The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Saturday, October 30, 2004


All-Baseball, All the Time

With the wounds inflicted by the Yankees' loss to the Red Sox still fresh, I was invited by Christian Ruzich of to contribute my thoughts to a roundtable along with Alex Belth and Cliff Corcoran. The first portion of our lengthy post-mortem, dealing with the nuts ad bolts of the ALCS loss, is now up on A-B, with the rest to follow on Monday.

Since the three of us have been in close touch all year and have become good friends, we've shared our ideas about this Yankee team frequently, and I think we see much of what went wrong similarly. One thing that's driven us nuts is Derek Jeter's bunting. Jeter laid down 16 sac bunts in the regular season, one less than in his previous five seasons combined. His bunts in Game Four and Game Five hamstrung the Yankee offense at crucial points in those ballgames, and while they were hardly the only reason the Yanks lost, they make convenient focal points to examine where it all went wrong.

Also on the All-Baseball site, the inaugural Internet Baseball Writers Association awards have been announced. The IBWA, of which I am a member, is a group "founded in 2004 in order to help raise the visibility of Internet-based baseball writers. If that doesn’t sound noble, keep in mind that the BBWAA was formed to get better press box access, and look where they are now," writes Ruz. Thirty-seven writers participated.

Looking over the highest-profile results -- Barry Bonds, Vlad Guerrero, Johan Santana, Randy Johnson winning -- I suspect there's more unanimity for the big winners than will be seen from the BBWAA, and that the Big Unit will miss out on his sixth Cy Young thanks to his pedestrian-looking 16-14 record. The difference, I strongly suspect, is that the IBWA voters are better-versed in sabermetric performanace analysis and understand that it's the runs, particularly how few Johnson allowed, that really matter. The Internet Baseball Awards, which are run by Baseball Prospectus and voted on by a broad base of about 1500 readers, show a similar skew.

My own ballot, for those of you who missed it, is here -- I had Gary Sheffield over Vlad, a choice that only three other colleagues made and that I've admitted reflected a bit of my Yankee bias and late-summer absorption in his fascinating career path.

Thursday, October 28, 2004



Perhaps the most famous line of Michael Lewis' Moneyball comes towards the end of the book, when Oakland GM Billy Beane watches his year's work go up in flames as the A's lose a five-game first round series to the Minnesota Twins. "My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs," says a frustrated Beane. "My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is fucking luck."

Beane's response sounds like so much sour grapes, of course, especially when considering that for all of his great work, his division-winning teams have yet to win a postseason series. No shortage of mainstream writers and baseball men have been willing to dismiss the sabermetric inclinations of the A's for that failure. But Beane was onto something that has less to do with the application of sabermetrics in running a team than the simple, unavoidable mathematical truth that governs October baseball: in a short series, anything can happen.

I didn't watch Wednesday night's deciding game of the World Series, not a single pitch. On a night with a full lunar eclipse, I'd have been more likely to stand atop my roof dropping trou to show the world my moon than to watch a sight which apparently comes around about as often as Halley's Comet. Nonetheless, my pants or no, the Boston Red Sox have completed an unlikely sweep of the World Series over the St. Louis Cardinals, a team which won 105 games, the most in baseball. The Sox, as you may have heard, rode a wave which saw them make history by rebounding from a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees, something that had never been done. At the most critical time of year, they completed an eight-game postseason winning streak against the only two teams who won more games than they did. For that they are the World Champions for the first time in 86 years. But still...

Back in the spring, at a Pizza Feed in Brooklyn that I attended, Baseball Prospectus' Joe Sheehan was asked a question about teams that win in the playoffs, more specifically if there were any underlying clues as to what makes a good postseason team. Joe actually wrote about the question a short while after that, so I'll use his words rather than paraphrase:
That research has been done, although not by us, and the conclusions are that there are no conclusions: There are no defining characteristics of a successful postseason team.

The comment I made at the time sticks with me: We have to find a better way to describe this phenomenon than "luck." Made famous in part by Billy Beane's quote in Moneyball, the idea that playoff series are determined by luck is both inaccurate and an inelegant way to present the concept to people invested in the idea that it's how the best team is determined. It sounds like you're--and I could say "we're," because it is certainly connected to the perception that Baseball Prospectus has favored the A's and their processes over the years--making an excuse for the team that lost.

The term "luck" is actually shorthand for a more difficult concept, that when two playoff-caliber teams square off in a best-of-five or best-of-seven series, any result is reasonably likely. Just because a particular one occurs doesn't reflect anything other than the events that made up that series: one player's hot week, or one pitcher's inability to throw his curve for strikes, or a baserunner's ill-fated decision to take an extra base. These events do not, despite the mythology of October, enlighten us about the character or fortitude of people any more than Nate Robertson's huge last week out of the bullpen does.

Those things aren't luck, they're performance, and using the former word to describe them isn't helping us make the larger concept accessible to more people. That's a challenge that we're going to have to meet, and I encourage everyone reading this to think about the idea and drop me a line with their suggestions on how to do so.
I've borne Joe's words in mind as I've followed the 2004 season, and I think the last two weeks has yielded many clues to the nebulous concept we're chasing. "Luck" or "small sample-related randomness" don't yield particularly satisfying explanations as to what elevates one team above another in the postseason, not when we're all searching for narrative tropes -- continuing the Curse of the Bambino, breaking the Curse -- to describe the particular sequence of events we've witnessed (or not). But Boston's eight straight wins against such high-caliber competition do bring another word to mind, one that fits very well: streakiness.

Think about it for a moment. We've watched a 101-win team and a 105-win team, both of them with devastating offenses but question marks in the pitching department -- question marks they share with the Sox, mind you -- fall prey to a 98-win team. Many of the games, but not all of them, have been close, and at key points, a break here or there might have been the difference. Take Trot Nixon's catch of Hideki Matsui's bases-loaded fly ball or Tony Clark's ground-rule double in Game Five of the ALCS, or Jeff Suppan's getting picked off base early in Game Three of the World Series. The breaks have all gone Boston's way for the past ten days or so, and thanks in part to that, they're World Champions.

The Sox were on a hot streak, one that followed a particularly cold streak, especially for some of their players. Mark Bellhorn was 3-for-21 in the ALCS before hitting a three-run homer in the fourth inning of Game Six. He proceeded to homer in the next two games as well, helping the Sox defeat the Yanks and get their first leg up on the Cardinals. Johnny Damon wandered through the first six games of the LCS in a daze, making baserunning mistakes left and right and failing to set the table for Boston's heavy hitters. He was 3-for-29 coming into Game Seven, led of the game with a single, and in his next at-bat, when Javy Vazquez left a fastball in his wheelhouse, socked a grand slam that turned the game into a rout. Two innings later, he homered again. Goat to hero. For the Yankees, the story was the opposite. Hideki Matsui went 11-for-20 with eight extra-base hits in the first four games of the LCS and was poised to receive the Series MVP award. A 3-for-14 performance in the final three games helped turn him into the Bruce Hurst of a new generation. Gary Sheffield's streakiness was even more dramatic, from 9-for-13 over the first three games to 1-for-17 in the last four. So it goes. The Sox and the Yanks spent the better part of the season alternately humiliating each other in such fashion, sweeps here, double-digit drubbings there, right up through the final game of the LCS.

The streakiness isn't just confined to Boston, either. Look at the NLCS, where the home team won every game. The Cardinals went up 2-0 in St. Louis, the Astros took the next three in Houston, and then the Cards returned home to finish the 'Stros in Busch. Houston would never have made it so far without one of the greatest postseason streaks ever, that of Carlos Beltran, who hit eight homers this fall and will soon turn those homers into additional millions of dollars on a long-term contract. Streaks aren't the only thing that decide close series, but they play a powerful role in making a merely good team a seemingly unbeatable one.

The point is that baseball is a game of streaks. No .300 hitter hits exactly .300 every month of the season. Across a 162-game season, performances waver due to a bewildering number of factors ranging from a player's physical and mental condition to the caliber of competition to the weather to sheer lady luck. We attach names like "slump" or "en fuego" to arbitrary sequences of events in order to grasp them better, and similarly apply labels -- "clutch" or "choker" -- to players for their perceived abilities to perform better or worse when things seem to matter most. We often invest those labels with grandiose narratives, as if the qualities of a man's soul could be divined from a small handful of late-inning at-bats with men in scoring position. Our understanding of the matter is like our grasp of anatomy and physiology circa the Dark Ages. Maybe if we bled those chokers with leeches, they'd turn into clutch hitters.

There's a growing body of work within sabermetrics, one which has brought academics out of the woodwork to show that the fluctuations we witness year in and year out in baseball have a lot more to do with randomness than most observers would care to admit. "True ability" is the elusive concept, one hidden behind mathematical walls that even most analysts are ill-equipped to scale. Markov chains and Bayesian analysis aren't likely to overrun broadcast booths or the blogosphere anytime soon, but dismissing them as the province of the ivory tower-bound slide-ruling class is a mistake. The underlying theory behind Defense Independent Pitching Statistics -- that pitchers have little or no ability to control the results of balls in play -- is but the tip of a much bigger iceberg, and need I remind you which team DIPS inventor Voros McCracken works for?

Beyond that, there isn't even much evidence that fans' and players' sacred-cow concepts stand up to scrutiny. Despite the Yankees celebrated postseason run and the tendency of one Mr. October to point to other ones wearing pinstripes as his equals, the search for true clutch hitters has proven to be a statistical red herring. Clutch hits surely exist, and we see them in nearly every game, but a repeatable ability to come through in clutch situations at a significantly higher level over time -- a skill indicating clutch hitting -- simply has not shown itself to be so. David Grabiner did a landmark study over a decade a go which showed that past clutch performance could not be used to predict future clutch performance, to the tune of a .01 correlation -- bupkus, as they say -- and those who've followed in his wake have been similarly unable to disprove his surprising, counterintuitive conclusion. Empirically, the sainted Derek Jeter's own dismal LCS (6-for-30 with one double and no homers) after being celebrated for years as the epitome of postseason clutch goodness, is but one example. Mariano Rivera's late-inning fallibility -- three blown saves in five opportunities this fall after a stellar 30-for-32 record in years past -- provides a similar pitching corollary.

To return to Jeter for a moment, his own 2004 performance offers ample evidence on the nature of streakiness. Back in May, just a few weeks after Reggie Jackson had blown smoke up his ass in the same publication, there was the Yankee captain on the cover of Sports Illustrated for hitting .189 thanks to a 0-for-32 run that saw him booed by the Bronx faithful. He broke out that o-fer with a homer, but soon began a 1-for-26 encore. Jeter's batting averages by month this year: .172, .261, .396, .262, .287, .372. Final average: .292, 25 points below his career average coming into the season. And yet, Tim McCarver and Joe Buck could not shut up about how clutch he was throughout the playoffs. In the end, it didn't matter much for the Yankees' chances.

