Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Red Sox Welcome Dice-K


Looks like I'll be able to keep wearing my #18 Sox jersey to Fenway this season, sweet!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Local Sports Scene

Shifting our attention to the local Reading sports scene today ...

In a heated battle against the Reading Fire Department, the Silva Brothers softball team took Game 1 of the best-of-five series last night, fending off a late rally for the 14-9 victory.

Though most teams take a friendly approach to Division 4 games, it’s painfully obvious there is no love lost between these two opponents once they take the field. Having faced each other in the playoff numerous times over the years, Silva Brothers and the RFD approach every game against each other as if it’s Game 7 of the World Series.

After dropping two of three games against the RFD during the regular season, Silva Brothers claimed sole possession of second place, and home team advantage, over their rivals in the final game of the season. As the 2 and 3 seeds in the playoffs, these teams will meet in a Round 1 rematch of last year’s Finals.

The matchup is by far the Red Sox – Yankees of the Reading Men’s Softball League. But unlike the recent 5-game flop the Sox performed at the hands of the Yankees, the good guys prospered this time around.

Silva Brothers jumped out to an early lead, plating 3 two-out runs in their first at-bat. Several extended rallies provided a 9 run lead, thanks in part to two home runs from Bobby Eaton. Eaton blasted shots deep into the night of the cavernous right field, allowing him plenty of time to round the bases.

Pitchers Chuck Mottola and Eaton tag-teamed a potent RFD lineup, limiting them to only a handful of runs through the first 4 innings. It wasn’t until the 5th and 6th innings that the RFD squad began to line the ball into the gaps and plate runs, pulling within 4 with only two innings left to play.

But the Silva Brothers defense held strong. Eaton made a run-saving, not to mention life-saving, snag of a line drive up the middle that nearly took off his head. Johnny Douglass, or Johnny One More to his teammates, tracked down a long fly ball that traveled beyond the light poles in right field.

Chris D’Ambrosio, manning the right-center position in the outfield, made a spectacular inning-ending double play with an outfield assist to help squash a mounting RFD rally. With a runner on second and one out, D’Ambrosio camped under a high pop fly and launched a strike to third baseman Charlie Tool to nail the tagging runner.

The first scary moment of the game came when catcher Bobby Kamina was struck above his left eye by a foul ball. The blow sent Kamina to the ground for a few minutes and opened a gash along his eyebrow. He was able to walk from the field on his own, but left the game after the incident, replaced by his son Jack.

Another hushed silence occurred when One More was sent tumbling past first base trying to beat out an infield hit. The covering second baseman slipped while covering and ended up laying across the bag, cutting One More’s legs out from underneath him and driving his shoulder into the ground when he landed. Though banged and bruised up, One More was able to take his position the next inning.

As is usually the case with games between these teams, this contest wasn’t without its controversy. An RFD batter had harsh words for Silva Brothers first baseman Dave Salomon that almost erupted into a larger melee. The runner overran first base on an infield hit, and Salomon, not receiving a Time Out call from the umpires, gave him an insurance tag after the play to make sure he hadn’t made an attempt at second base. The RFD runner took offense, but Salomon quickly diffused the situation and retaliated with his bat, driving in a run and scoring in the bottom half of the inning.

That same RFD player received a warning from the home plate umpire in later innings, as well. As the pitcher, he questioned a Ball call, only to have the home plate umpire stride out to the mound and warn the player about his comments. No further incident occurred in the game.

Game 2 is scheduled for Thursday evening at 6:30, and is sure to bring more excitement and highlight-reel action to the field. The Silva Brothers look to enjoy the return of several regular-season stars unable to make the first game, including starting shortstop Erik Stortz and hobbled power-hitting first baseman Paul Schille.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Red Sox Nation, Meet Dustin Pedroia

Pay close attention to the game tonight, Red Sox Nation. We just may be witnessing the ushering in of a new era in Boston Baseball.

Tonight for their series-opening game against the Angels in Anaheim, the Red Sox will be joined by AAA-callup Dustin Pedroia. This 24-year old infielder has been tearing up Boston’s minor league system since being drafted out of Arizona State in 2004, and his arrival in the bigs rivals that of Hanley Ramirez before he was shipped off to Florida.

