October 26, 2007
Loving the Devil You Know
Forget the laptop. Forget the notes. Forget the cold, the lateness, the stiffness in your back and legs. Forget the uniforms, white and red, your team's hated rival, a team you grew up loathing. Forget your job, forget the badge around your neck, forget your analysis and predictions, forget everything.
Just live in it. A one-run game, three outs to go, a devastating hurler on the mound, the middle of the lineup coming up. A championship on the line. A crowd, growing louder, begging for the next strike, pleading for the next out, wanting that next exhalation, next thrill, next scream.
Baseball was invented for moments like this. Breathe it in, along with the fragrant smoke from the sausage stands that hovers over the field. Feel it on your skin, like the goosebumps along your arms. Hear it in the murmur that becomes a buzz that becomes a roar that tells you, even with your eyes closed, that the game is over.
It's a moment for a baseball fan, and at your core, in your heart, you're a baseball fan. In this moment, you're a kid in a cap in a crowd in a ballpark, and you can't remember ever wanting to be any place else in the world.
As I write this, it's been an hour since Game Two of the World Series ended, and you can still hear the echoes of the last cheer, 37,000 fans exulting as a fastball by Jonathan Papelbon set down Brad Hawpe, capping a dominating performance by the Red Sox bullpen. Papelbon and Hideki Okajima faced 11 batters, retiring ten of them on six strikeouts and a mere 44 pitches. The one batter to nick them, Matt Holliday, was immediately erased when Papelbon caught him leaning towards second base. The unlikely pickoff-it was the first of Papelbon's major-league career-ended the top of the eighth and inspired an unusually raucous version of "Sweet Caroline."
While it was Papelbon who left the field surrounded by his teammates, Okajima was the story. Coming in with two on and one out in the sixth, he got Garrett Atkins to ground out and Hawpe to strike out to escape the jam, then went on to record five more outs before giving way to Papelbon in the eighth. It was a performance reminiscent of Mariano Rivera's multi-inning setup work in 1996, and when you consider the context, it stands among the most dominant relief outings of the three-tier era.
Okajima's dominance-no baserunners-and efficiency-just 28 pitches-enabled Terry Francona to use just the lefty and Papelbon, and the latter for just four outs. It was a minor surprise to see Okajima come out for the eighth, given that he had pitched in three separate innings just twice all year-one of those times in the ALCS. Having him do so on a cold night would seem to be a risk, but Francona was confident in his "other" Japanese hurler.
"He was so good," Francona said. "His command was spectacular."
As he did three years ago, Francona is pushing the right button seemingly every single time. His team is 9-3 in this postseason, and it's hard to look back and find a decision that hasn't broken correctly for him. He's been aggressive with the pitching staff, he's made what might be considered a radical lineup change (Jacoby Ellsbury for Coco Crisp), and he stuck with a player, in Dustin Pedroia, who many people thought needed time off. Even last night, he made what could have been considered an unusual decision to bring in the lefty Okajima not to face the lefty Todd Helton, or the lefty Brad Hawpe, but between them, to face Atkins. It's not standard practice to relieve a righty with a lefty with a righty coming up, but Francona was looking at more than platoon splits, and he was rewarded for his decision.
Go back to September, when Francona, sitting on a ticket to the postseason, rested Okajima and Manny Ramirez for most of the month, and gave starters Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling, and Daisuke Matsuzaka extra rest. He never wavered, even as the Sox' lead in the AL East dwindled, because he knew the important games wouldn't be played until October. Now he has all of those players back and performing well, and as a result, he's two wins from his second World Series sweep in four years.
Before the bullpens got involved, the story was the way each of the starters went through the game. Curt Schilling was unusually inefficient early in the game, throwing 21 pitches in the first inning and falling behind five of the first eight hitters. Rather than continue working him, though, the Rockies started hacking, and Schilling obliged by pounding the strike zone. He threw six balls combined in the third and fourth, getting through those two innings on 22 pitches total, including three outs on three pitches to end the fourth. He mixed long and short at-bats from there until he left, but on the whole, there was a clear difference between the guy who started the game and the one who threw the final 4 1/3 frames.
Jimenez actually had better stuff than his counterpart last night, but his inability to sustain his command throughout the game cost the Rockies, who needed perfection on the mound last night, and just didn't get it. The only run they got, they got on a misplay by Mike Lowell, who knocked a grounder by Matt Holliday into foul ground-similar to Casey Blake's play in the seventh inning of ALCS Game Seven-with one out and one on in the first. Willy Taveras alertly rounded second and went to an uncovered third base, as Schilling was late getting over; Lowell's poor throw to third allowed Holliday to advance to second and eliminate the double play. Had Lowell conceded third and instead tried to hold Holliday, Todd Helton's subsequent ground ball might have been an inning-ending double play, rather than a run-scoring out.
The Sox tied the game with comparable help. With one out in the fourth, Mike Lowell walked and J.D. Drew lined a ball to the gap in right. Lowell got no jump and decelerated on his way to second, but found himself being waved to third by DeMarlo Hale. Brad Hawpe had to backhand the ball heading away from the infield and take an extra step, but he unleashed a terrific throw-he's not a great outfielder, but I'll put his arm up against any NL right fielder's-that, had it been about a glove's width to his right, would have nailed Lowell. It was an interesting baseball play across the board, one you could appreciate in real time, but needed the various replay angles to catch all the nuances. Have I mentioned how much I love the 21st century?
The base mattered, because Jason Varitek's deep fly ball to center scored a run, rather than merely advancing a runner, tying the game at one. The way the Rockies haven't been swinging the bats-the guys who aren't MVP candidates are 7-for-53 in two games, and let's not forget that this team hit .222/.316/.311 in the NLCS-it felt like an opportunity had gone by. When Mike Lowell doubled home David Ortiz for a 2-1 lead in the fifth, it seemed like a six-run double. The combination of a power pitching staff and a good, but not great, offensive team from a weak league isn't going well for the Rockies.
It's not going to get much better, as Josh Fogg is a right-handed, inferior version of the guy the Sox obliterated Wednesday, the kind of pitcher who gets drummed out of the AL. I actually like Aaron Cook, who's a lot like Jake Westbrook, who gave the Sox fits a round ago. At best, though, we're dealing with questions like, "will we be free to go to the Monday night game at Invesco Field?" and "what day do you think they'll have the parade?" The Red Sox are the better team, and this series is now mostly about naming the score.
I'm lagging behind the crowd to do XM Radio at 1 p.m. ET today with the talented and tall Chuck Wilson, but I'll fly to Denver tonight. Anyone volunteering to pick up my winter coat from Yonkers-where it sits, keeping a hanger warm-and bring it to Coors Field Saturday afternoon can contact me at the link below.