A baseball season's streaks blend together like individual threads in a tapestry. If fifty blue threads are woven closely enough with fifty yellow threads, we call the result green, and if enough 2-for-4s follow those 0-for-4s and 1-for-4s, we call the result a .300 hitter. At that point, the individual streaks don't matter nearly so much unless we take it upon ourselves pore over the box scores, to remind ourselves of those threads, but whether we count them or not, they're there nonetheless. And they're finite; they run out. All streaks are bound to end sooner or later, even 86-year-old ones with supernatural attributions.

None of this is to belittle the Red Sox accomplishment at all. Nor is it to say that every postseason series outcome rests on a hot streak; plenty of them go back and forth like last year's seven-game LCS and rest on a seemingly-random swing of the bat by some bit player in a larger drama. We should be wary about extrapolating from the results of a small handful of games or at-bats when it comes to building monuments to players. Just ask Aaron Boone.

But credit the Sox. They got hot at the right time, and for doing so, they get to call themselves the better team. A World Champion must seat all pretenders to the throne, and the Bostons did nothing but that over the past month. Congratulations to them for riding one hell of a hot streak into the history books, and for their true fans for perservering lo these many years in the face of blah blah blah...

Now, get me a bucket for vomit, a gun for snipin', and a match for my hot stove. Chop chop! And boil some coffee, damn it! I've got better things to do than worry about streakers.

Monday, October 25, 2004


It's Never Too Early To Start Your Holiday Shopping

"Kick in the idiot box and wait for the news in the history books/ It's like junkies who hate their heroin." -- d. boon, lead singer of the Minutemen, "Shit You Hear at Parties"

Yes Virginia, there really is no joy in Mudville now that the Yankees have struck out. Try as I might to find some way to enjoy the World Series this weekend, it just isn't happening. Rooting against the Red Sox or even watching them is even more tiresome and aggravating when you don't particularly care for the other team, to say nothing of Tim McCarver and the rest of the distasteful Fox broadcasting enchilada.

At a time that I thought I'd be sitting in the upper deck of Yankee Stadium, I caught the final three innings of Saturday night's game in a midtown bar with the sound off, watching the Red Sox defense and particularly Manny Ramirez make a mockery of fundamental baseball, and they still won. Last night I half-watched most of the game, and even speeding through the commercials and mound visits on TiVo, found it to be a waste of three hours of my life.

Time was I could watch a World Series between any two teams and take up a bandwagon for a week while hoping to witness things I'd never seen before, perhaps learn something new, and witness the spectacle of two relatively unfamiliar fan bases making jolly fools of themselves with thundersticks or homer hankies. This week, it's class dismissed; short of reading a sabermetric analysis of a situation I didn't see, I got nuthin' and want no part of viewing the scene that's a mere two wins away for the Red Sox. I've been consigned to purgatory for the rest of the season -- what Alex Belth termed "the bitter'n'hell cut-out bin of The Sore Loser Record Shop" -- with nothing meaningful or intelligent to say about this best-of-seven Shit Sandwich, nothing that I can articulate particularly well through all of the bile I'm choking back. The insufferable, self-aggrandizing drama queen with the stitched up ankle really has shut me up, and I can only hope that gangrene or medical malpractice (hey, I'll stitch that tendon in place!) derails the Red Sox on the way to their first title since 1918. I mean, nobody ever blew a 2-0 lead in a seven-game series, right?

But it's never too early to start your holiday shopping, and so I've turned my attention back to the Yankees, not to pick at the wounds inflicted last week but to look ahead to the winter and the coming season. The bar around the corner from me, the one owned by former Dictators lead singer Handsome Dick Manitoba, has a chalkboard in the window that now reads, "Only 102 days until pitchers and catchers -- GO YANKEES!" a verbatim reminder of the one I saw at another East Village bar after the pinstripes' early exit in '97.

Despite the Yankees' seemingly unlimited payroll and whether or not they were near their theoretical maximum this year as Steve Goldman has suggested, it's ignorant to talk about what they'll do in the offseason without some idea of the money they owe. Here are their payroll obligations for 2005 and beyond. All amounts are actual dollars (in millions) rather than averages over the life of the deal (without deferrals), although signing bonuses have been prorated according to the best information available. Parentheses denote players no longer with the team whose salaries the Yankees are paying, at least in part. When two figures are separated by a "/" that means the club holds an option with a buyout; year-by-year totals include those buyouts and not the optional salaries.
2005: Jeter $19, Mussina $17, Brown $15, Rodriguez $15, Sheffield $13, Williams $12, Posada $12, Giambi $11, Vazquez $11, Rivera $10.5, Matsui $8, Lieber $8/$0.25, Karsay $5. Gordon $3.75, Lofton $3.1, Quantrill $3, Lee $3/0.25, Heredia $1.8, (Contreras $1). Total: $161.65 million. Arbitration: Sturtze. Free Agents: Cairo, Clark, Flaherty, Hernandez, Loaiza, Olerud, Sierra, Wilson.

2006: Jeter $20, Giambi $18, Mussina $17, Rodriguez $15, Williams $15/$3.5, Posada $13.5, Sheffield $13, Vazquez $12, Rivera $10.5, Karsay $6.5/$1.25. Quantrill $3.6/0.4, Heredia $2.5/0.2, (Contreras $2). Total: $126.35 million

2007: Jeter $21, Giambi $21, Mussina $17/$1.5, Rodriguez $16, Vazquez $13, Posada $12/$4. Total: $75.5 million

2008: Jeter $21, Giambi $21. Rodriguez $16. Total: $58 million

2009: Jeter $21, Giambi $22/$5, Rodriguez $17. Total: $43 million

2010: Rodriguez $18. Total: $18 million
Some of these numbers will make your eyes pop, of course, such as the fact that the Yankees' commitment for 12 players in 2006 is still bigger than all but two teams' 2004 payrolls (the Yankees and the Red Sox). The most interesting devlopment since the last time I did this in early February is that the Yanks' 2005 and 2006 commitments haven't moved as much as you'd think. Back before the Rodriguez trade, the Yanks were on the hook for $146.6 million in '05 and $113.9 million in '06. Even adding the $30 million portion of A-Rod's contract they owe over the next two years and $21 million for Mo in that same span, they're only about $15 million higher next year and $12.5 million higher the year after. Clearing the dubious pacts of Jose Contreras ($14m out of $17m in '05-'-06) and Drew Henson ($9.8m over that span) has enabled them to absorb A-Rod's contract almost seamlessly in the short term.

For as much as you hear the $180-185 million figures (depending upon who's doing the estimating) thrown around for this year's Yanks, it's worth pointing out that price is based on the average annual value of each player's contract without regards to actual structure of the deal. The backloaded Giambi deal, in particular, exaggerates the current Yankee expenditures.

I think the two biggest financial question marks facing the Yanks this offseason are the Kevin Brown contract and the Bernie Williams situation -- what they do with the $15.5 million they owe him if (and it's a big if) they sign Carlos Beltran, because it's tough to imagine they're going to put one of those eight-figure salaries on the bench on the days Jason Giambi can't play the field. And while I can't wait for this World Series to put a bullet in this baseball season and end my misery, those questions will have to wait for another day.

Sunday, October 24, 2004


One Man's Ballot, 2004 Edition

Here's a composite ballot from two different places I submitted my choices for this year's awards, the Internet Baseball Awards and the Internet Baseball Writers Association. The IBA mirrors the Baseball Writers of America Association voting except that voters are allowed to go five deep in the Cy Young voting. The IBWA voting uses "Player of the Year" for MVP awards, "Pitcher of the Year" for the Cy, "Debut of the Year" for Rookie of the Year, and includes an "Executive of the Year" category as well. I made a couple of minor tweaks between voting for the two, but I won't bore you with them; this stands as my definitive ballot.

A few caveats: I'm of the mind playing for a team that makes the postseason isn't a requirement in the MVP voting but playing for a contender is almost certainly one, though I do think that key players in a Great Leap Forward are worthy of consideration. And while that isn't necessarily a requirement for the other awards, it does help some of the candidates. I also tend to leave pitchers off of the MVP ballots just because I don't have a problem finding ten worthy hitters to consider. Lastly, postseason performance was not a factor in these rankings.

NL MVP 1. Barry Bonds 2. Adrian Beltre 3. Albert Pujols 4. Jim Edmonds 5. Scott Rolen 6. J.D. Drew 7. Lance Berkman 8. Carlos Beltran 9. Mark Loretta 10. Bobby Abreu.
Though I would have loved to cast my ballot for Beltre, there really is no rational argument for anybody but Bonds for this award. Beltran's case based on his performance in both leagues. Loretta, a former futility infielder, had perhaps the most surprising season of anybody here. And while I wanted to include Adam Dunn for his fine season as well as his smashing through the 189 strikeout barrier, there were too many other good candidates to leave off.

AL MVP 1. Gary Sheffield 2. Vlad Guerrero 3. Manny Ramirez 4. Miguel Tejada 5. Carlos Guillen 6. Alex Rodriguez 7. David Ortiz 8. Ichiro Suzuki 9. Hideki Matsui 10. Melvin Mora.
I'll be accused of Yankee bias here, but so what. I watched Sheffield play well over 100 times and was never less than amazed at how fierce a hitter he is and how admirably he fought through injuries which would have felled a lesser player. Vlad's late-season showing was the key to the Angels' beating out the A's in the AL West, and he'll be a deserving winner if he gets the award (he won the IBA vote). Guillen might have placed in the top three had he not torn his ACL late in the season. Matsui was perhaps the biggest surprise on the Yankees, doubling his homers and raising his OPS by 125 points. And it gives me great pleasure to reserve a spot on my ballot for last year's Futility Infielder of the Year, Melvin Mora.

NL Cy Young 1. Randy Johnson 2. Carlos Zambrano 3. Ben Sheets 4. Roger Clemens 5. Eric Gagne. In a crowded field, I tuned out the gaudy W-L totals of Clemens in favor of Johnson's amazing season with a craptacular Diamondbacks team and gave some love to a couple of pitchers who really surprised in Zambrano and Sheets.

AL Cy Young 1. Johan Santana 2. Curt Schilling 3. Mariano Rivera 4. Brad Radke 5. Jake Westbrook
Johan by a landslide in a much less crowded field than the NL, but I've got no room for Pedro here with that 3.90 ERA and late-season collapse. And while there's no room for regrets over the David Justice trade since it brought a World Championship, Jake Westbrook would have really been a shot in the arm for a decimated Yankee rotation that overtaxed its top relievers for too long.

NL Rookie of the Year 1. Khalil Greene 2. Jason Bay 3. Akinori Otsuka.
The Padres come through with two out of three spots here. Greene had a fantastic second half (.891 OPS) and his late-season injury was the team's kiss of death in the Wild Card race.