I’m well aware that the casual fan has probably never heard of Pedroia, as following the minor leagues isn’t always easy to do. Players get shifted from A to AA to AAA so often, its amazing these teams even have time to sew player names on the backs of the jerseys. I myself only know of Pedroia thanks to my time spent lurking on the Sons of Sam Horn website (www.sonsofsamhorn.com), a virtual playground for fan geeks and aspiring GM wannabes.

But let me assure you, the word on this guy is a good one. Though not much of a physical presence on the field, standing only 5’8” and 180 lbs, Pedroia has impressed scouts and fans alike with his keen baseball instincts that eliminate an otherwise average range. Skilled at both shortstop and second base, Pedroia uses athletic footwork and a strong arm to make plays that might otherwise sneak by your average major league infielder.

Think David Eckstein, only better. Hopefully less annoying, too.

Pedroia’s lack of power at the plate is fully compensated by his high on base percentage, a statistic that most GMs drool over in this day and age. Speculation abounds, but rumors are flying that Pedroia might replace Coco Crisp and Kevin Youkilis atop the Sox order if all work out according to plan.

There’s good reason to get excited to watch this guy play besides his obvious talent. Pedroia is a product of the Red Sox Farm System, a mechanism Theo Epstein has pushed to build up since the lean years of Dan Duquette diminished the prospect ranks. 2006 has seen many of these types of players make debuts in the bigs, including Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, Craig Hansen, and Kevin Youkilis, to name a few. All have made an impact on the team at some point or another, and there’s little doubt that Pedroia will do the same.

This just may be what the Sox need to kick-start the final two-month sprint to the playoffs. After a rough month of ballgames that saw them get swept by New York and Kansas City, Boston needs an injection of something to get them going. This young talent may provide just that.

Some might view it as the front office giving up on the season, giving playing time to a rookie since the season is lost. But with Gonzalez more than likely landing on the DL with a back strain, and Loretta being shopped around as trade bait, it’s the perfect time to bring up yet another future star and let him get a feel for the bigs.

Papelbon got his taste at the end of last season, and came into this year roaring like a thousand lions. The guy was simply unhittable for the majority of the season. Who’s to say the same formula won’t work for Pedroia? Who wouldn’t want a young, cheap slick-fielding on base machine up the middle next season?

A new era of Red Sox baseball. Young, home grown talent.

So sit back and enjoy the show, Sox fans. We’re about to get treated to the next chapter in Theo’s grand plan.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Dog Days Indeed

After two full weeks of avoiding having to write about the Red Sox, I’m sitting back down in front of this computer to hack away at my thoughts and ruminations about the season that has seemingly come to a crashing end over the weekend.

At the hands of the Yankees, nonetheless.

The Baseball Gods wouldn’t have had it any other way, though. Of course the Sox were going to sputter at the last minute. Of course our meager 3-game lead wasn’t going to hold up through August and September. Of course the Yankees would surge back into the race and eventually overtake the faltering Sox. You lay out that generic script for any Boston fan, and they’d have a hard time telling you which year it occurred, as it seems to happen continuously.

But an eerie calm overcame me as I watched Boston’s bullpen blow another lead in last night’s 8-5 loss, condemning the Sox to a nearly insurmountable 5.5-game deficit in the AL East, 4 games back in the Wild Card. Sure, I was upset, as any fan must be after losing 4 straight to our archrivals. But as in years past, when the Sox had the talent and ability to go far, I didn’t feel as if this team was failing to meet expectations or underachieving in any way.

For the first time in a while, I was cutting them some slack.

Sure, its infuriating to watch our bullpen blow lead after lead after lead, and have a young Ace in the rotation consistently serve up gopher balls. I forced myself to take a step back, however, and re-realize the big picture:

This team has been overachieving all season. Its just caught up to them now is all.

