Are we still worried about the Red Sox‘ “energy”?
The shrill voices were out last week, after the Red Sox had been shut down by Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd in back-to-back games, leaving them in a 3-1 hole in the ALCS. The Sox, in a span of four days, had gone from prohibitive favorites to reach the World Series to a massive disappointment. Ah, the vagaries of October baseball.
Curt Schilling is the Sox pitcher who understands myth, but Daisuke Matsuzaka has grown up a legend. Since his days in the Koshien schoolboy tournament to leading Seibu, he’s always been the center of attention.
Matsuzaka has been pitching like an American pitcher over the second half, and a tired one at that. He’s thrown fewer types of pitches and lost control. He’s gone from the Sox’ newest weapon to their favorite whipping boy as he’s tired down the stretch.
With a win in Game Seven, all will be forgiven. Matsuzaka needs to find six or seven innings in his magic arm, something he’s always been able to do. To do that, he’ll need to control the zone with his combination of deception and movement while not being too fine. Jason Varitek hasn’t been able to find the right way to establish Matsuzaka early in games, so look for John Farrell to game plan or even call pitches during the game.
Matsuzaka hasn’t had significant success in the playoffs as a pro, but it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if tonight, he recreated one of the odder lines in playoff history. Last season in the first round of the Japanese playoffs, Matsuzaka took on his archrival Kazumi Saito and the Daiei Hawks. He put up the win, throwing 13 strikeouts, giving up six hits and no walks in his complete game, but hitting four batters. He was wild, but it was a controlled chaos; Matsuzaka often seems to be a cyclone on the mound, but when he’s on, he’s as calm as the eye of a storm.
I don’t know what Matsuzaka will do, but he’s being given a golden opportunity. I expect him to seize it.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the offseason. The Red Sox, whose energy was fine but whose bats weren’t, got the latter together in Games Five and Six, and now find themselves headed to a Game Seven, one in which they’ll be favored. If this isn’t an object lesson in the perils of reading too much into a couple of baseball games, I’ve never seen one.
Making it just that much more delicious is that J.D. Drew, whose calm demeanor and patient approach at the plate made him an easy target for Sox fans’ ire, was the hero on Saturday night. Drew roped a grand slam in the bottom of the first that gave the Sox a 4-0 lead, and set the tone for a night on which the contest would be over by 10 p.m. Drew’s homer was perfect in so many ways; he succeeded in a desperately critical situation, where the Sox had loaded the bases with no one out in the first, only to make two outs without scoring a run. Getting nothing from that situation would have bad. Moreover, Drew did it his way, taking three of the first four pitches from Fausto Carmona before hammering a 3-1 cripple into the centerfield bleachers. Drew used his approach-which so many people have criticized-to come up with a clutch hit-which so many people think he can’t do-to keep the Red Sox’ season alive
We don’t get many moments that come together so perfectly. As Drew was rounding the bases, nearly 40,000 Red Sox fans in his ears, I couldn’t help but be happy for him. There are lightning rods for fan criticism who have done things that have earned them the grief they get. Drew has done nothing but play baseball and keep the game in perspective.
Drew’s homer didn’t lock up the game. The third inning did that. The Indians put the first two men on base off of Curt Schilling, but couldn’t do anything with it. In the bottom of the inning, things fell apart for the Tribe as the Red Sox continued waiting out Fausto Carmona, drawing two walks to start the frame and chasing him with a single by Drew. Carmona once against threw half of his pitches for balls, unable to get the Sox to chase his stuff down. Rafael Perez came in and allowed three hits and a walk without retiring anyone, running his ERA for the series to 45.00 and with a WHIP of 9.0. That’s not good, and as ineffective as he’s been, it’s an open question whether Eric Wedge would be willing to use him to get a critical out tonight.
After the third, the rest of the game was played at a brisk pace. It was reminiscent, for me, of Game 6 of the 2001 World Series, in which the Diamondbacks pounded Andy Pettitte and made the game a laugher in the bottom of the second, setting up seven innings of talk about the Game Seven matchup. In this case, we won’t see Curt Schilling again-he was moderately effective last night-but Daisuke Matsuzaka, who opened the season as a curiosity from whom great things were expected, and ended it as a mild disappointment about whom we know little more than we did seven months ago. He hasn’t made it out of the fifth inning in two postseason starts, a continuation of the problems that ailed him throughout the second half of the season.
That Matsuzaka will be on the mound in a Game Seven is fitting, just as J.D. Drew turning up a hero in Game Six is poetic, or Schilling being on the mound with the Sox down 3-2. This ALCS is providing us with the storylines and quirks that the rest of the postseason-summed simply as “The Rockies win”-hasn’t. It now provides us with that magical thing-a Game Seven-with every moment providing a chance for someone to be a hero, someone to be a goat, someone to have their bar tab picked up for eternity.
No, I’m not about to make a prediction. I said “Red Sox in seven” when the series started, so go back to that if you want one. I think we’ll see another relatively high scoring game, resembling Game Two more than any other. It may be that we get into the bullpens even earlier than we did that night. Neither team used its best relievers-assuming we’re using a different term for Perez at the moment-last night, so heavy doses of Rafael Betancourt and Jonathan Papelbon can be expected, especially with two days off between tonight and the World Series opener.
There’s no reason to hold anything back tonight. That’s what makes a Game Seven the greatest moment in sports.