By yesterday evening, I thought it would pretty obvious which series I’d lead with today. The Astros, led by two of the biggest stars of this October, had gotten off the mat to tie the NLCS at two games apiece. With the ALCS all but decided, you would think that the now best-of-three matchup would be able to take center stage.

You would think.

Yankees vs. Red Sox

Forget for a moment what the Red Sox stars did in this one, from David Ortiz‘ two huge hits to Keith Foulke‘s 2 2/3 innings of shutout relief.

Think about the other pitching heroes of this game. Derek Lowe was lousy this year, and was only starting the game because everything had gone so horribly wrong for the Sox’ pitching staff in the first three games. Alan Embree was so unreliable as a lefty specialist that the Sox had to go out and get Mike Myers in September. Curtis Leskanic was released by the worst team in the league in June, and had coughed up a walk, homer and double to the middle of the Yankee lineup during a key moment in the disastrous Game Three.

Red Sox fans had to be beside themselves in the 11th inning last night. Out of good pitchers, Francona burnt through three of his bad ones–Embree, Myers and Leskanic–in an effort to stem a Yankee rally. With the bases loaded and two outs, the Sox’ fate was in the hands of a guy who walks about six men every nine innings and was only on the playoff roster because Scott Williamson couldn’t answer the bell. At that point, Sox fans must have felt much like Yankee fans did the year before, watching Jeff Weaver on the mound in extra innings of a World Series game.

This one turned out differently, and so the Red Sox will play at least one more game. Those three guys–three of the last guys any Sox fan would have wanted pitching in a critical situation–came up huge. Lowe wasn’t dominant, but he survived 5 1/3 innings, escaping a couple of jams and allowing just two runs (another one scored after he left). He turned a lead over to the bullpen, which was all the Sox could have been hoped for. Embree threw strikes in his inning and two-thirds, as did Leskanic in getting his four outs. Had the game continued, Bob Stanley might have been on the mound, but Ortiz took care of that.

Actually, there was one other star: Terry Francona. In a must-win game, one in which he found his team on the wrong end of a number of breaks, Francona made a series of good decisions that maximized the Sox’ chances of surviving Game Four. From his aggressiveness with his two good relievers–using Mike Timlin in the sixth, Foulke in the seventh–to his calling off the sacrifice bunt with Mueller up in the ninth, to his management of what little relief pitching he had available to him in extra innings, Francona was a big reason why the Sox won. In a postseason marked by questionable managing, his work last night stands out.

The sixth inning rally that cost the Sox the lead was just excruciating. Hideki Matsui‘s triple barely eluded Johnny Damon‘s glove. Bernie Williams‘ infield single, which scored Matsui, slipped just under and to the right of Orlando Cabrera‘s outstretched right hand. Ruben Sierra and Tony Clark hit two unlikely infield singles, the latter reaching on what was really an error by Mark Bellhorn.

I’ve defended Bellhorn as being a good enough hitter to cover his glove, but he rushed the throw on Clark’s ground ball, a play that has to be made and would be made by many second basemen. I seriously doubt he’ll be back in Boston next year.

As many stars had an impact on this game, consider who assembled the game-tying run in the ninth. Kevin Millar, whose walk started things, was pretty much already a Japanese Leaguer when the Red Sox signed him two winters ago. Bill Mueller, whose RBI single tied the game, was a low-cost free-agent signing two winters ago whose knees were so bad that few people expected him to play 100 games. He only won the AL batting title. Dave Roberts, whose stolen base while pinch-running set up the game-tying score, is only here because the Dodgers got Steve Finley at the trade deadline.

It may be that for the rest of his life, Mueller carries around the label of “Rivera killer.” He hit a two-run home-run earlier this year to beat Rivera and the Yankees, and last night, lined a single into center field to cause Rivera’s first-ever blown save in the ALCS.

Watching the late innings last night, I found myself torn. After the Mueller single, there seemed to be an inevitability to the Sox winning, and the way in which they’d gone about it was a great story. I don’t know if I’d say I was rooting for them, but I wasn’t as opposed to the idea of them winning as a Yankee fan would normally be. I’m not kidding myself; had the series been 2-1 or 1-2, I would have had a different perspective, but because there’s so little chance of the Yankees actually losing the series, it was easier to appreciate the magnitude of the comeback and the spectacle of the Sox win.

Today, Pedro Martinez starts as the Sox try to become just the third team to lose the first three games of a best-of-seven and force a sixth game. (No team down 3-0 has ever reached a Game Seven.) Let’s consider the circumstances: it’s a must-win game, for a team with a decimated bullpen, featuring a starting pitcher whose contract expires at the same time the Sox’ season does.

Without endorsing anything improper, I can get behind the idea that Pedro Martinez should be left in to throw as many pitches as are needed for the Sox to win this game. That his arm may not be up to the task–he has a notorious drop in performance after 100 pitches–is an issue, but as long as he’s reasonably effective, he should be left in the game.

Let me throw out one more notion. While it seems that Curt Schilling is in line to start Game Six, should one occur, I can’t help but think he might be available for a relief appearance today. The Sox will be terribly shorthanded in the pen, for one, and since Schilling will likely be limited on Tuesday regardless, perhaps using him for two or three innings in a high-leverage situation would make more sense.

Most important is that without a win today, there is no tomorrow. Maybe the Sox won’t even consider it–maybe Schilling can’t physically pitch today–but I really think that going Martinez/Schilling today, with Tim Wakefield backed up by a rested bullpen Tuesday, might be the best chance the Red Sox have to win the next two games.

