Friday, September 2, 2011

Yanks Beat Scum In Biggest Game of Season (So Far)

Today, my nieces, age 4, learned a new word: "Rivalry." I told them it means two people, or two groups of people, who have faced each other in some form of competition so many times under difficult circumstances that they REALLY don't like each other.

That's the best way to explain the concept to little kids. I've told them, "Boston is actually a really nice city, I just don't like its sports teams, including the Red Sox."

Someday, they will read this blog, and they will be shocked about the language I sometimes use. Or maybe they'll see the language and WON'T be shocked -- in which case, I will be.

I went into last night thinking the finale of the Yankees-Red Sox series at Fenway Park would be the key game of the regular season, in terms of the American League Eastern Division: A Red Sox win would make it very difficult for the Yankees to win the Division, and thus "stick" the Yankees with the AL's Wild Card berth (which fans of a lot of teams would LOVE to be "stuck" with); a win for the Yankees would give them just about an even chance to win the Division, and to thus stick the Sox with having to go to Detroit, the Dallas-Forth Worth "Metroplex" or Southern California to play Games 1, 2 and possibly 5 of the AL Division Series. Regardless of what you may think of those places (and I hate Texas so much that I'd actually rather be in Detroit or Anaheim), you want the first 2 games of the postseason at home. Especially if home is Yankee Stadium (or old new) or Fenway Park.

But in order for the Yankees to win last night, A.J. Burnett, who has been not just Bad A.J. but Atrocious A.J. lately, would have to hold the Sox to as few runs as possible in that little green pinball machine with the red seats in Boston's Back Bay section.

Easier said than done, and I was not optimistic. I was thinking the only way I was going to get a win last night was through the Rutgers University football team, which did, beating North Carolina Central University at home, 48-0. My father was at the game, and he felt bad for N.C. Central, a school which was Division II not that long ago and really did not belong on the same field as even a mediocre Division I-A team, as Rutgers was last season. The 7-touchdown win over such an opponent proved nothing, but I'll still take it.

I would especially taken it, considering I was likely to see Bad A.J. instead of Good A.J. Oy...

*

But Burnett WAS Good A.J. last night. He got through the first 3 innings only allowing a couple of baserunners and no runs. I was hoping he'd get through the first 6 allowing 3 runs or less; allowing none over the first 3 was more than I dared ask for.

As for the Yankees, Jesus played. Yes, the much-heralded 21-year-old righthanded-hitting-and-fielding slugging and catching prospect from Guacara, Venezuela, Jesus Alejandro Montero, made his Major League Baseball debut, as the designated hitter, wearing Number 63, and batting 7th against the Sox' nasty lefty, Jon Lester.

The top of the 1st inning was very eventful. Lester began the game by striking out Derek Jeter. But Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira hit back-to-back singles, and Robinson Cano doubled Grandy home -- but Teix could only go to 3rd, which could very well have turned out to be a pivotal failure to score. Lester struck out Nick Swisher, walked Andruw Jones, and then, in Montero's 1st big-league at-bat, Lester struck him out. Lester struck out the side, but allowed a run. It could have been a bit more.

Jeter and Granderson hit back-to-back singles with 2 outs in the 2nd, but Teix popped up to end the threat. With 1 out in the 3rd, Swisher singled, but Jones struck out, and Montero flew out. Jeter drew a 2-out walk in the 4th, but Granderson struck out to end that threat. So it was one-nil to the Pinstripe Boys going to the bottom of the 4th. So far, pretty good, but hardly good enough in Fenway.

As the Sox proved in the bottom of the 4th. Adrian Gonzalez, who has been battling it out with Granderson and Detroit Tiger pitcher Justin Verlander for the right to be named AL Most Valuable Player this season, hit a ground-rule double to right, and then Dustin Pedroia homered to center. 2-1 Boston. And now, who's up? Of course, the big fat lying cheating bastard himself, David Ortiz.

A Yankee Fan could have been excused for thinking the season was over, that we were doomed to lose the game, the Division, and the Division Series, and to start thinking about 2012. After all, this was A.J. Burnett on the mound against David Ortiz. Bad A.J. + Big Papi = Doom.

But this was Good A.J. He got Orcheatz to ground out, struck out Carl Crawford, and got a groundout of Jed Lowrie to end it still 2-1 in Boston's favor. If you had told me before the game A.J. would allow 2 runs over the first 4, I would have taken it.