Think about it. The Sox started the year with a lot of new faces, including a completely new infield. Youkilis was even playing out of position. Our pitching staff had been overhauled, introducing a new face to the starting rotation (Beckett) and saying goodbye to an old friend (Arroyo). The bullpen shuffled new guys in and out in the offseason, retaining only a few of the veterans from years past.

No one really expected much from the Sox in the preseason. Lots of speculation about learning a new environment, new teammates and the such flew around. With the Yankees making some high-profile additions to their club, it was all but assumed they’d run away with the division.

But they didn’t. The Sox surprised everyone, even themselves, by playing some amazing baseball through the All Star break. They didn’t exceed expectations; they blew them out of the water.

Even in the face of daunting injuries to key players, the Sox kept on winning and fending off the Yankees for first place in the AL East. The Sox lost Coco Crisp only 6 games into the season. Nixon made his annual trip to the DL. Varitek sustained a rare injury recently.

Boston’s once formidable pitching staff was cleaned out by bumps and bruises as well. Wakefield busted a few ribs somehow. Wells’ knee finally gave out under the weight of his stomach. Clement’s bruised ego successfully ended his season, and probably career with the Sox.

This decimation of the ranks did little to slow the Sox down, however. Newcomer Wily Mo Pena filled in admirably for the injured Crisp and Nixon (before going down with an injury of his own), and a slew of minor-league call-ups plugged the gaps in the field and the pitching staff. When the dust settled, the Sox still sat atop the AL East by 3.5 games.

Then that damn bird showed up.

For some reason, that seemed to mark the beginning of the end for the Sox. Something about that black bird on second base seemed to spark a thought in the team’s head that maybe they shouldn’t be playing this well. Ever since the little aviator perched on the Fenway dirt, the Sox have been in a freefall.

Mainly, our pitching staff returned to earth. The minor-league fill-ins so successfully employed by Boston began to give up runs at an alarming rate. Even our ace closer, Rookie of the Year and Cy Young candidate Jonathan Papelbon began to blow saves left and right.

That’s what being thrown into the fire will do to young players, I suppose. Very few of the pitchers out of the bullpen have spent an entire season in the bigs, and it began to show all at once. Arms got tired. Concentration waned. Games lost.

So I guess I’m not surprised that the Sox have faltered so dramatically lately. They grit their teeth and sharpened their nails and fought through adversity the entire season, and finally reached the breaking point. They simply couldn’t hold on any longer.

And though its depressing to think the Sox will probably miss the playoffs completely, especially disheartening after leading the league for so much of the season, I’m able to step back and appreciate how much they actually accomplished this year, a year when no one realistically expected much from them.

I’m sure people will read this as a Sox’s fan loser attitude, trying to rationalize another letdown by my team. But its really not. I’m just looking at this horrible situation, a 5-game sweep on our home turf at the hands of the Yankees, in the best possible way. I’m not about to give up on the Sox; true fans of any team never 100% dismiss their team until the final out is recorded.

I’m simply preparing myself for a postseason without Boston, because the way they’ve been playing, it’s far more than a distinct possibility; it’s a near certainty. I’m recognizing their shortcomings, and keeping an eye on the news to make sure Theo and company take the necessary steps to ensure a similar fiasco doesn’t take place next season.

And even though I’m starting to turn my attention to the upcoming football season, I’ll always have one hopeful eye on my Red Sox. Always.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

What’s the Word?

Omens come in all shapes and sizes. From ominous sightings of animals to burnt toast depicting the visage of the Virgin Mary, people around the world pick seemingly mundane occurrences and spin them into horrifying signs of the apocalypse.

Last night, the Red Sox Nation was visited by just such an omen. This one came in the form of a little black bird.

During the waning moments of a crushing 6-3 loss to the Indians, a little black bird found his way to the infield dirt, drawing the attention of fans and players alike. The poor fellow seemed to have suffered an injury of some sort, as he was unable to simply fly away when confronted by players trying to shoo him out of harm’s way.

The longer the bird hopped around the field, the more attention he attracted. Fans laughed and cheered the fowl when he darted along the basepath in an attempted steal of second base. Though he managed to swipe the bag fairly easily, the official scoring was Defensive Indifference, as he failed to even draw a throw.