AL Rookie of the Year 1. Zack Greinke 2. Justin Duchscherer 3. Bobby Crosby
Lew Ford would have been my top choice by a mile, but apparently he had too many days on the big-league roster (though not too many at-bats) to qualify. Greinke's not a bad choice, as it is. And I could have done without Crosby, whose season I see as doing more to prevent the A's from making the playoffs than to help them.

NL Manager of the Year 1. Jim Tracy 2. Tony LaRussa 3. Bobby Cox
I'm just going to keep voting for Tracy until he finally wins the damn thing. With the surprising Dodgers taking the NL West, he bloody well ought to. And though LaRussa's obsession with matchup minutae drives me nuts and sends me to change the channel during all those pitching changes, 105 wins does count for something.

AL Manager of the Year 1. Buck Showalter 2. Mike Scioscia 3. Alan Trammell
Showalter and Trammell both oversaw great leaps forward by their teams, Scioscia one helluva late season comeback. I gave the nod to Buck because nobody thought his team would stay alive right up to the final week of the season.

NL Executive of the Year 1. Paul DePodesta 2. Walt Jocketty 3. Kevin Towers
Though the Dodgers left the gate with a team that was more or less the design of a hamstrung Dan Evans, DePodesta did enough retooling on the fly to keep them atop the NL West. Forget the LoDuca/Penny trade, which blew up in his face, and the failed run at Randy Johnson; the Finley acquisition and the late-season remaking of the bullpen out of castoffs and rookies really made a difference. Jocketty's acquisition of Larry Walker was yet another brilliant in-season acquisition from a man who's done that quite often.

AL Executive of the Year 1. Theo Epstein 2. Mark Shapiro 3. Terry Ryan
A landslide for the boy wonder. From acquiring Turkey Schilling due to a Thanksgiving Day visit to snagging Orlando Cabrera in the jettisoning of Nomar, Theo's moves came up big (though I still think they should have signed John Olerud for free and gotten another body instead of trading for Doug Mienkiewicz). Shapiro's Indians team put a real scare into Minnesota for awhile, well ahead of schedule. And while I don't agree with some of the theories Ryan has used in building these Twins (the lack of OBP, the failure to convert the surplus of corner hitting studs into usable parts all the way around the diamond, and the resigning Shannon Stewart at the expense of two key members of last year's bullpen), the Nathan/Pierzynski trade looks brilliant in retrospect, and the team's patience with Santana finally paid off bigtime.

Saturday, October 23, 2004


Prediction? Pain

I won't see Game One of the World Series due to other commitments, can't even really wrap my head around it because I've been asked to partake in a postmortem on the Yankees for The short answer: we will see a lot of runs generated by two devastating offenses this week, and I see the Cardinals outlasting the Red Sox in six games. In part that's because the no-DH rule in the NL park will hurt the Sox, forcing Ortiz into the field, where he's nothing special, or out of the lineup, especially late in a game. I'll be back with some deeper analysis once I actually get to watch a game.

Thursday, October 21, 2004


Richly Deserved

Q: What does $185 million buy?
A: The worst choke in postseason baseball history.

The most expensive team in the history of professional sports has been consigned to the dustbin of history as its laughingstock. As the first baseball team ever to blow a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven series, losing to their most hated and continually tormented rivals, the 2004 New York Yankees will forever occupy a circle of hell they could have scarcely anticipated only a few days ago, when they were a mere three outs away from their 40th pennant. On Wednesday night the Boston Red Sox completed their miraculous comeback by laying a good old-fashioned Bronx beatdown on the Yanks on their own turf, winning 10-3 to take the ALCS four games to three.

Unlike the previous three nights, when the agony had lingered for the Bronx Bombers, the Yankees' life in this contest was nasty, short and brutish. The ballgame was a disaster from the first inning, with starter Kevin Brown yielding a two-run homer to David Ortiz -- excuse me, David Fucking Ortiz -- one pitch after leadoff hitter Johnny Damon had been gunned down at the plate. Four batters, three hits, two runs, one out, and no wonder Joe Torre refused to name the 39-year-old mercenary his starter immediately after Tuesday night's loss. For all of his self-inflicted psychodrama in September and after being thrashed by the Red Sox in his last two appearances, neither Brown's physical nor emotional states inspired confidence, even with him being the most rested of any Yankee starter. One wonders whether the choice was even Torre's to make, given his lack of enthusiasm on the matter.

Already on a short leash, Brown began the second by falling behind 3-1 before retiring Trot Nixon on a grounder, then proceeded to load the bases via a single and two walks. More disgusted than dismayed, Torre pulled his failed starter, who was booed lustily during his walk of shame. Regardless of the outcome, from that moment Kevin Brown was almost certainly done in pinstripes, his $15 million salary for 2005 a cost George Steinbrenner will relish sinking. Does Siberia have a baseball team?

(And while I don't enjoy being right in this instance, the final verdict is that the Yanks were smoked on that deal with the Dodgers.)

Torre compounded a bad situation -- loaded, one out -- with an even worse decision. The situation begged for a ground ball pitcher capable of getting a double play, or at least somebody not prone to giving up a homer. Leaving aside Mariano Rivera, Tom Gordon and the previous two games' starters, here's who he had at his disposal:
            G/F    DP/9   HR/9

Quantrill 1.41 0.76 0.47
Heredia 1.23 0.47 1.17
Loaiza 0.98 0.64 1.57
Sturtze 0.95 0.93 1.05
Vazquez 0.85 0.41 1.50
Hernandez 0.85 0.32 0.96
In the last critical decision he would make in the 2004 season, Torre tapped Vazquez, the least likely option to produce a ground ball or a double play and the most likely to produce a home run. In doing so, he brought a starter into a mid-inning crisis for which he simply lacked the necessary preparation (those well-traveled relievers wear disdainful sneers because they're used to cleaning up somebody else's mess) and artillery (Javy's strikeout rate, once more than a batter per inning, dropped 38 percent compared to last year). Paul Quantrill or Tanyon Sturtze would have been much better options, or even El Duque as the only true strikeout pitcher of the bunch.

One way or another, Torre chose dead wrong, as Damon destroyed Vazquez's first offering for a grand slam and a six-run lead. Game over? The Yankee lineup certainly played as though it was, donning thousand-yard stares for three-pitch at-bats against Derek Lowe, who was pitching on only two days' rest. Only Miguel Cairo, who was barely clipped on an inside pitch, sprinted to first and then stole second, and Jeter, who gave the Yanks brief hope by driving in Cairo one pitch after the theft, showed any semblance of a pulse. Jeter's single was the lone hit Lowe surrendered in six innings of work; he threw 69 pitches to 21 batters, three over the minimum, 3.1 per hitter. Was that an on-deck circle or a taxi stand?

Damon torched Vazquez for another homer, a two-run upper-deck shot, in the fourth, and the Yanks briefly made a show of life against Pedro Martinez, who came on in relief in the seventh and yielded two quick runs on three hits while the Bronx crowd, in one of sports' least timely taunts ever, resumed its "Who's Your Daddy?" jeer. That said, Francona's insertion of Pedro (wait, did I just say that?) was seen as a strange, dubious move by analysts and bush-league even by some Sox fans. But really, both teams were just playing out the string, waiting for the little red light to go off and the charred bread to pop up. The Yankees, in other words, were toast.

Their defeat was richly deserved, and there is more than enough blame to go around. And while George Stienbrenner has probably convened a firing squad already, there will also be more than enough time to assess that blame at length. For the moment it will suffice to say that $185 million does not buy the following:

• depth
• a guarantee of good health
• an ability to make men on the shady side of 30 perform as though they were in their prime
• an excuse for this team to have stopped producing homegrown talent
• a reiliance on supernatural phenomena
• a World Championship, or even a World Series berth

Likewise, seven division titles, six pennants and four rings do not buy Joe Torre a free pass for his mismanagement over the last four games, particularly with regards to his complacency toward lineup construction and laissez-faire attitude toward Jeter's bunting (I see the Yanks' chances having gone straight downhill after the Captain's Game Five eighth-innig bunt following Cairo's leadoff double -- it was their best chance to score in what turned out to be a stretch of 14 scoreless innings for the Yankee offense, a stretch that decided the series as much as Game Seven did). Those same credentials do not buy Mel Stottlemyre a free pass for failing to iron out the flaws in too many pitchers who endured second-half collapses. And the myth that Torre, Jeter, and Rivera somehow possess innate, superhuman, Championship-winning qualities must now be laid to rest, along with -- it would appear -- the Curse of the Bambino.

I'll expand on these topics in the coming days, weeks, months... whatever. You know where to find me, as I keep the candle burning year-round whether my teams are playing ball or not. I started blogging in 2001, the year the Yanks' quest for four straight titles came to an end. As fun as it is to celebrate winning, from a writing standpoint, losing after being so close yields a lot better material. And as painful as the previous three nights had been, the early returns on last night (and a lot of beer) produced a spirited gallows humor among me, my fianceé Andra, and my pal Nick that made watching this towering inferno -- "Burn the mother down!" considerably more bearable.

For now, congratulations to the Red Sox for taking it to the Yankees in exactly the way that the Yanks have done it to so many others, for coming back to the Bronx weary but so obviously more hungry than the men in pinstripes. My hat is off to them, literally cut to shreds with scissors moments after the last out, as that particular 7 1/4 model had done me no good since the day I bought it. Congrats as well to the classy Sox fans whom I've gotten to know via this blog and their own, as we've found common ground in our love for the game and its myriad angles as well as this heated rivarly without tearing each other apart with every exchange. You guys and gals know who you are -- enjoy it while ya got it.

The indelible image that will stick with me is Curt Schilling, Derek Lowe, and Bronson Arroyo grabbing their mitts and heading down to the Boston bullpen as extra innings began in Game Four. Battered, broken and nearly beaten, they were prepared to do any little thing they could to stave off defeat, even if it were merely symbolic. Not once after Saturday night, did a Yankee show similar resourcefulness -- Alex Rodriguez's illegal sissy slap doesn't count -- or exhibit the kind of gung-ho confidence that would have given his teammates and fans an outwardly-aimed boost of morale. For all of the talk about cold, hard numbers that we kick around, such symbolism does matter, especially in times of crisis within a short series where anything can happen, even if it's only the barest smidgen of a whisper of a boost. In addition to being outscored and outlasted, the team of unlimited payroll and supposedly unlimited intangibles got out-intangibled.

Ain't that a bitch?

Wednesday, October 20, 2004


Curse Words from the Bleachers

My night in the Yankee Stadium bleachers was a memorable one, though it ended in frustration and with no shortage of controversy as the Yankees lost to the Red Sox, 4-2. The loss forces a Game Seven that is both unprecedented in the annals of baseball history -- no team down 3-0 has ever forced a seventh game -- and easily the most anticipated ballgame of the year. Can you take it?

