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October 28, 2004

Prospectus Today

Finis

by Joe Sheehan

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That, my friends, is a comeback.

Down to their final three outs just 11 days ago, facing their worst nemesis and a dominant relief pitcher, the Sox pulled out a win, and then another one, and six more after that. From that cold Sunday night in Boston, the Red Sox won eight consecutive games, and wake up today as the champions of the world.

This championship is one of the great baseball stories of my lifetime. Forget any and all stupid notions about a curse and just look at what the Red Sox did, winning after 85 straight seasons of not doing so. Winning after trading away the franchise icon in July. Winning after being down three games to nothing and in the ninth inning of the fourth game. Winning after seeing their best starting pitcher this year suffer an injury that should have ended his season.

The Sox swept away the Cardinals from the mound. While Tim Wakefield was battered in Saturday night's Game One, the next three Red Sox starters were simply amazing. Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe tossed 20 innings of 0.00 ERA ball at the Cardinals, coughing up just one unearned run in that time. Along with relief help, they allowed just six walks, striking out 23, over the last three games. They gave up one home run to a team that had blasted 19 in its first 13 postseason games. They pounded the strike zone like robots: 245 strikes out of 385 pitches over the last three games, a 63.6% rate.

Each of the three starters had his own story. Schilling, pitching on a torn tendon in his ankle, submitting to a risky surgery before games that allowed him to pitch, will be forever associated with this championship. Martinez, in perhaps his last start in gray and red, pitching out of early trouble and retiring the last 14 batters he faced.

Lowe, however, may be the best story of all. Dropped from the playoff rotation after a season in which he posted a 5.42 ERA, he won the clinching game of the Division Series in relief, started Game Four of the ALCS because Tim Wakefield had been overused in relief and threw 5 1/3 innings, keeping the Sox in the game. He came back on short rest to throw six innings of one-hit shutout ball in the game that sent the Sox to the World Series. Last night, he threw strikes and got ground balls, capping his October with seven shutout innings.

Every game in this series ended with Keith Foulke on the mound. Foulke, whose six shutout innings across Games Four through Six in the ALCS were straight out of the 1970s, threw five more in the World Series, allowing just a meaningless home run to Larry Walker to mar his record. (Though dinged with a blown save in Game One, the designation belongs more to Manny Ramirez' left hand.) He faced some or all of the Cards' core hitters in every game, and, as Peter Gammons pointed out on ESPN, struck out Jim Edmonds three times in game-critical situations.

As much credit as you give the Red Sox for their comeback, for their pitching, for their performance, this was a lousy World Series. It was a four-game sweep with no lead changes, with three runs scored by Cardinals over last three games. That's not good. Each of the last three games was the same: the Red Sox took an early lead, the Cardinals alternated quasi-rallies and 1-2-3 innings, had a ton of poor at-bats, and rarely mounted a credible threat. Across 13 innings of Games Three and Four, they Cards were 2-for-34 with no walks. All we needed was a voiceover: "We've secretly replaced the National League Champions with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Let's see who notices."

The final score of Game One was 11-9. After that, it was 13-3. That's a big disappointment after the two great League Championship Series and the anticipation of what this matchup could be. The story of the Red Sox is a powerful one, but when you evaluate this Series on its merits, you have to conclude that it was a clunker.

It's funny...I should have seen this coming. Earlier this month, I picked the Dodgers over Cardinals in the Division Series for just the reason the Redbirds lost to the Red Sox. I knew they could have a bad week at the plate if a couple of guys didn't show up, and that they didn't have the starting pitching to carry them through that kind of stretch. They picked the wrong week to disappear; while Walker and Albert Pujols had good Series, Edmonds and Scott Rolen combined to go 1-for-30 with no extra base hits and three walks. Without a complete, 1-9 lineup like the Red Sox have, the Cardinals would rise or fall on the bats of their lineup core. They fell.

The Dodgers weren't the beneficiaries, but the Sox were. The Cardinals hadn't scored as few as three runs in any three-game stretch all year long; their low was four, set back in April against the Astros and Brewers.

Give the Sox pitchers credit for pitching from ahead in the count for most of the Series.

  • I got a number of questions about Larry Walker's first-inning bunt. Having watched it over and over, it seems clear that he was trying to bunt for a hit, not sacrifice, and just didn't place it well.

    It's still a dumb play. Unlike, say, Jim Edmonds, Walker was swinging the bat well, hitting for average and power. The matchup with Lowe was a terrific one for him, a right-handed pitcher who kept the ball down and didn't strike guys out. Lowe appeared to be a bit distracted by Tony Womack; his first three actions with Walker at the plate were a ball high, a throw to first and a step-off to hold the runner. To give him an easy out in that situation is a major tactical error.

    Keep a play like that, or Derek Jeter's self-called sacrifices, in mind whenever you see a new player in an analyst role. Ex-players can add a lot of value by explaining the physical actions of a game--Al Leiter's work for Fox in the ALCS was fantastic--but players are the last people who you want gauging the relative merits of personnel, of strategy, of tactics. The skill sets of hitting a baseball and understanding how offenses work, or of throwing one and knowing how pitching staffs should be structured, are vastly different.

    Larry Walker is a great baseball player, but he made a very bad decision at a point where the Cardinals needed him to make a good one.

    Manny Ramirez was the World Series MVP, which seems like a compromise position. Not that Ramirez didn't hit well--.412 with a home run and three walks--but he had the two notable gaffes in the field in Game One, and it seems strange to give an MVP to a hitter when it was the Red Sox pitchers who stole the show. I would have been more comfortable with Schilling as the choice, or even Foulke.

    Or maybe Joe Torre.

  • Readers J.T. and S.D. both wrote in to point out that the '04 Red Sox are actually the fourth team to win a World Series without ever trailing in it. I missed the 1966 Orioles; they didn't. Thanks for the correction, guys. I'm pretty sure I can dig up some "2004 AL Champion New York Yankees" T-shirts if you want them.

The worst part of the Sox sweep is that there's no game today. Or tomorrow. Or the day after. Baseball season is over, and there's just no good way to spin that.

As much as I think the wild card has detracted from the regular season, and although I know that short series aren't statistically significant, I love October baseball. The day-to-day drama of watching the best teams in the game playing for a championship is exciting; it's long enough to become a part of your life, but not so long that it seems like a new season. Heroes rise and goats emerge, and every day brings a half-dozen delicious moments to savor.

I also love filling this space in October. It's my favorite writing month, has been since I first started doing this in 2000. It can be a bit overwhelming--the everyday nature of the playoffs and the multiple series lead to longer and more frequent articles--but there's just so much to cover that it's hard to not try and touch on it all. What helps is the feedback, not just the thoughtful questions and criticisms, but the many people who wrote in to say they enjoy the postseason coverage. Those messages are a big deal when you're pushing out this many words in one month.

Anyway, I want to say thanks for reading, thanks for writing, and thanks for being supporters of everyone here at Baseball Prospectus. We're fortunate to be able to share our love of the game with you, and whether you agree or disagree with what we're writing, it's that love of the game that should always shine through.

I'll be back next week with a report from the Arizona Fall League.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Larry Walker

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