When I first moved to Connecticut in 1999, you could still walk up to a Red Sox game without a ticket for a weekday game and have no problem purchasing a seat. The Red Sox had made the playoffs in 1998, but lost in four games to Cleveland in the American League Division Series. Fenway Park appeared more like an aging relic than a classic antique, the Yankees had won two of the three previous World Series and the Sox were relying on guys like Mark Portugal, Pat Rapp and Brian Rose in the rotation. Red Sox Nation was fanatical, but not quite yet obsessive.
I think that all changed in the fall of 1999, when the Red Sox and Yankees met in the ALCS, the first time they ever met in the postseason. I got my first taste of the rivalry in Game 1 at Yankee Stadium, a game Bernie Williams won with a home run in the 10th inning. The Yankees would take the series in five games and capture another World Series. The arrogance of Yankees fans grew more pronounced; Red Sox fans become more obsessed with winning a World Series and disliking their enemy.
Anyway, through the twists and turns since then, the rivalry remains heated, if not quite what it was from 1999-2005. But a Yankees-Red Sox game at Fenway remains one of the most intense of any baseball season, one of those games when the players seem a little more focused, the fans a little more revved up and the atmosphere a little more like October. Especially when the teams are tied for first place.
Some thoughts that popped into my head as I watched Sunday night’s tilt …
Josh Beckett starts for Boston and he’s been superb in three starts against New York this year -- in 21 innings, he’s allowed just 10 hits and two runs. He immediately shows what’s made him one of the best pitchers in the majors, dropping a mean 1-2 curveball on Brett Gardner that nicks the upper-right corner of the plate. Beckett entered the start tied with Justin Verlander for the lowest batting average allowed among major league starters at .187, third in lowest on-base percentage and first in lowest slugging percentage. He’s been Cy Young-worthy in results, although the fact remains that he’s pitched 37 fewer innings than Jered Weaver and 49 fewer than Verlander. That leaves him out of the running for now.
Anyway, Beckett has lost a tick or two off the fastball from his heyday, so he throws it far less often, about 50 percent of the time this season compared to nearly 70 percent earlier in his career. I’m not sure he’s as much fun to watch as he was back then, when he relied on good old-fashioned Texas cockiness as much as anything, but he’s certainly developed into more of a thinking man’s pitcher in 2011. He’s also one of the slowest workers in baseball, just one of the reasons Yankees-Red Sox games never finish under three hours and often challenge the four-hour mark.
Freddy Garcia walks Kevin Youkilis to lead off the inning. David Ortiz grounds a single to right. Carl Crawford bounces a one-hopper off the plate that lands over the outstretched glove of Garcia for an infield single. With the way Beckett has handled the Yankees, this could be the moment of truth for Garcia. Josh Reddick steps in for Boston, hitting .343/.391/.567 in 151 plate appearances, not bad for a guy who essentially began spring training fifth on the depth chart in right field, behind J.D. Drew, Mike Cameron, Darnell McDonald and Ryan Kalish.
Garcia throws curve after curve, hitting the low outside corner on four pitches, then comes inside with another curve that Reddick swings through for strike three. Jason Varitek pops out to Jeter in shallow left and it looks as if Garcia may escape the jam, but he leaves a fastball over the plate that Scutaro grounds into right to score Youkilis. Big Papi holds. (He may be a little slimmer this season, but he’s not any faster.) MVP candidate Jacoby Ellsbury misses a curve, fouls off another curve, takes a changeup in the dirt and then fists another curve to left. Garcia escapes with just one run, but he had to throw 34 pitches in the inning.
Back in February, a New York columnist had written that the Yankees’ signing of Garcia and Bartolo Colon was evidence of “how thin the talent level in baseball has become.” Of 108 qualified starters, Garcia entered the game ranked 31st in ERA. He may not be quite THAT good -- he ranked 63rd in OPS allowed -- but he’s doing pretty good for a guy who was supposed to be a symbol of bad baseball. He throws strikes, keeps the ball in the park (Orel Hershiser just said he hasn’t allowed a home run 61 innings) and while he rarely challenges hitters with his high 88-mph heat, he keeps them off-balance with all those curves and changeups. It takes what we’ll call veteran moxie to throw so many off-speed pitches. Former teammate Jamie Moyer would be proud.
Eduardo Nunez just hit a routine fly ball to left-center that clears the Green Monster.
Eric Chavez digs in with two on, two outs and a 3-2 count. The Fenway crowd is rocking now, standing up. How does that not pump up a pitcher? Beckett stares at Varitek for his 100th pitch of the night. Chavez fouls back a fastball. Is ESPN ramping up the crowd noise? (I think the lesson: Red Sox fans, at least, are still into the rivalry. Or they’re just delirious with a combo of heat exhaustion and warm beer.) Beckett throws an absolute nasty 3-2 hammer. Strike three.