I've penned a lengthy first-person account of last night's game for Thanks to Christian Ruzich for inviting me to contribute to A-B's fine postseason coverage, and to my man Cliff Corcoran for scoring me a ticket for last night. Loss or no, that was one ballgame for the ages.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004


39 and Holding

The New York Yankees' quest for a 40th pennant hit another bump in the road on Monday evening. In a game that bore alarming similarity to the epic that had concluded only 16 hours beforehand, the Yanks again held a late-inning lead which Mariano Rivera could not hold, sending the game into extra innings where it was won on a hit by David Ortiz. Stop me if you've broken a household object -- either in anger or in celebration -- over this storyline before.

The tenacious Boston Red Sox, on the brink of a humiliating elimination just 48 hours before, have rallied to send the ALCS back to the Bronx by virtue of 26 innings and nearly 11 hours of baseball over the past two days. Even the most diehard of fans on both sides have been pushed to the brink of exhaustion, to say nothing of the two teams' bullpens.

And suddenly it's the Yankees who must look in the mirror and ask themselves about their ability to close the deal, to deliver the knockout punch. Their fans, many of whom assume a trip to the World Series is their birthright, can now be found second-guessing Joe Torre for extending his top relievers and muttering to themselves about some curse. C'mon, folks, did you really think this would be an easy tiptoe through the tulips? Did you even watch last year's series?

On what was supposed to be an off-day, one that got cancelled due to Friday night's rain, Monday's game started just after 5 PM. And it began with a twist: the Red Sox jumped out to an early 2-0 lead against Mike Mussina, the first time they've opened the scoring in the series. Moose wasn't nearly so sharp as he had been in the series opener, relying on a fastball rather than his assorted bag of tricks. Three straight one-out singles put their first run across, with Ortiz delivering the capper. Mussina then sandwiched two walks around a fielder's choice, putting himself in a bases-loaded jam which could have broken the game open early. He whiffed Bill Mueller to end the threat, but only after he'd thrown 34 pitches in the frame.

The Yanks answered right back against Pedro Martinez, with Bernie Williams clubbing a solo shot to rightfield on Pedro's first pitch. But that was the only run they could put over on him through five despite putting runners on base in every inning. With first and third and two outs in the Yankee third, Martinez exacted some revenge by striking out Williams on four pitches.

In the sixth, Pedro exhibited his usual 100-pitch clockwork, falling apart like a cheap timepiece. He entered the frame having thrown 82 pitches, quickly disposed of Williams on a flyout (85), got unlucky on a Jorge Posada chopper that went right over the mound into no-man's land for an infield single (86), gave up a single to Ruben Sierra (88), went to a full count against Tony Clark before strking him out (95), plunked Miguel Cairo (97) to load the bases. On pitch 100, Derek Jeter slapped the ball down the rightfield line for a bases-clearing double and a 4-2 lead. Pedro Express #100 to Oblivion arrived right on time.

Clearly frustrated, Martinez drilled Alex Rodriguez on the elbow, then walked Gary Sheffield to reload the bases. Trot Nixon made a sliding catch on a Hideki Matsui drive to keep it a two-run game. Martinez, having thrown 111 pitches, was done for the day and turned matters over to a bullpen that had thrown 6.1 innings of one-run ball the night before.

Mussina had settled down after his rocky first inning, at one point retiring 11 out of 12 Boston hitters. But Mark Bellhorn led off the seventh with a double, and with Moose having thrown 105 pitches, Joe Torre elected to go to his own tired bullpen, which had given him six innings of one-run ball the night before until Paul Quantrill came in and yielded a single and a homer in the bottom of the 12th without retiring a batter.

In an attempt to buy as many outs as possible to lessen the load on Rivera and Tom Gordon, each of whom had thrown two innings on Sunday, Torre brought in Tanyon Sturtze. He too had put forth two strong innings in Game Four's losing cause, but he wouldn't be asked to go that far; Torre clearly had his eye on a Gordon-Manny Ramirez battle three hitters down the road. Gordon had limited Manny to 5-for-31 with a homer and a .555 OPS.

Sturtze induced Johnny Damon, mired in a slump that's limited him to one hit in the series, to pop up. But Orlando Cabrera battled to a nine-pitch walk, putting two runners on as the fearsome Ramirez, still without an RBI in the series, came to the plate. Torre countered with Gordon and the move paid off as Manny grounded into a 5-4-3 double-play to end the inning.

The Yankees blew a golden opportunity against Mike Timlin in the top of the eighth. Miguel Cairo smoked Timlin's first pitch for a double to centerfield and then Derek Jeter, one at-bat after delivering the game's crucial blow up to that point, turned into the Derek Jeter Lite model that so many of us have railed against, the one which dropped an astounding 16 sacrifice bunts, second-highest in the league and a total just off that of his previous five years combined.

As statheads tore out their hair in fist-sized clumps, Jeter bunted Cairo over to third, something he might as easily have done with a fly ball or a grounder to the left side, to say nothing of the fact that with a base hit under his belt he might have been able to muster another one, so clutch is he (at least if you believe Tim McCarver). Grrrrrr.

Alex Rodriguez struck out swinging for the second out, and then Gary Sheffield drew a walk, ending Timlin's evening. Keith Foulke, who'd thrown 2.2 innings on Sunday, came in and ran the count full to Matsui before he flied out to leftfield, yet another sign that this wasn't Hideki's night.

Gordon stayed in for the top of the eighth to face Ortiz. Recall that he gave the big slugger a triple in Game One on a ball that just missed leaving the yard. Here he did even worse, giving up a looooong homer to Ortiz on his second pitch to cut the margin to 4-3. Gordon then got ahead of Kevin Millar 0-2, but ended up throwing several curves in the dirt and walking him. Millar instantly gave way to pinch-runner extraoirdinaire Dave Roberts, who had scored the tying run the night before. Dancing off the first base bag, drawing several throws, Roberts immediately worked himself inside of the setup man's head, and after Gordon fell behind 3-1 to Trot Nixon, he gave up a single that sent Roberts to third.

Burned by Gordon's ineffectiveness, Torre had no choice but to summon Rivera yet again. With nobody out and a speedster on third, it was nearly academic that Mo would soon be saddled with his second blown saves in as many nights. Rivera quickly gave up a sac fly to Jason Varitek, but retired the Sox in order to escape the inning. The Yanks had been six outs from a pennant, but once again their motor had stalled.

That appeared to be only a momentary hiccup when Ruben Sierra drew a two-out walk off of Foulke in the ninth and then Tony Clark sent a drive down the rightfield line that was only a few feet short of leaving the field. The ball bounced once and went over the wall for a ground-rule double that stopped Sierra at third; had it stayed in the playing field the Yanks would almost surely have put the go-ahead run across. Two pitches later and still smarting from the bad break, the Yankee threat ended with Cairo fouling out.

The Sox were now in position to end the game with one swing. The winning run moved up 90 feet when Damon beat out an infield single, only his second base hit of the series. Foolishly, on the next pitch he took off for second base, and Posada nailed him. Rivera got Cabrera to ground out, then escaped a 2-0 count on Manny when the slugger lifted a harmless fly to centerfield.

The tense battle continued into extra innings. Game Three starter Bronson Arroyo, knocked out after three innings, opened the Boston tenth and dispatched the Yanks in impressive fashion, striking out both A-Rod and Sheffield. Felix Heredia came in for the Yanks and did his usual uneven job, striking out David Ortiz and then yielding a ground-rule double to Doug Whatsizname after a nine-pitch at-bat. Paul Quantrill came on and fared better than the previous night by actually getting hitters out.

The two managers continued to shuffle through their bullpens. Mike Myers and Alan Embree teamed to strike out the Yanks in the 11th. Quantrill got into trouble in the home half with two hits to open the inning. With the winning run on second and nobody out, Damon tried to bunt, and he ended up popping up to Posada. Quantrill appeared to turn his already-injured knee awkwardly and after summoning the Yankee trainers, departed in favor of Esteban Loaiza.

In the deservedly maligned Loaiza, such a bust after the deadline-day trade for Jose Contreras that he soon was dropped from the rotation and ended up winning only one game as a Yankee, the Yanks were now down to their last pitcher. "Game over," I thought to myself. But Loaiza induced a double-play ball from Cabrera, 6-4-3, and the fight extended yet again.

Boston again got overzealous on the basepaths. Loaiza walked Ortiz with one out and the hulking slugger, with only four major-league steals under his belt, actually lumbered for second as Doug Mienkiewicz took a strike (a busted hit-and-run?). Posada's throw nearly went over Jeter's head into centerfield, but the shortstop hauled it down and put the tag on Ortiz and second-base ump Randy Marsh bought it. Replays show the big man, who had already launched into obscene tirades at striking out three times before, was probably safe.

Loaiza's luck -- not to mention that of the Yankees -- finally ran out in the fourteenth inning. Two strikeouts and two walks, the second to Ramirez, brought Ortiz up yet again. Loaiza got ahead 1-2, and then Ortiz fouled off five out of six pitches. "Put me out of my misery," I thought aloud, and on the at-bat's 10th pitch, Ortiz did, singling to centerfield as Damon, running on contact, dashed home without a throw.

Many, including the commenters at this site, have chosen to second-guess Torre's handling of the bullpen over the last two days for the predicament the Yanks now find themselves in. With the exception of Gordon's outing in Game Five, it's tough to see how it could have been improved by leaps and bounds. Instead, blame should be cast on the Yankee offense, which went eight innings last night against a makeshift lot of overworked relievers and came away with bupkus. Their patience evaporated in extra innings, as they drew only one walk while striking out nine times. If anybody seems to be getting tired out there, it's that vaunted lineup, which has failed to score after the sixth inning two nights in a row despite numerous opportunities.

• • •

As fate would have it, I'm about to depart for Yankee Stadium, the holder of a bleacher-seat ticket (courtesy of my pal Cliff Corcoran) that three days ago I suspected I wouldn't get to use. It's cold and wet here, the weather may yet prevent the game from being played tonight, but I'll have to head up to the Stadium -- an hour-long trip each way from deep in the East Village -- because MLB insists on raping the home-crowd for as much concessions income as they can before the game is called. Given everything that's happened in the last 48 hours, it's probably the least enjoyable set circumstances under which to be heading to a postseason game that I've ever experienced.

