is the first guy since Bonds to show that kind of power, speed, and batting eye) and he joins Pujols as the starts of their generation. I fully expect Beltran to go back to the AL, Bonds to eventually retire, and then for these two absolute studs to win about 6-8 MVP awards between them. Then you’ve got David Ortiz. A guy that has produced beyond anyone’s wildest dreams for the past two years. A guy that could wind up as the AL’s MVP. The guy that saved Boston’s season. From the walkoff jack against Anaheim, to the big double against Gordon in Game One (lost in the shuffle of that 0-3 start, but so important because it gave Boston so much confidence against the Yankees bullpen), to the consecutive walkoff hits at Fenway, to the insanely important first inning homer in Game Seven. I’m telling you, the guy did it all. He wound up as the ALCS MVP and set a new LCS record with 11 RBI for the series. “Throw yo’ hands in the air …”
Where was Manny? Maybe the most amazing thing about this comeback was that Boston did it without a single RBI from Ramirez. Amazing. That is not to say that Manny didn’t contribute. He drew some big walks, worked the count, stroked a couple of solid singles, and didn’t screw up too much in the outfield. But in order to win the World Series, they will need Manny at full speed. He has to start driving the ball and racking up extra base hits again.
Edmonds Saves the season. With two incredible plays, Jim Edmonds lifted the Cards over the Astros and into the World Series. First, he broke out of a nasty slump to hit a 900-foot, walkoff home run in Game Six (how does Dan Micelli get into that game?), then he made one of the greatest catches you’ll ever see in the second inning of Game Seven, With two runners aboard, Brad Ausmus hit an unlikely drive into deep left center. Edmonds made a diving catch going full speed away from home plate to save two runs and basically keep his team in the game. Down 3-0 in the second with Clemens on the hill has an entirely different feel than 1-0, that is for sure. Plus, it just gave the Cardinals’ players and fans a tremendous sense of relief and confidence. If that ball gets over his head you suddenly get this feeling that it’s not your year. You start saying things like, “Man, how did Brad Ausmus just hit a two-run triple?” And it just snowballs from there. This catch had the same effect as Ortiz’ two-run homer in the first inning of his Game Seven. It just got everyone feeling confident and both plays were far more valuable than the two runs created/saved.
Renteria is Alive! If there is one thing that Boston fans should fear (other than Walker and Edmonds, who are going to make the Yankees left-handers look easy to pitch to by comparison), it is an emerging Renteria. In 2003 Renteria was the most underrated player in the game. He was driving in runs, hitting well over .300, stealing bases, and combing with Rolen to form the best left side of an infield anywhere in the world. This year, a contract year no less, he never really got things going. And he had never been worse than he was through five games of NLCS play. He was hitting like .080 or something like that. Then he started rapping some hits, moving guys over, and absolutely eating up every ball that came near him. That eighth inning last night was mighty impressive: shading Beltran up the middle to take away a pure base hit, going deep in the hole to throw out Bagwell, and charging hard on Berkman’s deflected ball back through the box. It should be a lot of fun to watch Renteria and Cabrera match sparkling plays from the six-hole for the next eight days.
Can Somebody Get the Astros a Real Coach? It’s hard to believe that a team could start the year with Jimy Williams and finish with someone even worse. Give Phil Garner credit for giving his team toughness and for being brave, but I’m afraid that is where it ends. He made so many bad decisions this October that it almost boggles the mind. We won’t recap his many errors in the Atlanta series (single-handedly taking the ball out of Oswalt’s hand and putting it in Munro’s for at least one game of this series), but instead focus on the error of his ways in Games Six and Seven. First of all, after throwing Clemens on three-days rest in the NLDS, he decided not to go that route against the Cardinals. I agreed with the move because it allowed them to rest everybody up for one big charge in Game Seven. However, you can’t play things both ways. You can’t conduct a mini-arms race for Game Seven and throw Lidge for three innings of Game Six … only to take him out an put in Dan Micelli! What is going on? If you suddenly find yourself in a 4-4 game and you’ve committed to Lidge, leave him in! My man could have pitched into the 19th inning and the Cards weren’t going to score a run off him. They should have let him continue pitching. Instead, they burned him up while trying to hedge things. Not wise. Had they kept pitching him, they would have won. You cannot convince me otherwise. Had they not pitched him at all, they could have had him on tap for more than one inning in Game Seven; completely changing the way that game was mapped out.
Even as it was, Lidge should have been in there pitching to Pujols and Rolen in the 6th. Yes, you have Clemens on the mound. But the guy is 42 years old, and judging from Game Seven of the ALCS last year, he is not immune to failure in a big game. He was clearly laboring at that point; falling behind in the count and leaving the ball up in the zone. Why not go to Lidge there to shut down the biggest rally of the game? Let’s face it, the game was going to be won or lost in that spot. A speedster on second, the amazing Pujols at the plate, (best Bill Walton voice here) the crowd surging toward the field. I mean, this was the ballgame. If you bring in Lidge, he can make Pujols and Rolen look silly like he had all series, dominate the bottom of the order in the 7th, and then you go from there. If he’s still got it and his pitch count stays down, he stays in the rest of the way. If not, you bring in Oswalt to close things out. I’ll never understand how a team can play an elimination game and fail to get their best pitcher on the mound. (And for the record, I’m not talking about “best” in terms of track record like Mariano Rivera. I’m talking “best” as in, these guys will not hit the ball hard off of him under any circumstances.)
Other Random thoughts:
Terry Francona saying the word “special” about 400 times during his post-game press conference. It’s actually hard to believe the can talk at all after the workout he gets with that chew.
If Lowe throws one more strong outing in the World Series then he officially saves his otherwise horrible 2004 campaign. (Also, don’t be surprised if he’s a Yankee next year.)
The stats that Fox threw up early in Game Seven of the NLCS were downright creepy. Through six games the Astros and Cardinals were dead even in batting average, runs, and ERA. Yikes. And Game Seven of the World Series will be on Halloween?
Brad Lidge was the best pitcher on the planet for the last three months, just ahead of Santana. Johan is my boy but at least teams could foul off his pitches. I’ve never seen anything like the stuff Lidge was dealing. That slider is like a 93 mph curveball – just unhittable.
You just knew that the mudslinging would begin in the aftermath of Schilling’s legendary Game Six performance. Torre insinuated that Schilling was faking, others have wondered about the bloody sock, morning show hacks are calling him “Hollywood.” Are you kidding me? The guy pitched a brilliant game in the most pressure-packed spot imaginable and he did it with a tendon that had to be tied to his ankle. I bet this anti-hero movement is A-Job’s doing. Don’t hate the real starts, Rod-greed-ez. (For the record, no, I don’t think that this is A-Rod’s doing. I just wanted to bash him one more time.)
Those catches by Beltran and Edmonds were two of the best plays I’ve ever seen in postseason play. Just incredible.
Enjoy the World Series!
Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by sitemail at adamo112.