With 1 out in the top of the 5th, Cano hit his 2nd double of the game, and Swish sacrificed him to 3rd. Bad idea, since there was already 1 out, although with the Green Monster looming over left field just 310 feet from home plate, scoring from 2nd on a single is no guarantee. Jones drew a walk, but Montero made himself 0-for-3 in his career with a groundout.

A.J. got through the 5th with no further runs. Former Yankee Alfredo Aceves came on to pitch the top of the 6th, because Lester had already thrown 118 pitches. The ghost of Bob Feller calls him a wimp.

Russell Martin led off the inning with a single, but Eduardo Nunez (good fielder but increasingly useless with the bat) grounded into a double play. This began to loom large as Jeter singled, Granderson walked, and Teix was hit by a pitch -- and, since this loaded the bases, this was a rare occasion when a Sox pitcher hit a Yankee batter and everybody knew it was NOT on purpose. By now, by all rights, Martin should have scored to tie it up, but that double play had erased him. But Cano grounded out. The Yankees had 4 baserunners in the inning, and scored NO runs. You can't do that! Especially against the Red Sox. Especially at Fenway. You never know when the enemy is going to score more runs.

The bottom of the 6th. The tension mounts. A.J. still in there. He gunned down Gonazalez. Very important to get that leadoff man out. But Pedroia singled, and stole second with Ortiz up. Uh-oh, this is it, the A.J. Meltdown. Fortunately, he only walked Ortiz. As the old saying goes, "It's better to give the big man four balls for one base, than to give him one ball for four bases."

Joe Girardi came to the mound and took A.J. out. Although he stood to lose the game, and was responsible for a potential 3rd and 4th runs, thus far he could not be faulted for the Yankees losing the game. The Yankees had simply failed to get him sufficient run support.

Joe Girardi hates me. What's that, you say? He doesn't even know I exist? Well, with the Internet, that may no longer be true. But it probably is. But the reason I think he hates me is that, in the biggest game of the season thus far, he brought in Boone Logan to relieve.

Twice in the last month, including on Tuesday night of this series, he'd brought Logan into a Fenway game, and gotten away with it. Could this really have been a case of "Third Time Lucky"? Would the third time be a charm?

Logan threw Crawford 4 pitches. The 1st and 3rd were nasty sliders. The 2nd and 4th were fastballs. The 4th was a swing and a miss. A huge strikeout.

Logan did his job. Girardi pulled him for Cory Wade, who also hasn't been too good lately. Wade pitched to Lowrie, who hit a sinking liner to center field. Uh-oh, Ortiz can't run, but that'll score 1 run...

No! Granderson made a spectacular catch! Inning and threat over! Still 2-1 Boston!

It was the kind of catch that would have made Mel Allen yell, "How about that!" and Phil Rizzuto yell, "Holy cow!" As soon as the shock wore off, John Sterling on WCBS turned to Suzyn Waldman and said, "You know, Suzyn, if the Yankees win this game, that'll be the reason why!"

Well, it helps if you can take that momentum and get some runs with it. In the top of the 7th, with 1 out, Jones fouled off 10 pitches before Aceves threw him ball 4. Chris Dickerson pinch-ran for him, and Montero reached base for the first time in his major-league career. Aceves hit him with a pitch. With the Red Sox, you never know, but if Aceves hit him on purpose, it was really stupid, so I'm thinking it was another accident. But that put the tying and go-ahead runs on.

Sox manager Terry Francona took the ball from Aceves and brought in Daniel Bard. The batter was Russell Martin, who swung and missed at Bard's 1st 2 pitches, then worked him for 3 balls, fouled off a tough slider, and then crushed a 97-MPH fastball to right. Dickerson scored. For the first time in his big-league career, Montero scored. It was 3-2 Yankees. Biggest hit of the season, and it was by a guy whose defense has been superb behind the plate, but had been slumping with the bat lately. Huge hit for Martin, both personally and for his team.

Girardi sent Eric Chavez up to pinch-hit for Nunez, thus allowing him to keep Chavez in the game to play 3rd base in place of the injured Alex Rodriguez. Chavez singled to right to score Martin. 4-2 Yankees.