But damn it, I'm absolutely not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. I'm headed to a potentially decisive game in the ALCS, one in which the Yanks are up 3-2 and a single win away from a pennant. They're playing in their own ballpark and not the Boston Bandbox of Horrors. The Sox have a gimp (Curt Schilling) and a dead-ass bullpen going for them. The Yanks have Jon Lieber, who's given Boston fits in his last two starts (they've got a dead-ass bullpen too, but we'll skip that). There are fans of at 28 other teams that would kill to be in this position. I ask no sympathy and offer only good thoughts, positive vibes, warm smiles, and a sunny disposition despite the rainy forecast.

No matter how often this seems to come around for the Yankees, I never take the opportunity to experience a sliver of it in person for granted. I'll brave the weather, scream myself hoarse, and hope like hell for another goosebump moment on the level of the 1999 clincher, when Roger Clemens' eighth-inning exit started Yankee Stadium shaking for hours. This is still as good as it gets and I enjoy the ride immensely. The faint of heart, who expected the Yanks to be polishing their World Series rings already, should find a way to do so themselves.

Monday, October 18, 2004


Three Outs Away

Three outs from a pennant. Three outs from a pennant with the best closer in postseason history on the mound. Three outs from a pennant with the bottom of the order due to bat. Three outs from a pennant via a four game sweep of their bitter rivals, one which they could celebrate on said rivals' home field. Three outs from a pennant that New Englanders would rue for at least another 86 years or until their next World Championship, whichever comes first.

The Yankees had the Red Sox right where they wanted them on Sunday night, up 4-3 in Game Four of the ALCS going into the bottom of the ninth, on the brink of popping the bubbly and heading to their seventh World Series in nine years. But Mariano Rivera couldn't close the deal. Thanks to a leadoff walk to Kevin Millar, a stolen base by pinch-runner Dave Roberts and a single by Bill Mueller, the Sox tied the game before Rivera could even record an out. The Sox had wriggled free.

By the end of the inning it was Rivera who needed to wriggle free. A sac bunt and an error by first baseman Tony Clark, who had made a pair of sterling plays earlier in the game and had driven the potential pennant-winning run, got Mueller to third with only one out. Mo settled down and blew Orlando Cabrera away on three pitches that went up the ladder. He looked to pitch around Manny Ramirez via an unintentional intentional walk, going 3-0 on the Boston slugger before throwing two quick strikes. Ramirez finally worked a walk and then David Ortiz popped up to end the threat. A tense ballgame, one as diametrically opposite as the one-sided slugfest which had proceeded it, headed to extra innings.

So much had come before. Sox starter Derek Lowe, a man who'd spent the better part of the season wondering aloud about his place in Boston and scarcely lived up to his ability (a 5.42 ERA), a man pummelled by the Yanks in his last appearance against them, a man who only got to start in this series when Curt Schilling went down with an ankle injury and scheduled starter Tim Wakefield volunteered to take one for the team the night before, pitched his heart out.

Looking nothing like the guy in the catalog, Lowe jumped all over Yankee hitters by throwing first-pitch strikes to nine of the first ten he faced. He dodged a bullet in the second inning when a Hideki Matsui leadoff double and a pair of infield grounders led to Godzilla being thrown out at home by a mile. He looked to close out the third after Derek Jeter took a strike in his two-out at-bat.

But Jeter battled Lowe for seven pitches, spoiling good inside ones that a more patient hitter might have taken for strike three. Finally he slapped a single off of third baseman Mueller's glove and into leftfield. Watching this, I turned to my fianceé and remarked that it was Lowe's first bad pitch of the night, and let's see if he makes another mistake. Lowe did on his very next pitch, one which Alex Rodriguez drove over the Green Monster to give the Yanks a two-run lead.

On the other side, Orlando Hernandez had been his usual wily self. Relying on location and control while lacking velocity, he bobbed and weaved through four shutout innings, allowing only one hit and two walks while striking out five. But he threw four straight balls to Millar to open the fifth, then fell behind Mueller before inducing a fielder's choice. A walk to Mark Bellhorn and another fielder's choice -- Johnny Damon beating out a double-play grounder -- put runners at the corners with two outs. Orlando Cabrera climbed out of an 0-2 hole to single through the right side for the first Boston run.

Yankee pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre paid El Duque a visit after Cabrera's hit, while Tanyon Sturtze and Felix Heredia readied themselves in the bullpen. But Joe Torre chose to trust in his starter rather than his shaky relievers, even after the ever-dangerous Ramirez walked to load the bases. Finally, Ortiz drilled a two-run single to give the Sox only their second lead in the series.

It wouldn't last long -- sixteen minutes according to the Fox announcers. Continuing to spray hits around Fenway Park, Matsui slammed a one-out triple to deep centerfield, chasing Lowe, who got a healthy ovation for his efforts to stave off the long New England winter. Mike Timlin came on in relief, carrying a cheekful of chaw and the disdainful sneer of the well-traveled relief pitchers the world over. Central casting did well when they sent him over.

Timlin battled Bernie Williams to a full count but could only look on as Williams' infield squibber eluded the bare hand of Cabrera. Tie ballgame. A wild pitch sent Williams to second, and Jorge Posada drew a walk. Another pitch that escaped from Sox catcher Jason Varitek sent Williams sprinting for third, but a great peg and fine block by Mueller nailed him. But Ruben Sierra slapped an infield single to keep the inning alive, and then Tony Clark hit another one -- again to Sox second baseman Mark Bellhorn, this time on the edge of the grass in rightfield -- that sent Posada home with the go-ahead run.

Twelve outs from a pennant, the Yankees sent Tanyon Sturtze to the mound in relief of El Duque, and if you had uttered that sentence anytime before September 15, you might have been laughed out of the country. Sturtze pitched two stellar innings, allowing only one hit which was quickly erased by an inning-ending double play.

Meanwhile, with one out in the bottom of the seventh, Sox manager Terry Francona summoned closer Keith Foulke -- a brilliant move given that the Sox could ill-afford to give up another run. Foulke escaped the seventh with a ground ball and a nine-pitch strikeout of Williams, and kept the Yanks at bay through their half of the ninth. Not to be outdone in the early-summoned-closer sweepstakes, Torre brought in Rivera to face the heart of the order in the eighth inning. Ramirez singled to lead of the inning, the first time in the postseason that Mo failed to get the leadoff hitter, but Ortiz struck out, and then both Varitek and Trot Nixon grounded out to end the threat.

With the score tied into the tenth, the Sox brought on Alan Embree, normally a lefty specialist. Facing four switch-hitters in a row, it wouldn't have mattered much, as he worked through the tenth allowing only a Sierra single. The eleventh was a trickier matter which required a group effort. Miguel Cairo singled to open the inning, Jeter bunted him over (ugh), and after A-Rod lined out, Gary Sheffield went to 3-0 before being intentionally walked. Embree departed. Mike Myers came on and threw four straight balls to Matsui to load the bases, and then he too departed. With Wakefield up in the pen yet again as Francona burned through his options, Curt Leskanic came in and got Williams to fly to center to end the inning.

Tom Gordon had shut the Sox down in the tenth and eleventh, pitching as well as he had all postseason. But for the twelfth, with the game creeping past the five-hour mark and this reporter slumped in the couch with one eye covered, Torre summoned Paul Quantrill. The suddenly hittable setup man showed why he's fallen so far in the depth chart; Quantrill yielded a single to Ramirez, and then Ortiz blasted a walkoff homer -- his second of the postseason -- over the rightfield wall which gave the Red Sox a 6-4 victory, a stay of execution, a shred of dignity, and a glimmer of hope. No team has come from down 3-0 to win a seven-game series, but the Sox no longer trail 3-0, they're down 3-1, a deficit from which several teams have rallied.

A mere 15 hours after Ortiz's hit, Boston sends Pedro Martinez to the hill on four days' rest in the hopes of continuing their season at least one more game. Martinez will need to go deep to cover for a weary pen that has thrown 20.2 of their 37 innings pitched in this series. It's a tall order for a pitcher who tends to fall off dramatically after 100 pitches, but an inevitable one with Boston's back still to the wall. If the Yanks are patient, they should come out on top. As a New York Post item noted today, "On four days' rest this year, Martinez has worked 111 1/3 innings and posted a 4.77 ERA with a .265 batting average against. On five days' rest, he's worked 99 2/3 innings and managed a 2.98 ERA with a .202 batting average against."

Though they'll have to recover from being so close they could taste the champagne, the Yanks bring back the nearly-perfect Mike Mussina. The Moose won't have the luxury of a deep pen either, with Gordon and Rivera likely limited to only a single inning of work apiece. Up 3-1, you still have to like their chances at making the World Series, but those chances got just a bit slimmer than before after Sunday night's marathon. Eight runs, three games, whatever... I've said it before: no lead is safe.

Sunday, October 17, 2004


Cream of Bullpen

Let's face it: the Red Sox have Kevin Brown's number in Fenway Park. For the second start in a row, on Saturday night they made short work of the 39-year-old Yankee starter in their domicile, roughing him up for four runs and knocking him out after two innings. It was yet another sign that the former ace is no longer the big-game pitcher the Yanks thought they traded for last winter.

But unfortunately for the Sox, who came in to the game trailing New York 2-0 in the American League Championship Series, their own starter, Bronson Arroyo, couldn't live up to his modest reputation for giving the Yankees fits. The Yanks punished the tough-talking young headhunter for six runs in two-plus innings, and once they chased him, they spent the next three hours dining on Cream of Bullpen. Even for the Bronx Bombers, it was a surreal display of firepower: 22 hits on 19 runs, the latter an LCS record and a Yankee postseason mark as well.

The heart of the Yankee order, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui, and Bernie Williams, combined for 14 runs, 16 hits, 15 RBI, six doubles and four home runs -- 34 total bases in all. Godzilla continued his monster postseason with five hits and five RBI, bookending his night with two-run homers in the first and ninth innings. A-Rod drove in the game's first run and smoked a game-tying homer in the third after the Yanks had briefly surrendered the lead. Sheffield clubbed a three-run Green Monster shot in the fourth that put the Yanks ahead for good. Williams established career LCS records for hits (47), total bases (77) and RBI (29). With the exception of John Olerud, who made some fine defensive plays when the game's outcome was still in doubt, every Yankee starter figured in the scoring.

The deluge, which at one point included 11 unanswered runs, so vexed the Red Sox that manager Terry Francona tore up his already-tattered blueprint for the rest of the series, bringing Game Four scheduled starter Tim Wakefield in for relief shortly after Sheffield's homer. Though he gave the Sox badly needed innings, he too got torched. And while Brown's replacement, Javier Vazquez, was shaky as well, he at least strung together three zeroes in a row while his team padded their lead with that double-digit outburst and spared Joe Torre's bullpen from overexposure.

