The Red Sox fan in me does not greet September with joy. It’s when the Sox have often withered and fallen, like the leaves after a blistering July and August. In 1946 they clinched the pennant on Friday, September 13, and finished 104-50. But Ted Williams hurt his wrist in an exhibition game, had a quiet Series, and the Sox lost to the underdog Cardinals—their first loss ever in a World Series. In 1948, the Sox were tied with the Indians at the end of the month and the end of the season. Sounds good, but had they won one more game they wouldn’t have gotten embarrassed by the Tribe in the tiebreaker game, 8-3. In 1949, the Red Sox entered October with a one-game lead over the Yankees, but lost their last two games in New York to finish a game out.
In those three years I was 7, 9, and 10 years old in September, and those failures meant the most. I could go on, and mention among other things the 1978 season in which they lost a huge lead in September and lost the “Bucky F. Dent” playoff game, or the 2011 season when they were the best team in baseball for four months of the six month season, but went 7 and 20 in September and finished a game out of the playoffs. But I won’t [sorry; I didn’t study Cicero in high school and come away with nothing]. By then I was a grown man, and too old to cry (except inside), because you don’t want to admit that a mere game can mean so much. And of course, it really doesn’t, except that it sort of does. Being a fan of your old hometown team can validate your native community, revive your childhood experiences, boost your ego vicariously. You’ve emotionally cast your lot with them, through thick and thin. It’s been thin often enough, so when it’s thick, whoopee!
And that’s why it was so great to see them land on the Detroit Tigers 20-4 a couple of nights ago, and then just yesterday beat the Yankees 9-8. The Detroit blowout was the rubber game in a series billed as a match between the “two best clubs in the American League.” But it was at home, and afterwards they had to go to New York to face a Yankee club that has been improving over the last month.
Last night was as good as it gets for the fans of the team that wins the game. At the start, the Sox gained the upper hand, and halfway along they seemed to be on autopilot, with a 7-2 lead and the gritty Jake Peavey on the hill. But the Yankees pulled off a 6-run inning and looked like they had it in the bag. In the top of the 9th they had their all-time great closer Mariano Rivera on the mound, two out, and nobody on. And then eight or nine small things happened that made winners of the Sox and losers of the Yankees. (1) Mike Napoli was the last batter before Rivera could ring up the Save. But with two strikes, Mike came up big, as he has done so often this year. He lined a soft single to right-center. Big kudos there to a gritty guy who was going to make the most of potentially the last AB of the game. (2) The Sox sent in a pinch-runner, one Quintin Berry, fleet of foot. But Berry hasn’t been in the bigs much (97 games over two seasons), and maybe the Yankees didn’t know that. At any rate, the game situation dictated that he wouldn’t steal, because getting thrown out would end the game. (3) Rivera never looked at Berry as he took his lead. Berry thus got a huge jump, and (4) the surprised catcher, Austin Romine, young, anxious, and inexperienced, bounced his throw, which slipped under the glove of Derek Jeter, Yankee shortstop, who covered on the play. (5) Berry got up, saw the ball rolling into the no-man’s-land of short left center, and took off for third. Center fielder Brett Gardner charged over to play the ball, as he was in a better position to make a throw to third. But second baseman Robinson Cano signaled for him not to throw. Berry arrived at third uncontested.
Being at third rather than second makes all kinds of difference. A balk, wild pitch, or passed ball means a run. On most singles, there’s no play at the plate, because with two outs Berry is running as soon as the batter makes contact with the ball. Being at third rather than first is huge, obviously. (6) Rivera left a slider over the middle of the plate to the batter, Stephen Drew, who hit another soft liner to right-center. The Sox had the run and Rivera had his sixth blown save.
The Sox let one of their strong set-up guys, Craig Breslow, pitch the bottom of the ninth, but the Yankees had to go with Joba “The Hut” Chamberlain in the tenth. While the Yankees had gotten back into the game thanks to a couple of weak Sox relief performances, reciprocally Joba might not have been the ideal hurler for a tense, all-or-nothing situation. Jacoby Ellsbury singled, and (7) went to the well again by successfully stealing second off Romine. He thus became a RISP (Runner In Scoring Position), the kind of thing a team is supposed to cash in on if it’s to be successful. Shane Victorino (8) held back a temptation to swing at a Chamberlain third-strike pitch just in time, according to the umps; Joba and other Yankee partisans thought he might have gone too far. On the next pitch Chamberlain threw it up and in, and Victorino fought it off well enough to send it directly to that same spot in shallow right where Drew’s hit had dropped.
Ellsbury, the AL stolen base leader, tested right fielder Ichiro Suzuki’s arm by rounding third at full speed and heading home. Suzuki had good outfield assist numbers early in his career, but the last few have seen a dropoff. (9) His throw last night, had it arrived on the fly, might have nailed Ellsbury. But he bounced it, and Romine muffed the bounce. Relieved a batter later, Chamberlain got an ejection as he was heading for the showers anyway, apparently for expressing disagreement with the arbitrators’ interpretation of Victorino’s swing.
And here’s one more detail, the rest of the story. (10) Koji Uehara, Sox closer, didn’t give the Bombers a whiff of hope, snuffing the last one with a K. This year it’s the Sox, not the Yankees, who have the drop-dead closer. Uehara has the 1.14 ERA, the 0.60 WHIP, the 27 outs since his last earned run. And he wasn’t even on the Red Sox horizon as closer at the beginning of the season. They had acquired Joel Hanrahan from the Pirates to complement the often injured Andrew Bailey, acquired the year before from the A’s. Both of these immense under-performers gave Sox fans reason to worry before they went safely on long-term DL status.
When it’s “your year,” even injuries work in your favor. That’s why I’m liking where this season is going. Who knows where it will end up? But the way the details are sorting themselves out makes me optimistic that, despite the fact that the Sox play 18 of their last 20 games against division rivals, there will still be baseball at the Fens well into October.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.