Monday, September 27, 2010

The Slow, Agonizing, Lucky Death of the Red Sox

It finally happened: the 2010 Red Sox are dead and buried.

There's not much triumph in this one. After a season of devastating injuries, Francona had his team playing inspired baseball. Their two biggest offensive threats were gone, but they managed to be competitive in baseball's best division, against two excellent teams. It's an amazing feat, and without last night's come-from-behind win, they'd have a puncher's chance of catching the Yanks for the wild card.

Here's how the situation would look if last night had gone their way:

Down 4 games in the loss column with 6 to play. If Boston gained only a single game between now and Thursday, they'd have a chance to sweep the Yanks at home and force a one-game playoff.

Here's how hit looks now:

Down 6 games in the loss column with 6 to play. One Yankee victory, or one Boston loss, and it's all over.

It's a drastic difference, and the Yanks are lucky that the latter scenario came to pass. After an ugly September in which playoff bound teams won 7 and lost only 3 against the Bombers, the Boston series started with two straight losses. Anxiety had long since set in, and it reached a fever pitch in the 7th inning last night when the Sox held a 1-0 lead. A choke job of epic proportion loomed in everyone's mind, and then A-Rod continued to cement his new reputation as a pressure player with a 2-run go-ahead homer. That lasted until Mariano entered in the ninth and blew the save. Then Papelbon entered, and was squeezed by the umpire to an unbelievable extent. If I was a Boston fan, I'd be furious. He seemed to strike out batter after batter, only to watch the man in black stand up solemnly, and with motionless hands refuse to recognize the effort.

That resulted in the tying run on a Robbie Cano single, but Jorge Posada struck out with the bases loaded and one down, blowing an opportunity to win the game with a sacrifice fly. His particular failure is part of a recurring theme with the 'Core Four.' Mariano, Jorge, Jeter, and Pettitte are showing their age. Pettitte's groin betrayed him in the summer, and it's anyone's guess whether he can regain his form in time for the playoffs. Despite a recent hot streak, Jeter is having his worst year as a professional. Jorge is struggling at the plate, and may be the least effective defensive catcher in the entire league- four nearly-uncontested stolen bases helped the Sox take the lead in the ninth. Mariano is the steadiest of the bunch, but even he has seen his ERA jump half a run in September, owing to two blown saves.

The Yankees are an old team. Within the framework of the last decade, we're a team on the decline. Within the framework of the season, we're a team on the decline. Contrast that with the Twins and the Rays, and we have the look of an aging, crafty boxer whose body is betraying him in the late rounds.

Finally, in the 11th, we rallied against Okajima and won with a bases-loaded walk. Even my mother recognized the nature of the win with her morning g-chat message:

Mom: You're up early after that cheap win for the Yankees! Thank God!

I'm happy for the postseason berth, and I understand that anything can happen. But I also understand we're lucky to be in this position, and it will certainly be the last year we can rely on the old guard to lead the way.

How, I'm wondering, can we possibly beat the Twins? How can we possibly beat the Rays? How much duct tape and glue can does it take to withstand teams that look, for all the world, like superior forces? Last year felt like destiny, and though I fretted and writhed, I never doubted the World Series would be ours. This year, winning a ring seems more like a long shot, like rolling two straight 1's on a six-sided dice. I don't doubt our desire, but I doubt our ability.

Then again, we still have the best offense in the game. Maybe that'll be enough. Postseasons past have taught us that no, it probably won't do the trick- great pitching will decide which teams make the World Series and which lose by scores like 5-2 over and over until elimination. But maybe Tex and A-Rod and Robinson will all be in the groove, and maybe Swish and Granderson will join them. Maybe CC will pitch a gem, and we'll get good AJ and an inspired Andy.

Anything's possible. We're at the end of an era. The transitional tools are in place (Tex, A-Rod, Robbie, Swish, Granderson, Hughes, CC), but there are future vacancies where now the veterans stand. It might be our last chance to trot out a playoff-caliber team with the current crop. 1995 was a long time ago, and the players who joined us then are holding on for dear life. The baseball season is long, and favors youth over experience. But pressure favors experience over youth.

It'll be an interesting playoff run, to be sure. I'm not optimistic that it will be a long one, but we've all seen stranger things. And now that we can put the Boston anxiety to rest, courtesy of a strange, desperate win, maybe we can right ourselves and do some damage in October.


Even if that doesn't come to pass, one thing is worth remembering: we're not the Mariners. Throughout the season, my friend Spike has sent me random messages bemoaning the awful offensive production of his team. By now you've all probably seen the stats; the Ms are on pace to score the fewest runs in a full season of any team since the early 1970s. They really, really, really stink. There was a lot of optimism in the pacific northwest when the season began, but the only real impact the Mariners can have now is possibly costing Felix Hernandez the Cy Young with their miserable production.

Here's one excellent gem from Spike. Keep in mind that the complaints usually come out of nowhere, not in the course of a normal baseball conversation. I picture Spike trying to live a normal life, trying not to think about his team, but the overwhelming absurdity of their failure just overwhelms him in down moments, and he's forced to curse the gods. This one happened on Friday:


the yankees OBP is 15 points higer than the mariners SLG
we have three players on our team with OPS over .685
not three qualified players
three players with ABs
we have three guys with at leas 85 PA's and OPS+ under 35
you have had 15 players get PA's who would be in the M's top 3 qualified hitters by OPS+
which adjusts for ballpark
Lance Berkman would be our second best qualified hitter
he has 1 home run for you
your 10th highest SLG would be the mariners highest qualified SLG
Juan Miranda would have the fourth highest OPS on the Mariners
not qualified
of anyone who came to bat
Javy vazquez would be 6th
on the whole team
125.222.182 that's chris woodward's slash line this year
and it isn't the worst on our team
you have had 436 more base runners than we have
and only 12 more double plays
your 8th highest walk total would be our second highest
that's just remarkable
1 player on our team has more walks than Granderson
ARod has 1 more RBI than our top 2 RBI guys combined
Nick Swisher has as many HR's as our top two HR hitters
you have 6 guys with 200 TB's... we have 1

Actually, come to think of it, I haven't heard from Spike since that night...I'm just going to assume he finally cracked, decided Ichiro was too beautiful for the Mariners, and set out to kidnap him and start his own team on the Phillippines. Either that, or he's weeping on the doorstep of Felix Hernandez's house, ignoring the approaching sirens, screaming out "WILL YOU BE MY FATHER?!"

Time to go. Yankee magic number is a big fat one, and we can clinch today. And believe it or not, the AL East is not a lost cause yet. The Rays have shown a weird tendency to let up when their foot is on our throats this season, so let's hope they drop two to the Orioles. G'day.

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