Saturday, October 13, 2007
Carmona's job: Make Boston's hitters uncomfortable
By Howard Bryant
BOSTON -- The Boston Red Sox began the American League Championship Series with victories over the Cleveland Indians in the two most important categories. The first was on the scoreboard, and the second was in the psychological trenches where playoff baseball games are often won and lost.
Fausto Carmona, awaiting his chance to pitch in Game 2 on Saturday night, had to notice that Red Sox hitters began to impose their will on his team and starter C.C. Sabathia from the beginning of Friday's 10-3 Boston win. While Josh Beckett buckled the knees of Cleveland hitters with curveballs and changeups in between beating them with fastballs, Sabathia pitched as if the arsenal that produced 19 wins and a potential Cy Young Award this season was not good enough to beat the combination of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz.
Ortiz and Ramirez destroyed the Indians. They were not retired on the evening, combining to reach base 10 of 10 times. Ortiz went 2-for-2 with two walks, two runs scored and was hit by a pitch. Ramirez went 2-for-2 with two runs, three walks and three RBIs. They enjoyed the kind of night that great hitters live for. But worse than their success was the ease in which they conducted their business. Their uniforms were clean, their attitudes soaring. They styled.
For Carmona, his job is clear. Not only must he keep the Indians from falling into an 0-2 hole, but he also must give Red Sox hitters an attitude adjustment.
During this postseason, which began with the Red Sox crushing the Angels in three straight, Ortiz has reached base safely in 16 of 18 plate appearances in four games. Ramirez, meanwhile, has reached base safely in 13 of 18 plate appearances. Since Game 5 of the 2003 ALCS against the Yankees, Ortiz is hitting 39-for-90 in the postseason.
That's a .433 average, if you're scoring at home.
The question for Carmona, who won 19 games this season and was brilliant in his first postseason start in last week's division series against the Yankees, is what he's going to do about it. If Carmona is going to allow the Red Sox's 2-3-4 hitters to go 6-for-8 with seven runs scored, looking as comfortable in a battle to advance to the World Series as taking batting practice in March, the formidable Indians will be making a quick exit from this tournament.
If not, and he steps on the mound Saturday night with the attitude of a Bob Gibson, Dave Stewart, Jack Morris or even his Game 2 rival Curt Schilling -- all playoff performers with a reputation for stopping opponents' momentum -- the Indians have a chance to leave Boston happily with a split.
"I've never seen anything like it," Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell said. "They're unbelievable. They're aggressive. They're patient. They're picking their spots. It's really special. Manny was 0-2 twice and draws a walk. They're just putting together tremendous at-bats. It's normal for other pitchers to not want them to beat you, but for them to get on base 10 times is ridiculous."
|Fausto Carmona held the Yankees to one run on three hits over nine innings in ALDS Game 2.|
That Ortiz is continuing his postseason march and Ramirez has found his deadly stroke is not surprising. The surprising part was that Sabathia, an imposing giant on the mound, did not challenge the vaunted Red Sox lineup or control the game as an ace should.
Sabathia did not move the feet of the Sox hitters. He did not change their eye level. He didn't pound them inside, even though he possesses an overpowering fastball. He did not make them fear the location of his fastball. He didn't give the hitters something to think about. Instead, he stayed away to right-handed hitters for most of the night and didn't trust himself to beat Ortiz inside, even though Sabathia can be deadly on left-handed hitters.
After the game, Sabathia said he wasn't aggressive enough with the Red Sox's lineup, an understatement considering the impunity with which Boston hitters were allowed to stand in the batter's box. Sabathia, intimidating in size but not in presence or approach Friday, pitched as if he were fearful of contact. He did not attack the strike zone or Red Sox hitters, preferring to stay away from the heart of the order.
"You know, when you're talking about a team like Boston, they're going to make you come in," Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "They're going to make you work for it. They're not going to chase. You've got to prove that you can be in the zone before they even think about expanding a little bit. It was just one of those nights where C.C. just wasn't able to get on track."
Sabathia said he did not want to throw only fastballs, for that would be playing to the Red Sox's advantage. He said he needed to mix things up.
Of course, his lack of variety was precisely the problem. He has a 97-mph fastball, and he didn't use it. He certainly did not use it inside to the biggest hitters in the Sox's lineup.
Not that comfort is a new thing to hitters during this era of offense. That pitchers cannot and won't pitch effectively is an old lament but with real consequences.
Carmona does not have to throw at either hitter, but he does need to move them off the plate, make them less comfortable. Ortiz and Ramirez laughed their way around the bases Friday.
"We are professional hitters," Ortiz said. "We know what we're doing. I don't think it's new to see what me and Manny are doing. We keep it simple."
They made facing Sabathia look easy, mostly because Sabathia did not fight them back with his stuff. It is one thing to be a finesse pitcher who can't pitch inside because he cannot throw the ball by a hitter. Sabathia isn't in that category. He's a power guy who flinched in this first confrontation.
With one out in the first, Sabathia got ahead of Ortiz 0-2, fastballs away, but wouldn't come inside and Ortiz lined a fastball away for a single.
In the third, he threw two great fastballs to start off Ramirez, both for strikes. The second, a 96-mph cut fastball, dove low and across the plate at the knees.
Ahead in the count, Sabathia abandoned his fastball again, bounced two breaking balls and missed low with two sliders. Ramirez walked without Sabathia challenging him again with a fastball. By the end of the inning, a 1-1 game was 5-1, Boston.
At that moment, two conclusions seemed apparent. Either Sabathia stopped believing in his stuff on this night, or he allowed his past history -- Ortiz entered the game hitting .278 with a home run while Ramirez wore him out at a .571 clip -- to take him out of his game.
On Saturday, Carmona needs to take the edge back. Thus far in October, Ortiz and Ramirez have been dancing around the bases. Carmona will be the one to decide if the music stops.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.
You know, when you're talking about a team like Boston, they're going to make you come in. They're to make you work for it. They're not going to chase. You've got to prove that you can be in the zone before they even think about expanding a little bit.
--Indians manager Eric Wedge