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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

  Fast Games and Pitchers' Duels

Some people, usually casual fans, find baseball boring. Not enough action, they protest, or the games take so long. Ask them what would make the sports more exciting and they're more likely than not to say they want more hitting. There is action in offense and grandeur in towering home runs. The irony is that high scoring games are also very long, but if your understanding of baseball is limited to hits and runs, it would be hard to sit through a game that lacked those elements.

For me, the most exciting games are the low scoring affairs where the pitchers and fielders have no room for mistakes. There is nothing better—or, increasingly, rarer—than a pitchers' duel. So I was as happy as a clam watching last night's contest between the Sox and the Blue Jays. It lasted only 2 hours 18 minutes, according to the official box score, and involved only three pitchers, one run, and an average of only 12 1/2 pitches thrown per half inning.

Compare that with the other 14 games around the major leagues last night that averaged 3 hours long and more than 8 pitchers used. But enough of the raw numbers.

What was most enjoyable about last night's battle is that both starting pitchers were about as close to perfect as most pitchers ever get. Toronto's Roy Halladay is known as an efficient and fast worker, the antithesis of what Boston's Jon Lester has been so far in his short major league career. Yet Lester was also quick and efficient, perhaps following Halladay's lead, or maybe because manager Terry Francona reportedly suggested to him after Justin Masterson's debut appearance that Lester might take a page from Masterson's book and move things along a bit more than he is used to. It was great to see Lester pitching the way we have long heard he can.

Meanwhile, there were defensive plays aplenty to back up the pitchers, the most memorable being a diving stop by second baseman Dustin Pedroia that saved a run. It was reminiscent of the spectacular play he made late in Clay Buchholz' no-hitter last year, and a sign that the terrific defense we saw from Pedroia last year wasn't a fluke. He epitomizes the term "scrappy," which MLB.com's Ian Browne uses in his game recap and many a Sox fan would agree with.

Of course, I wouldn't be waxing poetic about the game if we had been on the losing end of the 1-0 score. It's more fun to watch your team win a close one than to be left agonizing about why they couldn't do just a little more. That frustration was saved for Jays fans, not to mention Halladay, who was none too happy when center fielder Vernon Wells bobbled Kevin Youkilis' hit that ended up scoring David Ortiz in the bottom of the ninth. (Incidentally, I wasn't there to see exactly Ortiz was on the basepath when Wells fumbled, but I was somewhat surprised the official scorer didn't score an error on the play. It seemed to me an argument could be made for marking Ortiz to third on Youk's hit and to home on an E-8.)

In any event, it was a great win, and as I sit here and write about it, the same teams are in the midst of another tight one, a 1-1 game with pitching not quite as good as lawst night's but still better than you'd expect from Daisuke Matsuzaka and Dustin McGowan, the latter of whom, by the way, is on my fantasy team and did well for me tonight and has now given way to relief that I hope will give it up. I realize how lucky I am to love this game and be able to appreciate it in its many forms, including the lost art of outstanding pitching. So, with the Red Sox threatening with runners on first ande second with one out, I leave you to reflect on your own appreciation of what we have seen these last two games. And if you don't appreciate it, well, all I can say is you don't know what you're missing.


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Saturday, April 12, 2008

  The Battle of Good vs. Evil: Part 1

J.D. Drew homers against Chien-Ming WangOK, so that didn't go exactly as planned. Clay Buchholz was very good, but unfortunately Chien-Ming Wang was better. Each allowed just one run, but Wang was more efficient with his pitches and turned in a complete game. Buchholz gave way to a string of relievers who, well, didn't do as good a job as he did (see: Timlin, Mike). Hideki Okajima did an admirable job trying to get the Sox out of the situation Timlin had placed them in, but he did allow one inherited runner to score on a sacrifice fly. Beazer and I scratched our heads over why Okie didn't come out for the eighth inning. Javier Lopez acquitted himself well before David Aardsma gave up the game's final run in the ninth inning.

The hitting was anemic, to say the least. Big Papi not only continues to hit below the Mendoza line, he's hitting below Mendoza's knees — .077 after going 0-for-3 last night. The offensive bright spot continues to be J.D. Drew, who had the only Sox run with his third home run of the season. His average stands at .429 with eight RBI. Of course he got off to a good start last year, but not that good: .342 with one homer and seven RBI after the same number of games.