No further baserunners in the inning, but who knew how big a 2-run lead could be? This is Fenway Park, after all. This is Yankees-Red Sox. Anything can happen. As Sterling likes to say, "You know, Suzyn, you can't predict baseball." In Yanks-Sox, especially in Fenway, the only way to get a prediction right is to, in the immortal words of former San Francisco Giants star Will Clark, "Expect the unexpected in baseball. There ya go, buddy!"

Bottom of the 7th. Teix, still aching from his HBP, left the game. Swish went to 1st base, Dickerson took Swish's place in right field, and Brett Gardner took Dickerson's place in left, which he had taken from Jones. Rafael Soriano, who's been an "I can't look" pitcher or on the Disabled List for most of the season, walked Jacoby Ellsbury with 2 outs, but struck out Marco Scutaro to end the inning.

Gardner got on in the top of the 8th, but got picked off. As childhood Long Island resident and Brooklyn Dodger fan, and grown-up historian, Harvard professor, Boston suburb resident and Red Sox fan Doris Kearns Goodwin would say, "There's always these omens in baseball." As Uncle Mike would say, "Ulp."

In the bottom of the 8th, David Robertson, who's pretty much been lights-out this season, walked the leadoff hitter, Gonzalez. Pedroia grounded into a force-out, and while that did get an out, it didn't help much, because it put a faster runner on 1st. And the Boston Fat Boy was up, representing the tying run. I could see Ortiz's phony point-to-the-sky on crossing the plate for a tying home run. But it didn't happen: Robertson gunned him down on a hellacious curveball.

Then, with Crawford up, Robertson threw a wild pitch, sending Pedroia to 2nd. But Robertson got Crawford to fly out.

Nothing across in the top of the 9th. One inning to go, and it would be pitched by Mariano Rivera. But, just as the familiarity of this series means that there's one team that knows how to beat Jonathan Papelbon and it's the Yankees, it also means that there's one team that knows how to beat Mo, and it's the Red Sox.

And the way to beat Mo is to draw a leadoff walk, which Lowrie did. Uh-oh...

Mo got Josh Reddick to fly to right, and struck out the man with the longest surname in MLB history, Jarrod Saltalamacchia. But then he walked Ellsbury, and now a runner was at 2nd, the tying run was at 1st, and the winning run was at the plate. It was Scutaro, who, first for the Oakland Athletics and now for the Red Sox, has become one of those guys who can't hit against any team BUT the Yankees.

Scutaro dropped a soft line drive to right. It wasn't enough to score anyone. But now the bases were loaded. Lowrie was at 3rd. Ellsbury, the tying run, was at 2nd. Scutaro, the winning run, was at 1st. And the batter was the dangerous Gonzalez. A single COULD tie the game, although at Fenway it's no sure thing. An extra-base hit would probably win it.

Needless to say, in the stands, the Fenway animals were howling.

I was begging Mariano and the Yankee defense to get one more out, any way they could, I didn't care how.

Mariano Rivera remembered that he is Mariano Rivera, and that it doesn't matter who the opponent is.

He struck that Scummer out.

Cue Sterling: "Struck him out swinging! Ballgame over! Yankees win! Theeeeeeeeeeeeeeee Yankees win!"

4-2! We beat The Scum, 4-2! We beat The Scum, 4-2! We beat The Scum, 4-2!

Whew!

WP: Wade (3-0), as he was the Yankee pitcher when the lead that was never relinquished was taken; but a big tip of the Yankee cap to Burnett, who gave the Yankees 5 innings and change of exactly the pitching they needed, even if it doesn't save his place in the starting rotation or the postseason roster -- it may have been the pitching performance that wins the Division and makes Title 28 possible. SV: Rivera (36), inching closer to Trevor Hoffman's all-time record. LP: Aceves (9-2).

The Yankees get out of Boston half a game behind The Scum, dead-even in the AILC, the All-Important Loss Column. Going into the games of September 2, the teams are, essentially, tied for first place.

The Yankees come home to face the Toronto Blue Jays, having a bad season but always playing the Yankees tough. The Sox stay home to face the AL Western Division-leading Texas Rangers. If we can take 2 of 3 from the Pesky Blue Jays, and the Strangers can take 2 of 3 from The Scum, it will make the AL East race, as Arte Johnson used to say on Laugh-In, "Verrrry intereshting."

It's Yankees vs. Red Sox. It's frequently, "Verrrry intereshting... but shtupid."

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