Garcia is out after 96 pitches, with Boone Logan in to face Ortiz, Crawford and Reddick. With all the lefty hitters in the Red Sox lineup, Logan is going to be expected to get some big outs if these clubs meet in the postseason. He walks Ortiz and Crawford singles. He gets Reddick on a fly to left. Something to think about if a similar situation arises down the road: I know why Red Sox manager Terry Francona didn’t hit for Reddick there, since it’s only the sixth inning and you want him later for David Robertson and Mariano Rivera, but he has very little major league experience against left-handers; you don’t want to pinch-hit, since Joe Girardi will just bring in a right-hander, but why not have Reddick bunt?
Cory Wade comes on for the Yankees. Where do they find these guys? Wade has a 1.86 ERA in 19 innings. Give credit to the Yankees' scouting department. Varitek fouls out (swinging on a 3-0 pitch) and Scutaro reaches on an infield single to load the bases once again for Ellsbury. Wade falls behind with three balls, throws a fastball at the knees, a changeup that Ellsbury fouls back, an 89-mph fastball that Ellsbury fouls off and would most definitely like back, and then a changeup that Ellsbury lofts to left. Ellsbury had been 6-for-12 with the bases loaded before tonight and .360 with runners in scoring position, but that’s twice he’s left the bases loaded. (That’s it, he’s no MVP candidate!)
(Red Sox fans: SARCASM IN PLAY. Relax. I love Jacoby.)
Yeah, we’ve passed the three-hour mark. Yankees-Red Sox baseball, the slowest show on Earth.
Speak of the devil, Bobby Valentine just goes on an excellent rant about Josh Beckett taking so much time between pitches -- up to 30, 35 seconds -- when the rulebook says the pitcher has 12 seconds to deliver the ball once the batter is ready. Bobby V says baseball needs to do a better job enforcing the rulebook. Needless to say, I agree. (I can’t wait for those Josh Beckett starts in the postseason; slow delivery PLUS extra commercial time!)
With two outs, Brett Gardner homers off Matt Albers to give the Yankees a 2-1 lead. It’s only the third homer Albers has allowed in 46 2/3 innings this season. New York’s two homers didn’t clear much more than 600 feet combined.
Dan Wheeler strikes out the side for the Red Sox. We’ve reached the David Robertson/Mariano Rivera stage for the Yankees. The two have combined to allow just 16 runs and just one home run in 86 innings. Robertson can be wild but gets out of jams with his strikeout rate of 14.0 per nine innings. Are they the best eighth/ninth combo in the majors? Hmm, sounds like a future SweetSpot post. Robertson gives up a single to Crawford, throws two wild pitches, but gets Varitek to pop out to third. Another missed opportunity for the Red Sox.
Four hours! Rivera in to close it out. He’s actually blown four saves so, no, I don’t necessarily think Robertson-Rivera has been baseball’s best late-inning duo.
Rivera throws 2-2 meatball that Marco Scutaro drills off the Monster for a leadoff double. Ellsbury bunts! But he’s out! Ugh. So the Red Sox are playing for extra innings. Can you say five hours? (Personally, I’d have Ellsbury hit away; he has, after all, been one of the best hitters in the league. Plus, Rivera gets so many infield popups and shallow flies.)
OK, Pedroia hits a sac fly. Game tied. Adrian Gonzalez grounds out. Extra innings.
Valentine and Hershiser just criticized Eduardo Nunez for not covering third on Ellsbury’s bunt (which wasn’t very good, fielded easily by Rivera, who turned to third before getting the out at first). But with Ellsbury’s speed, doesn’t the third baseman have to play in close? I know Rivera is still a great fielder, but expecting him to cover the entire third-base line with a fast hitter is asking a lot. And it isn’t fair to ask where Jeter should have been on the play? A lot of teams run a wheel play in that situation, where the shortstop covers third base. Hey, I’m not saying Valentine and Hershiser were wrong, just that there was some logic to Nunez playing in close.
The bigger story: Mariano Rivera only throws nine pitches … but doesn’t come back for the 10th. The Yankees don’t play on Monday. This is what happens when winning the division title doesn’t actually mean anything. Instead, we get Phil Hughes.
And the Red Sox win in about 32 seconds. Youkilis flies out. Papi doubles, Crawford is intentionally walked and Reddick is allowed to swing away instead of bunt and drills a hit into the left-field corner. Who knows, maybe he can’t bunt. Heck, considering the way he’s hitting, he may never bunt again. And my shock level that Phil Hughes blew this game: zero percent.
Serves the Yankees right for pulling their closer after nine pitches.
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