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July 2, 2004
Ghosts 5, Red Sox 4
What do you do when you start believing in ghosts?
As I write this, the game has been over for nearly 12 hours, and I still haven't found a way to put it into words. Last night's contest between the Yankees and Red Sox was about as great as regular-season baseball can be, with an ending that would get you laughed out of any fiction contest.
The greatness of our game was on display last night. There were exhibitions of raw power by a Hall of Fame hitter like Manny Ramirez. There was a mano-a-mano confrontation, replete with head games and consequences, between Gary Sheffield and Pedro Martinez. There was jaw-dropping defense, including plays in consecutive innings that will probably be the two best plays anyone makes on a baseball field this year. There was drama and decision-making, as each manager had to maneuver his way out of difficult situations. There were 55,000 people hanging on every pitch for nearly four-and-a-half hours.
It wasn't the kind of matchup that you would expect to produce this kind of outcome. The Yankees, beset by injuries to pitchers, started Brad Halsey, who's two years removed from college and two weeks removed from the minors. The Sox? They were only going with Martinez, still one of the five best pitchers in baseball. Halsey outpitched the superstar, though, leaving the game in the sixth with a 3-2 lead and getting the kind of ovation that New Yorkers don't give out to just anyone.
The first eight-and-a-half innings won't be remembered nearly as well as the last four-and-a-half. The Yankees loaded the bases in the ninth, but Keith Foulke shut them down. Mike Timlin and Alan Embree pitched out of trouble in the tenth. The Sox, being lambasted from Charlestown to Quincy for not being able to do the little things, watched David Ortiz (!!) go first-to-third on a single in the 11th to set up a bases-loaded, none-out situation.
I sent out an e-mail after that half-inning ended:
The Red Sox just added 15 years to the lifespan of the clutch myth over the past two nights.
Oh, and A-Rod just took the Gold Glove award from Chavez. That play, even just as a DP, will be on end-of-year highlight reels.
All of the attention after the game was focused on Derek Jeter, who tore up his face diving into the third-base box seats after making a running catch to end the top of the 12th. Without taking anything away from Jeter, though, the play of the game was Alex Rodriguez's double-play turn in the 11th. On a ball that took a strange bounce just to stay fair, Rodriguez made a stab, a tag of the base, and a perfect, only-line-he-had throw to the plate to prevent the tying run from scoring.
Nothing against Jeter, whose catch--of a ball that I think was going to land fair and score two runs--required a great jump and excellent raw speed, but Rodriguez had to do about four things correctly in less than two seconds to get the optimum result, and he did. Jeter's play was simpler, although the requirements of making it--a sprint into short left field--led him to injure himself after completing the catch.
We're dealing in gradations of excellence here, which is really what last night was all about. Keith Foulke wiggles out of a jam? OK, here's Mariano Rivera escaping a tougher one. Pokey Reese makes a highlight-reel catch? Here comes Rodriguez, and then Jeter, pushing him to the cutting-room floor. Manny Ramirez comes up with another huge hit with his team up against the wall? Nice, but the Yankees get down to their last strike, more stars on the bench than in the lineup, and get back-to-back hits from the waiver-bait segment of the roster.
On ESPN the other night, Peter Gammons mentioned that the Yankees have never blown a 6.5-game lead. That lead is now 8.5 games, nine in the loss column, and although I've insisted all along that the Red Sox would overtake the Bombers once they got healthy, I'm now convinced I was wrong.
There's a theme that's starting to gain ground. Sox fans are backing away from this team, as if they knew all along that it wasn't really that good. Given that this is virtually the same team that Massachusetts wanted to marry a year ago, but with Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke added, I don't buy it. They didn't bunt or run all that much last year either, and the lack of double plays now being cited as a key to their demise has more to do with the fact that they don't 1) put runners on first base or 2) get ground balls than any fatal flaw.
The other idea making the rounds--and I expect we'll hear more about this if the Sox don't make the postseason--is that the Yankees' payroll advantage is just too much to overcome, as if $120 million and the biggest stake in YES, Jr. makes the Sox a poor cousin to the Expos.
It sounds convincing until you realize that the Red Sox had a lead, one out to get, and were facing Ruben Sierra, Miguel Cairo and the pitcher's spot, with the Yankees having just John Flaherty left on the bench. If there's a way in which the Yankees' revenue advantage manifested itself at that point, I failed to discern it.
I think it's just the ghosts.