The onslaught also erased mistakes on both sides. Manny Ramirez ran Boston out of the first inning by getting gunned down at third base (though replays showed he was probably safe). A Miguel Cairo brain-cramp led to Johnny Damon taking an extra base on an RBI single in the second inning. A Derek Jeter error scored another run for the Sox soon afterwards. Ramiro Mendoza balked in a run to put the Yanks up 5-4 Bill Mueller was thrown out at home plate hot on the heels of teammate Kevin Millar, who had just tied the game at six. With the game reset after three bizarre, interminable frames, none of these ugly plays even put a dent in the final outcome.

Now down 3-0, the Sox have been pushed to the brink of a humiliating elimination. Derek Lowe and his 9.28 ERA against the Yanks represents the shaky first line of defense against the prospect of a pinstriped celebration on the Fenway Park field. For all of the "cowboy up" and "shut up 55,000 New Yorkers" chest-thumping talk on the part of Boston, for all of the so-called experts and the gambling public who made them favorites coming into the series, this really couldn't get much better for the Yankees or more embarrassing for the Red Sox.

No baseball team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series. For that matter, no basketball team has ever done so; to find a professional team that has accomplished the feat, one has to look to a 29-year-old series in the nearly-defunct National Hockey League for an example of how it's done.

To Boston's credit, this Red Sox team is always capable of putting a crooked number up on the scoreboard, and as Game One of the series showed, virtually no lead is safe against them. Not until Matsui's second homer last night, giving the Yanks an 11-run margin, did it seem as though the Sox had been subdued.

But subdued would be an understatement for the way New Englanders seem to feel. Here's Bambino's Curse's Edward Cossette: there anyone left who wants to argue that the Red Sox are actually the better team than the Yankees?

If so, you may also want to tackle the job of defending Scott Peterson in the murder of his wife Laci.

...Last year on October 17th, one day after the 7th game of the ALCS I suggested there's nobility in loosing such a close one, in fighting the good fight with the Yankees. Last year, as Red Sox fans, even in defeat we could hold our heads high.

A year later, I make no such pronouncements. There is no dignity at hand today.
Cursed and First's Beth, one of my favorite Red Sox Nation bloggers, was downright irate:
I hate life. I hate the world. I hate myself. I hate the Red Sox.

There. I said it. I hate the fucking Red Sox.

Want to call me off the bandwagon? Sure. Stamp my fucking ticket if you want. I'm outta here. I'm off to go do something more fun, like drink myself to death.

Maybe, just maybe, if any of these three straight games they've dropped had been hard-fought, Game 7 type games, I'd have even the slightest creeping hope that they'd come back. But I don't. Does that make me a bad fan? Fucking sue me. Oh, and bite me while you're at it.
Ouch. And those are the articulate ones willing to share their feelings.

Are the Yanks really this much better than the Sox? Frankly, no. These two bitter rivals have now split 22 games this year while reminding each other that in a short series anything can happen and usually does. They've taken turns dominating each other, alternating sweeps and blowouts like a true slugfest in which one heavyweight's attack leaves him winded and vulnerable to the other's pulverizing blows. Play another half-dozen games, and the Yankees might be the ones with their eyes swollen shut from the beatings. Unfortunately for the Sox, their schedule looks much shorter than that, and for all of their fiestiness, it's questionable how much fight they have left in them. Rain, pain, and pray to be slain might be their motto.

With the Sox already being fitted for a blindfold and a cigarette, the Yanks send Orlando Hernandez to finish the job tonight. El Duque has pitched exactly three innings over the last three weeks and suffered from a "tired" right shoulder, so it's questionable how deep he'll be able to go. But New York's bullpen is in much better shape than the Boston's, and they've got a huge cushion overall. For all of his shakiness, Vazquez sponged up the innings admirably last night.

The Sox, behind Lowe, aren't nearly so lucky; their relievers have had to throw 14 of the series' 25 innings against the Yankee bats. With the exception of Keith Foulke, who's been limited to one inning, every one of them has been scored upon. Don't be surprised if there's more Cream of Bullpen on the Fenway menu tonight.

Thursday, October 14, 2004


Patrilineage Established

Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, which is why the Boston Red Sox are now down 2-0 in the best-of-seven ALCS against the Yankees. As well as Pedro Martinez battled for his first 100 pitches to Yankee hitters, and as documented as his tendency is to run out of steam past that point, Boston manager Terry Francona chose to tempt fate by leaving in Martinez, and trouble ensued. Patrilineage was established, much to the catcalling Bronx crowd's delight; the Yankees truly are Pedro Martinez's daddy after all.

Having allowed only one run -- that before he'd gotten a single out in the first inning -- and three hits, Martinez had pitched admirably for five frames. He consistently reached a mid-90s velocity he hadn't shown the Yankees in ages, making his devastating changeup all the more effective. But the Yanks followed their usual strategy against Martinez, waiting him out, elevating his pitch count, forcing him to throw 46 pitches in the first two innings. By the beginning of the sixth, Pedro had thrown 91 pitches, and while he retired Bernie Williams to open the inning, it was on a full count. Tick, tick, tick.

Pitch 100 took Pedro to 3-0 against Jorge Posada, and two pitches later, Posada had drawn a walk, the Yankees' fourth on the night. Still, not a creature was stirring in the Boston bullpen. Martinez worked John Olerud to a 1-2 count, but Olerud ripped pitch 106 into the rightfield stands for a game-breaking two-run homer (he even removed his trademark helmet during a well-deserved curtain call). It was reminiscent of Martinez's outing at Fenway against the Yankees on September 24th, when he took a 4-3 lead into the eight inning having thrown 101 pitches. Pitch 103 was a game-tying homer to Hideki Matsui, pitch 109 a ground-rule double to Bernie Williams, and pitch 117 an RBI single by Ruben Sierra. It was even more reminiscent, of course, of Game Seven of last year's LCS, when Grady Little's similarly slow hook once Martinez's pitch count reached triple digits cost the Sox a 5-2 lead and a trip to the World Series and the manager his job. Red Sox Nation, if not GM Theo Epstein, may well begin building Francona a gallows.

Martinez's effort might well have been enough despite Olerud's homer were it not for the fact that he was outpitched by Jon Lieber. The Yankee starter, who flirted with a no-hitter the last time the two pitchers squared off (oops, wrong -- see comments), breezed through the first five innings on 45 pitches and took a two-hit shutout into the eighth inning at 79 pitches, 16 of them in an epic battle with Johnny Damon in the sixth which ended with Damon lining out to Williams in right-centerfield.

No sooner had Lieber yielded a leadoff single to Trot Nixon than he was replaced by Tom Gordon. Flash proved hittable, yielding a double to Jason Varitek and a run-scoring groundout to Orlando Cabrera, but Joe Torre's refusal to be burdened by a fixation on his starter played to the Yankees' advantage. Time and again, the Yanks have beaten their October opponents because Torre is thinking several moves ahead while his opposite number, apparently, is not.

Not that Boston went quietly, mind you. Trailing 3-1 in the ninth and facing Mariano Rivera, who'd gotten the final out of the eighth with Varitek still on base, Boston again brought the tying run to the plate after a one-out double by Manny Ramirez. Fearsome David Ortiz went down swinging on three pitches, Kevin Millar struck out as well, and suddenly the Yanks have a 2-0 lead in a series many, myself included, expected them to lose.

At the outset of the series, on paper it looked as though the Sox 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation might prove decisively advantageous. But Martinez and Curt Schilling -- who may be done for the series -- have combined to allow 9 runs in 9 innings, while Lieber and Game One starter Mike Mussina have yielded 5 runs in 13.2 innings. Looked at from a slightly different angle, the tally is even more impressive than that for the Yanks; in innings 1-6, the two starters have shut out the majors' most potent offense on one hit.

The Sox now face long odds -- the last 13 teams to go down 2-0 in an LCS have lost -- and an uncomfortable off-day before sending Bronson Arroyo to face Kevin Brown. Arroyo pitched well against the Yankees this year in two Bronx outings (6 innings, 2 runs both times), but he was roughed up by the Bombers in Fenway for a total of 10 runs in 12 innings. In fact, Arroyo didn't pitch all that well in Boston, period. He went 3-5 with a 5.35 ERA at Fenway while posting a 7-4, 3.06 ERA record on the road.

Brown was lit up like a Christmas tree the last time he pitched in Fenway, failing to make it out of the first inning in his comeback from stupidity and a broken hand. But he's put two solid outings under his belt since then, and with a chance to put the Yanks up 3-0 he's likely to be his usually ornery self.

While unbridled optimism is uncalled for -- it ain't over, not against these Sox, not even if Schilling is as cooked as a Thanksgiving turkey -- the Yankees and their fans have to like their position. As Derek Jeter pointed out in a postgame interview, this is the best-case scenario the Yanks could conjure as they depart for Boston. If they can pinpoint a concern beyond the fragility of aged starters Brown and Orlando Hernandez, who's on track to start Game Four and pitch for the first time in over two weeks, it's the performance of Tom Gordon.

In five postseason appearances totalling five innings, the team's top setup man has given up six hits -- including two doubles and a triple -- and four runs. While the cork that hit him in the eye during the Divisional Series victory celebration is no longer a factor, Baseball Prospectus' Will Carroll notes that Gordon is "short-arming his famous curveball, leaving it more of a slider/slurve than the feared hammer." Translation: his mechanics are a bit off, and they're affecting the movement of his out pitch. Flash's ineffectiveness in this series has twice required Rivera to get the final out of the eighth inning with the tying run either at bat or on base. That's Mo's job, particularly in October, but a little help for the biggest cog in the team's postseason machine would come in handy.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004


Too Good To Be True

It was too good to be true. Through six innings of the American League Championship Series opener, the Yankees, cast in the unfamiliar role of underdogs, led the Red Sox 8-0. Not only had the vaunted Sox offense, the best in the majors for the second season in a row, been held in check, no Boston hitter had even reached base. Not only had Mike Mussina pitched up to his ace reputation, he had been perfect -- no hits, no walks, no nothing.

And not only had Sox starter Curt Schilling failed in his stated desire of "making 55,000 people from New York shut up," but he had been knocked out after three innings, much to the boisterous Bronx crowd's delight. Fighting an ankle problem that affected his ability to push off the pitching rubber, he lacked both velocity and command. Even with his offending ankle numbed by a painkiller shot, he appeared uncomfortable, huffing and puffing and repeatedly tying his shoe between pitches. On this night, his mouth had written a check that his body could not cash. Cue the violins.

The Yanks had capitalized against the wounded Schilling. With two outs in the first, Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui hit back-to-back doubles, the latter a brilliant piece of situational hitting, a bloop double into the left-centerfield gap on an 0-2 pitch. Bernie Williams followed with a single to plate Matsui, and the Yanks were in business. Two innings later, they loaded the bases with nobody out on a pair of singles and a walk, and then Matsui struck the big blow, a bases-clearing double into the rightfield corner. Jorge Posada later drove him home with a sacrifice fly.