It rained for more than half the game, but we were under cover (grandstand section 26) so we didn't mind. Today's game looks like it won't be a wash-out after all, with relatively warm temps and only about a 40% chance of showers. So I guess I'll go. Look for me on TV. I'll be the one cheering with a bunch or people around me.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

  If All Goes According to Plan, I Will Be at All Three Games This Weekend

The wild card factor here is the weather. I just got tickets for tonight's Red Sox vs. Yankees game from a co-worker with seasons tickets who is sick and can't go. My good friend and sistah Beazer has tickets for tomorrow afternoon's and Sunday night's games.

If the rain that is being forecasted (70-80% chance of precipitation through the evening) holds off long enough, Beazer and I will see tonight's game. Tomorrow afternoon's forecast looks even worse, and frankly neither of us wants to hang around for what almost certainly will be a rain-out. So we're both going to stay home and hope for a postponement to Sunday afternoon, at which time we'll see a day-night doubleheader.

That's my plan. Now it's up to Mother Nature not to screw it up.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

  Water under the Bridge

I can scarcely find words to express my thoughts about the ceremonial first pitch preceding today's Red Sox home opener. But this being a blog, I'll try.

World Series bannersLet's start by saying that the pre-game ceremonies—from music by the Boston Pops and the unfurling of banners to delivery and presentation of championship rings—was a slightly toned-down version of the ceremonies that marked opening day 2005. The most notable difference was the absence of Red Sox stars spanning the generations. It was a comfortable ceremony, one to which we seem to have grown accustomed, in a good way. Yeah, this is cool. Let's do it again. And again and again. It will never be as intense, as cathartic, as what followed the 2004 victory, but that's good too. Despite the inane prognostications of people way too self-important for their own good, we Red Sox fans haven't been dealt some existential blow from which we can never recover. We used to be devoted followers of a losing team; now we're devoted followers of a winning team. No one amongst us—NO ONE—wants to go back.

What I didn't realize, though, was how much unfinished business there still was after 2004. Up until today, it had felt like that victory, with all the drama of the unprecedented ALCS comeback and ease of the World Series sweep, erased all the agony of seasons past, like we were at last free to do what other teams' fans do, look forward to what our club can do next rather than back at what they couldn't do before.

Apparently I was wrong. There was one wound that still festered, at least for one person, and probably for all the rest of us, though we probably didn't realize it. So as I sat in front of the television at 2:00 this afternoon listening to Carl Beane Joe Castiglione announce that the ceremonial first pitch would be thrown by Bill Buckner, it was as if I was watching the last piece of a puzzle fall into place, a piece no one even realized was missing until it was there. THIS was last remaining loose end.

Buckner baseball cardBuckner—who ironically wore the same number as a Red Sox player that was worn by the "goat" of a prior Red Sox World Series loss, Johnny Pesky—was introduced as a player who amassed Hall of Fame numbers during his 21 year major league career, one without whom the Red Sox would not have won the American League pennant in 1986. That characterization is not an understatement. A career .289 hitter, the 15-year veteran came to Boston in 1984 and proceeded to hit double digit home runs in his first three seasons here and had an impressive .990 fielding percentage at first base for the Sox. He was also a stabilizing influence on a team that included several young players. So respected was he that John McNamara decided to leave him in the game that night in New York—when he should have been on the bench with an injured ankle—because he wanted Buckner to be on the field to savor victory.

I was thinking about all of that when I saw and heard on TV the thunderous, prolonged, and unanimous ovation given to Buckner by the fans in attendance before today's game. They must have known, like all of us know if we're honest, that we overreacted back in 1986. Seriously. The Sox didn't lose that year's World Series because of Bill Buckner. They lost because of many people and many failures, not only before that most memorable play at first but in the entire next game, in which Boston had a chance to reduce Buckner's game six error (and Evans' error, and Gedman's error, and Clemens' giving up a two-run lead, and Schiraldi's giving up a one-run lead, and Stanley's wild pitch, and of course manager McNamara's sentimental decision) to a mere footnote in what would otherwise have been a tremendous series for the Sox. They lost because the Mets played better. The ensuing years of piling on Buckner as if he alone held victory in his hands and let it slip away like sand always was ridiculous.

