Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Mistake-Prone Angels Can't Get it Done

You've heard that pitching and defense wins championships? The Angels brought their pitching to the ALDS, but not so much their defense. As the Angels learned, mistakes are incredibly costly in the post-season. Last night, in the bottom of the 5th inning, the Red Sox had runners at first and third with one out. Jacoby Ellbury hit a text book double play ground ball to Howie Kendrick at second base. A double play ends the inning, and keeps the game scoreless. However, Kendrick, perhaps worried about Ellsbury's speed, rushes the play, bobbles the ball, and only manages to get one out at first base, allowing Mark Kotsay to score from third base, and Jason Varitek to move up to second.

Dustin PedroiaTrue story. I'm watching the game by myself and as Dustin Pedroia steps up the the plate, hitless so far in the playoffs, I look him in the eye while adopting my best Vito Corleone voice and say to the television, "Pedroia, I told you one day you would owe me a favor. Today is that day. Do this for me." Moments later, I leapt off the couch as Dustin lofted a shot off the Green Monster, sending Varitek home to give the Sox a 2-0 lead. Kendrick's mistake turned a scoreless inning into a 2-0 lead for the Sox, much to the obvious dismay of his starting pitcher, John Lackey. Favor repaid, Dustin!

Jon LesterJon Lester was amazing, yet again. I am always concerned when a team faces the same pitcher twice in such a short span, but Varitek and Lester worked a plan that kept the Angels guessing. I had my eye on the pitch count, not wanting to go to the bullpen at all if possible. Lester had thrown 96 pitches through 6 innings. Not great. But, Lester breezed through the 7th on 13 pitches, bringing his count to 109. Mid-season, that would be all. Give the shoulder a rest, and get your 8th inning guy out there. But, this is the playoffs, and the bullpen was gassed. So, I was shocked that he did not come out to at least get the 8th inning going. Lester had just retired 8 straight batters, and had shut down the Angels all night. A pit of dread settled into what had been elation only moments before, as I saw Hideki Okajima come in to face the top of the Angels order.

Okajima got the first two outs, but walked Mark Teixeira. With the Angel's big righties coming up, Francona played the odds and brought in Justin Masterson. This worried me even more. Masterson tried to stay away from Guerrero too much, and somehow walked the free swinger. A wild pitch then put runners on 2nd and 3rd, all set up for Tori Hunter's single to right to tie the game at 2. Images of 2004 flashed through my mind, recalling the Red Sox finally exorcising their demons with a huge come from behind rally over their nemesis, the Yankees. Were we witnessing the same for the Angels? Was this the hit that would ignite them? (I thought it was funny later when Masterson, in discussing his contributions, claimed credit for setting up the situation for Lowrie to hit the game winner).

No. Why? Mistakes! Masterson, not being very effective, came back out for the 9th and promptly gave up a double to Kendry Morales. Francona left him out there, correctly guessing the next batter was bunting anyway. Sure enough, a perfect bunt sent Morales to third base with one out, and Manny Delcarmen came in for Masterson. Now it gets fun. The Angles, loving to put pressure on a defense (unfortunately for them, the Sox defense was not making mistakes), decided to go for one of the most exciting plays in baseball, the suicide squeeze.

For anyone who is unfamiliar with the suicide squeeze, here's what happens. The batter is told to bunt to score the runner from third. With a bunt, the ball will be close to home plate, so the runner is heading directly at the ball, thus the "suicide" part. In order for this to work, the runner has to take off with the pitch to get as big of a jump as possible, also part of the "suicide". If the batter fails to lay down the bunt, the runner is dead. Well, that last sentence just gave away the ending. Delcarmen threw a nasty 96 mph fastball right into Erick Aybar's gut. Aybar would love to bunt towards first, but that pitch is impossible to do that with. Regardless, the play is on and the runner is on his way, so Aybar takes a swipe at it and misses. The runner, Morales, was dead meat, halfway down the third base line. Jason Varitek caught the pitch cleanly and charged down the third base line like a mother rhino protecting her young. After a fake throw to third, 'Tek dove towards Morales, tagged him cleanly and landed on his chest in the dirt. The ball, after the glove contacted the ground, skipped away, but too late. The tag had been applied, the bases were clear, the threat was erased. Man, talk about exciting playoff ball.