Schilling departed after escaping the inning, managing to avoid the mid-frame walk of shame -- 55,000 New Yorkers telling him to shut up -- that he so richly deserved for his bulletin-board commentary. Relievers Curtis Leskanic and Ramiro Mendoza withstood numerous threats and held the score at 6-0. But in the bottom of the sixth, Kenny Lofton greeted Tim Wakefield with a solo homer. A Sheffield double and a Matsui single added a run, Godzilla's fifth RBI on the night. Could it get any better?

The answer was no. Like most things too good to be true, when the lie was revealed the illusion crumbled in a hurry. Mussina had retired 19 batters in a row, at one point tying an LCS record (ironically one that he shared with Schilling) with five consecutive strikeouts. He was one strike away from making it 20 retired in a row when Mark Bellhorn, the only Sox player who had even come close to a hit , drove an 0-2 pitch to the left-centerfield wall. Though that ended the Moose's bid for perfection, it seemed harmless enough after Manny Ramirez grounded out. But three straight hits and a passed ball later, the Sox had put three runs on the board and chased Mussina.

Tanyon Sturtze came on in relief and promptly confirmed the suspicion that his late-season carriage had turned back into a pumpkin. He grooved a pitch to Jason Varitek, 0-for-2004 at Yankee Stadium, and the Sox catcher launched a homer into the rightfield bleachers to cut the score to 8-5. Not only wasn't Boston conceding the game, they were sending a message loud and clear: in this series, no lead is safe.

They stayed on message in the eighth inning against Tom Gordon. With two outs and a man on first, Manny Ramirez singled to left, bringing the tying run to the plate in the form of the 41-homer slugger David Ortiz. Under normal October circumstances, the expectation was that the Yanks would summon Mariano Rivera to get out of the jam.

But Rivera had endured a long and painful day already, attending a funeral for two relatives who had died in a swimming pool accident on his property in his Panama home. He had left his grieving family to fly back for the ballgame, escorted to the stadium by police. Though he had missed the player introductions, his presence had been felt when announcer Bob Sheppard informed the crowd: "And en route to Yankee Stadium, No. 42, Mariano Rivera." Mo drew a standing ovation simply for entering the bullpen in the fifth inning while his teammates greeted him with sympathetic hugs.

Perhaps protecting his closer in his fragile emotional state, perhaps merely exhibiting his confidence in Gordon, an elite setup man who could close for about 25 other teams, Torre chose not to bring in Rivera yet. He paid dearly for that decision as Ortiz drove a blast to left-center that missed leaving the yard by a foot. Matsui nearly caught the ball, but as he reached behind his head, it deflected off of his glove, and by the time the Yanks recovered, the hulking Ortiz had a triple.

Finally, with the score 8-7, the tying run 90 feet away, and the tension so thick you could cut it with a knife, Torre summoned his weary closer. Rivera quickly fell behind 2-0 to Kevin Millar. But the Amish-looking Sox first baseman helped Rivera, first by swinging at a cutter low and away, then by popping the next pitch to Derek Jeter directly behind second base to end the threat.

The Yankees quickly reclaimed some breathing room. Facing Mike Timlin, A-Rod and Sheffield both singled, and one out later Bernie doubled down the leftfield line to add two runs. The second-guessing about Sox manager Terry Francona electing to have Timlin face Williams when he later used closer Keith Foulke has already begun. And well it should. As Joe Sheehan put it:
Look, if it's important enough that you'll use Foulke down 10-7, wouldn't you get him in there to start the eighth inning down 8-7? Or perhaps with two on and two out down 8-7? Bringing him in after the Bernie Williams double is the mother of all after-the-fact barn door closings.
Despite Francona's poor management and the Yankees additional runs, still the Sox would not go quietly. With one out, Varitek singled, and then Orlando Cabrera singled as well to bring the tying run to the plate in the form of Bill Mueller. Five pitches later, Mueller grounded back to the cool, calm Rivera, who started a 1-6-3 double play and finished both a classic ballgame and a long, trying day.

So the Yanks have now stolen a victory against one Boston ace, and with that win and the latest medical news, the balance of the series may have shifted in their favor. According to Red Sox team doctors, a tendon sheath in Schilling's ankle is torn and he will require surgery after the season. "The tendon is snapping over the bone," said Sox doc Bill Morgan. Early in the ballgame and unaware of the severity of the injury, Fox blowhard Tim McCarver yammered about possibly bringing Schilling back on short rest for Game Four, setting him up for a possible Game Seven appearance as well. Now, even a Game Five start appears unlikely, even to Schilling: "If I can't go out there with something better than that, I'm not going back out there."

But Schilling or no, if the Sox proved anything last night, it's that they'll be anything but willing accomplices to a one-sided rout. Even spotting the Yanks six runs, they put up crooked numbers in a hurry, and only the efforts of the greatest closer in the history of October (that's an ERA of about 0.70 in over 100 innings, kids) kept the game from being tied.

For all of Mussina's fantastic effort, he still went less than seven innings, thus exposing the Yanks' shaky middle relief. Like the Bronx Bombers, this Boston team has made its name pouncing on such vulnerable pitching. At this point, expect Sturtze to return to his rightful spot at the bottom of the depth chart, while Paul Quantrill, who pitched two scoreless frames against Minnesota in the ALDS and who's thrown only four innings in the past three weeks, returns to his usual station.

Tonight the Yanks send Jon Lieber, troubled by back problems, to face Pedro Martinez, who broke a string of four straight losses with a gritty effort against the Angels in the first round. Martinez will face his usual difficulties with the Yanks, who generally manage to wait him out, added pressure to reclaim his mantle of the staff ace with Schilling's demise, and a hostile Bronx crowd reveling in the fuel he added to the fire with his postgame comments of a few weeks ago. "Who's your daddy?" signs and chants will abound. But not t-shirts; thankfully Major League Baseball has thought of the children, protecting them from ham-fisted humor that might... that might do what, exactly?

Should the Sox win tonight to garner a split, the pressure will remain on the Yanks as the series heads to Fenway for the weekend. Should the Yanks take this one as well, then expect "sky is falling" reports from Red Sox Nation as the two teams go north. Don't believe the hype. In this series, anybody can come back, anybody can start a rally, anybody can falter on the mound. Down eight runs, down two games, whatever. Repeat after me: No. Lead. Is. Safe. This series won't be over until a spike is hammered directly through one of these team's huge hearts, and maybe not even then.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004


Fear and Loathing at the ALCS

If your pop-psychology take on why I've spent my time since Saturday mostly writing about the demise of the 2004 Dodgers instead of the impending Yankees-Red Sox heavyweight bout is because I'm afraid of what the outcome might be, I won't argue with you. Two weeks of double duty, absorbed in rooting for teams on opposite coasts, has left me without the energy to do so. More than anything, I simply wanted to avoid tapping into the negative vibe that this rivalry inevitably summons before I absolutely had to.

I loathe the Red Sox with a passion and for deep-seated reasons that go back to my time living in New England and commuting to Boston. Blue laws, a twice-stolen car, and a subway system that shuts down before 1 AM are just the tip of the iceberg. This explains perfectly why I suffer from Tourette's Syndrome when talking about the Sox, why I want to see Manny Ramirez' head on a spit, Pedro Martinez passed around like the Sweetheart of Cellblock C, and Curt Schilling ritually disemboweled while his family looks on in horror. If you're a Sox fan, doubtless you feel the same way about Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Jorge Posada, and that is your prerogative. If there's one thing the two fan bases should agree upon it is this: hunting Enrique Wilson for sport would make for a far more amusing seventh-inning stretch in the Bronx than the current medley of "God Bless America," "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," and "Cotton-Eyed Joe."

Anybody who tells you they know what will happen in this series is lying. In the 45 contests between the two teams over the past two years, we've seen Pedro Martinez thrashed, Curt Schilling bawling like a baby, Aaron Boone elevated to hero status, Mariano Rivera coughing up multiple leads, A-Rod sucker-punched in the mouth by Jason Varitek and John Flaherty getting his first game-winning hit since tee-ball. A prediction that the balance of the series will be tilted when one team's middle infielder gets mauled by a tiger and the other squad's top setup man runs off to join a zombie-like cult is as likely to be right as anything you'll hear from the experts or the drunk on the next barstool. Nobody knows anything, so just sit back and enjoy the games. Failing that, try to avoid having a nervous breakdown or throwing your TV set out the window in frustration or triumph. You might need that sucker on Election Day.

Two cents' worth of analysis: these two teams are very evenly matched, especially on offense. Both have question marks in the middle of their bullpens. The Sox advantage with the rotation, even if Schilling is less than 100 percent and Pedro is the hittable 2004 model, is still likely to be decisive, especially because the Yankees have not yet solved Bronson Arroyo. In a seven-game series, the Yankees can afford no worse than a 2-2 record in the games Curtis and Petey start. Mike Mussina and Kevin Brown will have to pitch up to their reputations as wily 200-game winners rather than as fragile, intermittently effective geezers to avoid exposing the team's shaky middlemen too often. Javier Vazquez and Jon Lieber will have to be at the tippy-tops of their games as well. Don't bet on it.

One of these years, the Groundhog Day spell which dooms the Red Sox to find new ways to implode will be lifted (here's a hint: it will involve a manager with the horse sense to back six innings of Pedro with three of Keith Foulke). Sox fans will wake up to find that contrary to what they expected to happen once they defeated the Yankees, things won't really have changed all that much; pennies will not fall from heaven, cats will spurn mating with dogs, Rhode Island won't float off into the Atlantic Ocean because the entire state of Massachusetts will still suck (just kidding on that last count, folks -- old college joke), and using the word "wicked" to describe anything other than a knee-high 98 MPH fastball on the black will sound silly.

So in the spirit of all of the above, I'll hazard a guess -- Red Sox in six -- and look forward to the Yankees offering me and the rest of their fans a pleasant surprise and another chance to drink the yummy tears of Boston's unfathomable sadness.


Good Night, Dodgers

"You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat. Losing after great striving is the story of man, who was born to sorrow, whose sweetest songs tell of saddest thought, and who, if he is a hero, does nothing in life as becomingly as leaving it." -- Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer

The 2004 Dodgers finally ran out of miracles on Sunday night. After six-and-a-half months of thrills and chills, capped by the outpouring of emotion that was Lima Time on Saturday night, their season ended with more whimper than bang. Managing only three hits, they fell to the mighty St. Louis Cardinals 6-2 and were eliminated in four games. Albert Pujols drove in four runs, three on a tiebreaking, backbreaking, heartbreaking shot off of middle reliever Wilson Alvarez in the fourth inning, and the outgunned Dodgers simply had no answer for that. Make no mistake: the better team won this series.