  • The Red Sox are still alive in part because Gary Sheffield finally had an off night, going 0-for-5. He’s still hitting .500/.571/.833 in the four games of the Division Series, part of a Yankee lineup core, in the 2-3-4 slots, that’s at .474/.524/.947. We can talk about strategy and tactics and decisionmaking until there’s peace in the Middle East, and none of it is going to be as important has having a third of your lineup hitting like Babe Ruth on a hot streak.
  • A patient team in a normal week, the Yankees have been absolutely ridiculous about it in the two weekend games. They’re seeing 4.12 pitches per plate appearance in Boston, which would have buried the league leaders (3.9) this year. That’s a big part of why these two games have gone nearly 9 ½ hours between them.
  • Orlando Hernandez clearly hit a wall in the fifth inning last night. Up until that point, he’d been effective. Given that none of the choices for the job have been stellar, I think Hernandez earned a World Series start, maybe even the Game Three nod, last night.
  • Who would have figured that Tanyon Sturtze would have moved ahead of Tom Gordon in the pecking order of Yankee relievers? Sturtze pitched the seventh inning last night, rather than Gordon, and he’s been warming up in spots where Torre would usually have Gordon getting ready. Sturtze has pitched well for six weeks now, while Gordon has scuffle, but it’s very unusual for Torre to change gears like this. It was unusual enough when he moved Sturtze into Paul Quantrill‘s role and buried the groundball specialist.
  • Torre’s refusal to use his bench tactically is a bit frustrating. In eight postseason games, he’s made lineup changes in just three of them, and only one of those was a tactical maneuver, pinch-running Bubba Crosby for John Olerud in the Division Series. (The other two were blowout replacements.) Torre had a number of opportunities to use Crosby or, better still, Kenny Lofton last night and he elected not to do so. In the 12th inning, having Jorge Posada trying to lug the tying run home from second base is a bad idea.

    Torre’s approach won’t cost the Yankees this series, but it will create an interesting dynamic if the Yankees go up against notorious micromanager Tony La Russa in the World Series.

Cardinals vs. Astros

Meanwhile, in the series that doesn’t teem with overwrought anxiety, the Astros did exactly what they needed to do: win the games started by Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt. Not that Oswalt had much to do with it; as expected, the Cardinals did an excellent job of laying off his big breaking ball and creating opportunities. Unfortunately, leads of 4-1 and 5-3 weren’t enough when Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman got involved.

I’m just about out of words to describe Beltran’s performance. He’s homered in every game of this series, and has taken over the National League playoffs in much the same way that Barry Bonds owned the circuit’s regular season. The Cardinals don’t have an answer for him, and pitching around him is less effective when Jeff Bagwell starts hitting and Berkman is two spots away. (Note to anyone involved with the Giants: get it now?)

Berkman presents an interesting problem for the Cardinals now that Steve Kline is out for the series. Other than the problem of playing with 24 men, the loss of Kline leaves just one left-handed reliever, Ray King. Whenever possible, you’d like to have a lefty face Berkman in the late innings, but now La Russa has to pick his spot. Berkman isn’t as helpless against soutpaws as he was a couple of years ago–he homered off of King in Game One–but his power drops off so much that turning him around makes sense. Without Kline, La Russa had Kiko Calero face Berkman in the sixth inning yesterday, and Berkman homered to cut the Cards’ lead to 5-4.

Down one of his most effective relievers, La Russa may elect to get away from matchups, as he did when Kline was hurt in the early part of 2002. He’s almost certainly going to have to ride pitchers through difficult situations, as he did yesterday when Julian Tavarez lost his composure and loaded the bases in the wake of Beltran’s seventh-inning home run. La Russa also used Jason Isringhausen down a run in the eighth, a maneuver he virtually never employs with his closer.

The Astros bullpen is in worse shape. With Brad Lidge going two innings for a second straight day, his availability for today’s game is limited at best. We know that Clemens and Oswalt are certainly not coming into the game, which means that the Astros might not have any of their three best pitchers–put differently, their three good pitchers–available. Let’s see what that leaves:

              IP       ERA
Career     1717.2     4.75
2004        361.1     4.13
Playoffs     31.1     7.18

Runtastic. Those are the numbers for the seven Astros’ pitchers you might see today (Peter Munro isn’t likely to pitch, either), assuming Lidge gets the day off. If he is available, figure on the above lines representing Astrodom for the first eight innings.

It’s worth mentioning that Dan Wheeler is trying to separate himself from that pack. Wheeler, who threw a big shutout inning yesterday, is now up to six playoff innings without allowing a run, giving up just two hits and no walks while striking out seven. It’s a meaningless sample, but then again, the trophy doesn’t come with a statistics textbook.

That Lidge might be able to pitch at all is a pox on the Cardinals’ house. He came in to start the eighth inning yesterday facing the bottom of the order, and if you couldn’t expect Hector Luna, Yadier Molina and Roger Cedeno to mount a threat, you had to at least expect them to make Lidge work a little. He had thrown 42 pitches on Saturday, and with the big boppers coming up in the ninth, the goal should have been to soften him up.

The Cardinals went down on seven pitches. Luna and Molina did take first-pitch strikes, but waved feebly at the next offerings. Cedeno grounded out on the first pitch. The Cardinals actually might have been better off sending all three to the plate with instructions to take until the home-plate umpire sent them away. Lidge was stronger in the ninth than he might have been, strong enough to get Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen with the tying run on first base.

Whether Lidge pitches or not, the Astros have the luxury of knowing their fate doesn’t hinge on today’s game. They’ll get a Game Six in St. Louis on Wednesday, and while they would prefer to be up 3-2 going north, they can still lose today’s game and be alive. If the game is close, Garner may have to make a difficult choice between pushing Lidge to win one game and having him available for up to two more in St. Louis.

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