Jason VaritekNow I thought, maybe we can win this. Maybe the Angels are just too tense, too nervous, thinking too much about their own demons to win. Ninth inning. JD Drew strikes out - not his night to be a hero. Jason Bay then sends a shot down the right field line. Another Angels mistake. The right fielder, Reggie Willits, tries to be a hero and dives at the ball, but he never stood a chance. He landed on his face as the ball shot past. He did catch a break when the ball bounced up into the stands for a ground rule double. Had the ball stayed fair, he would have had a long run to chase it down, and Bay would surely have ended the series with an inside the park home run! But, alas, Bay was forced to stop at second base.

Up steps Mark Kotsay. Now, Mark's wife's grandmother has just passed away, and Mark is in Boston, fighting for his team, but missing the funeral. He has had a terrific night, making two terrific outfield-like defensive plays at first base, and scoring the first run of the game. This one felt right. Another true story. I looked to the sky and implored to his wife's grandmother. I said, "Grammy, you know he wanted to be there for you. Help him honor your memory, help him put some power into his bat". Sure enough, Grammy sends a jolt of spiritual energy shooting into the bat (you could see the blue flame on high-def), and Kotsay rips a shot down the 1st base line heading towards the corner, sure to score Bay from second easily. But, using angels to battle the Angels does not work. Mark Teixeira must have an angel of his own, because his body lunged with cobra-like speed to his left, and with his body fully stretched, the ball somehow snapped into his glove for out number two. Luckily the play happened so fast that Jason Bay had no time to take off from second.

Remember Hank Steinbrenner whining that the Yankees failure this year was all due to injury? All that money apparently cannot allow them to buy enough depth to overcome that. Hopefully he watched last night as the Sox moved ahead to the ALCS, even though they had to suffer through injuries. Mike Lowell has been officially put on the injured list and is out for the next series too. The starting shortstop, Julio Lugo, has been out for months and will miss the playoffs. JD Drew missed most of September, Josh Beckett was reduces to one start in the ALDS from an oblique injury. How'd that work with the Sox missing the 2007 ALCS MVP at full strength, and their starting left side of the infield out? It worked pretty well.

Jason Bay ScoresJed Lowrie, a minor league call-up, filling in at shortstop, and playing in his first post-season, stepped up to the plate in the 9th inning, two outs, and Jason Bay at second. Lowrie did not carry a bat to the plate. He carried a pen, and he used that pen to write his name on the pages of Red Sox lore. The Angles were still pumped up from Teixeira's terrific catch (finally, some clutch defense) when Lowrie's sharp ground ball found the hole between first and second base. Jason Bay was waved home, running faster with each step. In what took a split second to us mere mortals, must have lasted minutes to Bay. Like in those dreams when you are trying to run, but never seem to get closer, that's what home plate must have looked like to Bay. But, run he did, and as he approached, he dove with every ounce of power in his body, slapped the plate with his left hand, and flew into the arms of his new, proud, teammates.

I felt all along that, if the Sox were to have hopes of repeating, they'd have to go through the Angels at some point. I'm glad it was in a short 5 games series. The big 7 game series is looming now, and it is against our very own AL East Rays! Can you believe it?

I know, everyone is wondering, "is Josh Beckett hurting, or is he truly healthy, like they want us to believe?". Well, here is how you can tell. The first game of the ALCS is this Friday. Josh Beckett is the Red Sox ace (apologies to Lester who has become at least a co-ace). Beckett pitched on Sunday, and his next regular start on 4 days rest would be Friday. Having your ace start in the first game of a series is the best possible scenario. So, here's how you tell if Beckett is truly healthy. If he gets the start Friday, he's healthy (or has fooled the Sox medical staff). If he is not healthy, and would benefit from more rest and rehab, then he won't get the start. Simple as that.

We WinI love this time of year! What a series - thank you LAA Angels! You made this tough, fun, and incredibly entertaining. Head home, heads held high, and get ready to do it again next year. By the way, don't be foolish and let Teixeira get away - you need him.

(Photos Courtesy of ESPN)


Suldog said...

Amazing fun finish. I loved when Tek tagged him out. I just KNEW they were going to try and squeeze, and I knew it wasn't going to work, either. Honestly, I knew it deep down in my bones.

Well, I was wrong about this series, for sure. I thought the Angels would beat them. But, I also felt that the Angels were the only ones who could. So, I hope I'm right about that part of it!

Rooster said...

This was a very close series! In every game except for the first, the winning run was scored in the final inning! Wow!

Without Drew's HR or Lowrie's hit last night, the Sox probably do lose that series.

I think the Rays will be a very tough matchup, and I worry about it being a 7 game series. Beckett now becomes much more important.