Alvarez had come on to clean up starter Odalis Perez's dirty work. For the second time in the series, Perez failed to make it out of the third inning, walking five batters and leaving manager Jim Tracy little choice but to go to his bullpen early. With the Dodgers already trailing 2-1 and with two on and one out, Alvarez wriggled off of the hook by striking out Jim Edmonds and Reggie Sanders, who had homered in his previous at-bat. But the next inning brought trouble in a big way with Pujols' big blast.

Still riding a wave of optimism after Saturday night's raucous celebration, the Dodgers had gotten off to a promising start on a first-inning homer by Jayson Werth against Jeff Suppan. They put two runners on in the second to no avail, and threatened again in the third when Werth walked and took third on a Steve Finley single. That brought activity from the Cardinal bullpen, but Adrian Beltre could manage only a sacrifice fly -- his first RBI of the series -- and while it tied the score, it also started a string of fourteen consecutive batters set down by the Cardinal starter.

The umpires gave Suppan some help. Leading off the seventh, Milton Bradley was called out at first base on a grounder; replays showed he beat the throw. The volatile Bradley, who's dealt with anger-management issues all too often recently, mustered considerable restraint, especially after a no-catch call had gone against him earlier in the game. On that play, he appeared to have made a sliding snag of a Tony Womack blooper but dropped the ball in transferring it to his throwing hand. He recovered to get a 9-4-3-6 force at second just two batters before Pujols' homer, not that it made much difference in the outcome.

Yhency Brazoban, Mike Venafro, Giovanni Carrera and finally Eric Gagne kept the score close, allowing only one run over the final five innings. But even that was too far for the enfeebled Dodger offense to surmount this time. As the outs began to dwindle and the outcome grew more apparent, I made a decisive move from my seat on the couch. I muted the blather of Tim McCarver and Thom Brennaman and used the TiVo to synchronize the video with the MLB Gameday Audio feed from Vin Scully. If I was going to watch the Dodgers go down in defeat, I would do so in style; far better to hear it from Vin.

The boys in blue themselves went down in style, and with class as well. When Alex Cora made the season's final out, Tracy and his players came onto the field to shake hands with Tony LaRussa and the rest of the Cardinals. It was a rare and touching display of sportsmanship that gave the crowd, the largest in Dodger Stadium's 42-year history, one final chance to send off a team that had given them an improbable, memorable ride. Even at home I was clapping.

• • •

As such, I come to praise the 2004 Dodgers, not to bury them. After spending the better part of the News Corp era in self-induced exile from my Dodger roots and fretting endlessly over their various suitors, I was braced for the worst when Frank McCourt's seemingly underfinanced bid turned out to be the winning one. Watching the Dodgers lose the Vladimir Guerrero sweepstakes and its nefarious underpinnings only fed my skepticism. Hearing that McCourt might sell naming rights to Dodger Stadium had me even angrier:
McCourt's very presence, particularly via the potential abandonment of Dodger Stadium or hanging of a corporate moniker upon it, poses no less a threat than the utter rape of the once-visionary franchise. How long before the Dodgers become a ramshackle squad of faceless ballplayers wearing head-to-toe teal uniforms in a domed mallpark? The time just drew a lot closer.
Jon Weisman of Dodger Thoughts, a man with similar fears, voiced a bit more optimism:
No matter how many misgivings have built up to this point, I don't think there's a Dodger fan in town who won't come to like McCourt if he can do the job."
The new owner had at least one stroke of genius when he took over the club, hiring Oakland A's assistant GM Paul DePodesta to be his general manager. The move resonated with me and many others who thought that the Dodgers, as one of baseball's marquee franchises, deserved to be armed with a creative, cutting-edge braintrust that could undo the mistakes of the Foxies. In DePodesta, the righthand man for Billy Beane during three years of AL West alchemy, McCourt had his man and we had ours.

For years I had begun each Fox-era season with hope but not faith. From 3000 miles away, I would follow their offseason moves intently, slowly losing interest as the team stumbled out of the gate or wilted in the summer heat, only to make a day-late, dollar-short run at the Wild Card that would have me scrambling to keep up. The decision to hire DePodesta -- and retain Tracy -- began to restore my faith.

Taking the reins from Dan Evans, a man who deserved better after restocking the farm system, DePodesta spent the year improvising masterfully in concert with Tracy, most notably with a bullpen almost completely rebuilt with rookies and castoffs after a flurry of deals at the trading deadline. The team upgraded its offense over last year thanks to the additions of Bradley, Werth, and Jose Hernandez. They watched Adrian Beltre finally live up to his star potential. They turned their defense into the league's best (a .715 Defensive Efficiency Rating, tops in all of baseball) as Cora and Cesar Izturis emerged as the game's top double-play combo. They overcame a shaky rotation that nearly dropped an axle down the stretch and a trade that more or less blew up in their face. And they kicked the Giants squarely in the groin on the season's final weekend, capping a seven-run ninth with a Steve Finley grand slam that will live in the annals of Dodger lore forever. NL West champs, for the first time in nine years.

For all of that and so much more -- Eric Gagne's 84 consecutive saves, Alex Cora's 18-pitch at-bat, Lima Time, night after night of pinch-grand slams, 53 come-from-behind victories including 26 in their final at-bat, their first postseason victory in 16 years as Lima shut down the league's most feared offense and got L.A. fans to stay right to the end -- the Dodgers showed their hearts every single day and won mine all over again. If I'm a bit misty-eyed, whatever tears I've shed over the end of their season have been tears of gratitude and joy. Thank you, Dodgers, for bringing me home.

Now, three time zones away, I might finally get some sleep.

• • •

No sooner does a season end than players begin scattering to the four winds. But the signs so far from the Dodgers are mostly positive. Shortly after the team's defeat on Sunday night, DePodesta discussed Adrian Beltre's status. "I'd like to do everything I possibly can to make sure he's back in a Dodger uniform," declared DePo of the 25-year-old third baseman, who hit .334/.388/.629 with 48 homers and 121 RBI. With bloodsucking viper Scott Boras representing Beltre, that may well be an expensive and contentious proposition, but at least the GM seems braced for the task. And with one report suggesting that Beltre and Boras are seeking a six-year, $84 million deal, it may actually be quite doable.

Keeping Tracy in place also seems to rate high on DePodesta's to-do list. Last month he said he hoped to re-sign the manager, and Tracy has indicated his willingness to stay. I hope nothing stands in the way of their union because it will be smashy-smashy time around here if they lose him. Of the free agents, Lima is a good bet to return -- hell, he might get a statue by then -- while Perez likely punched his ticket out of town with his poor postseason showing. Finley may well be back.

One player who definitely won't be is Robin Ventura, who officially retired on Monday. Ventura only hit .243/.337/.362 with 5 homers in 175 PA this year, but he excelled in the pinch, hitting .271/.368/.458 with 3 homers and 14 RBI, including a grand slam. That blast, the 18th of his career, tied him with Willie McCovey for the third-most in baseball history behind Lou Gehrig (23) and Eddie Murray (19). Think about all of the great sluggers who aren't on that list for a moment. Ladies and gentlemen, in that way at least, Robin Ventura was one of the most clutch hitters of all-time. How cool is that?

Ventura will be best remembered for those slams, including two in one game as well as the "Grand Single" he hit with the bases loaded to end a rain-soaked 15-inning League Championship Series game in 1999. He'll also be remembered for his hilariously misguided charging of the mound on Nolan Ryan. Back in 1993, the 46-year-old fireballer had hit the 26-year-old Ventura, who took offense. When he attacked, Ryan grabbed him in a headlock and broke out a can of Lone Star-brand Whupp Ass, and the footage often gets aired on blooper reels everywhere.

But there was plenty more to Ventura's career. At Oklahoma State, he set a collegiate record (since broken) with a 58-game hitting streak in 1987. Two years later, he made his major-league debut with the Chicago White Sox, and the next season, he was in the bigs to stay. He won five Gold Gloves with the Sox and played on their 1993 division winner. Despite suffering a gruesome ankle injury that cost him most of the 1997 season, he recovered his top-flight form in the field and won another with the Wild Card-winning Mets in '99 while hitting 32 homers and driving in 120 runs.

After that, back problems slowed his bat speed considerably, and his batting average fell into the .230s. But his power and plate discipline kept his shelf life going, and when he was traded to the Yankees for David Justice to replace plate discipline-challenged Scott Brosius, he found a home in Bronx Bomber lineup. He hit .247/.368/.458 with 27 homers and 93 runs, and made the All-Star team for only the second time in his career.

After getting off to a strong start with the Yanks in 2003, he fell into a dismal slump during June (.578 OPS) and July (.613). At the trading deadline, the team pulled the trigger on a fateful deal for Cincinnati's Aaron Boone, and Ventura was sent packing to the Dodgers for outfielder Bubba Crosby and pitcher Scott Proctor. His first homer as a Dodger was an improbable inside-the-park job made all the more amusing by Ventura's slow-footed reputation. "Usually, someone has to go on the DL for me to get even a triple," he quipped afterwards.

That was Ventura too, witty and perceptive, popular in the clubhouses and with the more astute fans. One time I was at a Yanks' game with Alex Belth and we considered the question, "Which current Yankee would you most like to have dinner with?" Both of us chose Ventura independently. When I blindly put the question to my pal Nick a few days later, he had the same response. Great minds...

Retiring at 37, Ventura now joins a class of third baseman who won't make the Hall of Fame but who are better than most of the ones who are in there. Last week in a Baseball Prospectus article, I took a look at the Hall of Fame credentials of several players using my JAWS system, which deals with career and peak Wins Above Replacement totals by averaging out the player's lifetime total with his five-best-consecutive-season total. The average Hall of Fame third baseman scores at 74.7, the average Hall hitter a 75.3.

Mike Schmidt (108.4), Eddie Mathews (94.9), and George Brett (92.8) top the list of enshrined third basemen, which is weighted down by some dubious choices such as George Kell (52.4) and Fred Lindstrom (44.4), who's fourth-lowest among all hitters. Meanwhile on the outside are the criminally neglected Ron Santo (88.4) along with Darrell Evans (78.3), Graig Nettles (76.4), Ken Boyer (73.9), and Ron Cey (70.1). Ventura, at 75.0, is at home in that company as well, thanks to no fewer than six outstanding seasons of 9.0 WARP3 or more. He's easily as good as the average Hall of Fame third baseman.

Ventura says he may consider returning to baseball in some capacity. Whether it's as a coach or a commentator, he'd be a fine addition anywhere. He's welcome in my book any day.

• • •

Yankees-Red Sox: as you can see, I'm just dying to dive into the fray. There's really not much that needs to be said at the outset of the series. The Yanks are hungry, the Sox are hungry, their fans starved. The hype in the press is thick, the rhetoric in the blogosphere is sure to be even thicker. Now that I've tucked the Dodgers in for the season, you know where I'll be.


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