Frankly, I'm surprised Buckner agreed to come back. He said back in 2004 that he didn't think he'd ever set foot inside Fenway Park again, and who could have blamed him if he had stayed away? After the way some of the fans held a grudge, he would have been justified in saying, with bitterness or without, "good riddance" to the lot of us. I would be very surprised if he didn't fear in the back of his mind, or perhaps even in the front of it, that the announcement of his name might elicit a chorus of boos from which he would have no escape.

Buckner at Fenway 2007So when the boos didn't come, when he was greeted warmly and genuinely and with enthusiasm and affection, Buckner wiped away a few tears. The fans had an opportunity to collectively make things right with Buckner, and he seemed happy to accept the gesture. Have you ever had a falling out with a family member or best friend, one that lasted many years? It becomes tiring, and tired. Eventually, you just have to fix it and move on.

Which seems to be what happened this afternoon at Fenway Park. I can picture sitting at a ball game a couple months or a few years down the road and, at the point when that game's occupant of Fenway's Legends Suite is introduced, being happy to see that the guest that day is Bill Buckner. I'm sure he'll never forget how shabbily he was treated by some of the faithful, just like we'll never forget that error. But there's an understanding between us now. We have all come to terms with the ugly past and have mutually decided that it doesn't matter any more.

It feels good.

UPDATE: Here is the full transcript of Joe Castiglione's introduction of Bill Buckner:

Now it's time to welcome the star who will throw our ceremonial first pitch on this day that we honor champions. And how happy we are that amidst this celebration and joy, this Red Sox alumnus has come back to join us. He amassed Hall of Fame caliber credentials in his 21 year major league career, and the Red Sox would never have won the 1986 American League pennant without him. Won't you please welcome back to Boston and let him know that he is welcome always. Number 6 — Bill Buckner.

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The new Red Sox World Champion ring has been revealed, and once again it's a beauty.

Reminiscent of the 2004 ring, it features the team colors in gemstones: a ruby logo on a diamond of diamonds on a background of sapphires. But this time, instead of the stylized "B", the logo used is the two red socks. Like the '04 ring, this one is eminently wearable, as demonstrated when Mayor Tom Menino modeled both a tthe unveiling earlier today.

One person who wears his World Series ring every day is Fenway Park's public address announcer, Carl Beane, who comes to my office occasionally to have lunch with his wife, who also works here. I can't wait to see his new ring—and try it on.


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Thursday, April 03, 2008

  That's Why We Chant YOOOOOUK!

Not only was it news at MLB.com, the Boston Herald, Providence Journal, Washington Post, and countless other sports pages around the country, but it was also this morning's question in a daily e-mail trivia game I play. The question: "Boston Red Sox player Kevin Youkilis just set a Major League Baseball record for what?" The answer: Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis is baseball's new all-time leader in errorless games played at first base. Succinctly documented on SI.com:

Kevin Youkilis set the major league record for consecutive errorless games by a first baseman, playing his 194th consecutive mistake-free game at first to break Steve Garvey's record. The A's gave first base to Youkilis in appreciation, and the ball used on his final putout was sent to the Hall of Fame.

What the articles don't mention is that the record is actually for consecutive errorless regular season games. Alert fans may recall that Youkilis committed an error in Game 4 of last year's American League Championship Series against Cleveland. No matter. It's still a remarkable accomplishment which is unlikely to be equalled any time soon, especially if the streak continues awhile longer.

And as the Herald article notes, there is some incentive for Youkilis to remain perfect awhile longer: He stands just 72 errorless defensive chances shy of Stuffy McInnis. Youk could tie that record with six more games like last night's, in which he was credited with a dozen chances.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

  Drive-By Posting: Sox @ A's

Jon Lester threw about 60 pitches through the first four innings of today's game in Oakland. At that pace, he'll get into the seventh inning before he hits 100 pitches. That's a good sign coming from a guy whose downside in his young major league career has been falling behind the batters, high pitch counts, and short outings. I was beginning to worry that we've seen what we're going to see of Lester. Perhaps my judgment was premature, she said hopefully.


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