During the height of his comic relief appearance, a welcome intermission to the Red Sox loss, the little bird perched upon second base for a while, surveying his surroundings. As if checking the signs coming in from the sideline, he peered down to the base coach before making another heroic jaunt towards third. Whether the bird had the green light or not is still a mystery.

But as the night drew to a close, fans began to realize their little temporary mascot was not there for the mere entertainment of a downtrodden Fenway crowd. This bird had another purpose that night than simply coaching Doug Mirabelli proper baserunning techniques.

This bird brought a message, and it wasn’t a good one.

As the dust settled on the morose evening in Boston, the Nation soon came to realize just how ominous this little blackbird’s appearance was. Soon after the game ended, word came down from the front office that Varitek’s knee suffered more than a simple tweak; cartilage was torn and he requires surgery, placing him on the DL for at least a month.

Though a bum knee would certainly help explain his season-long struggles at the plate, it also means our starting catcher is out for the final playoff push. The Sox won’t have Tek calling signs for either the veteran pitchers or the rookie hurlers for a while.

The Red Sox are without their Captain.

Doug Mirabelli, usually relegated to the role of Tim Wakefield’s Personal Catcher, will have to step up as a full-time player in Tek’s absense.

I can’t remember the last time Mirabelli was a full-time player. Hell, I doubt HE can remember the last time he was a full-time player. The Nation can only hope his less-than-ideal physique can withstand the rigors of daily play, and that his meager Mendoza-line batting average is merely due to lack of extended playing time. Hope.

But the little winged demon that soiled the hallowed confines of Fenway last night wasn’t done there. The harbinger of doom wasn’t content with simply taking down a key cog in the Red Sox machine.

After Boston’s loss, a win from New York placed them in first place in the AL East … by .002 percentage points. Having played two less games than the Red Sox, New York technically sits alone atop the standings because of a mathematical calculation.

Though the difference in schedule will eventually even itself out as New York plays its make-up games, seeing the Yankees looking down on the Sox shrouds the city of Boston in a disheartening cloud of despair. Even after dispelling the ghosts of 87 years back in 2004, Boston still seems to peer over its shoulder in anticipation of the inevitable Yankee surge to first. It happens so often, and this year suddenly seems no different despite the success this team has enjoyed so far in the season.

So while the antic of the little black bird in Fenway gave the fans a momentary release from the reality of Boston’s recent slump, and while Boston websites are having cute little contests to name the base-stealing bird, the true meaning of his visit is becoming all too clear today.

Shoo, bird, don’t bother us. We’re in the midst of a Pennant Race.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Same Old New Thrill

David Ortiz is a force of nature. There’s no two ways about it.

Boston’s premiere clutch hitter came through once again for the Sox, crushing a 3-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning for the come-from-behind victory. As Ortiz strolled to the plate with two on and one out, facing a 2-run deficit, there was little doubt in anyone’s mind what was about to happen.

Its just incredible to watch this man pick up a bat. He seems to feed off those pressure situations, derives great strength and poise in those moments where the weight of the Red Sox Nation weighs upon his shoulders. And he never seems to buckle.

Mr. Clutch. Mr Automatic. Mr. Greatest Damn Pressure Hitter in History. Call him whatever you want, the names all mean the same thing:

Big Papi is the man.

Going into last night’s matchup, it was looking dire for the Sox. Clinging to a half-game lead over the Yankees going into last night’s game against the Cleveland Indians, a victory would put them an even one game up on their division rivals. With the Yankees picking up the coveted Bobby Abreu from the Phillies, along with teammate pitcher Cory Lidle, New York initially seems to have beefed up their weak spots and are ready to rumble into the finish line of the season. At this point, every game counts.

But heading into the ninth inning at Fenway last night, the Sox faced a 2-run deficit, and it looked like sole possession of first place might slip away.

David Wells, making his first start since getting drilled in his knee by a liner that put him on the DL, did his best to keep the Sox in the game, and almost escaped the 5th inning with the lead. But he hung a curveball to Casey Blake with two on and two out, and Blake deposited it in the Monster seats, his second homer off Wells, to give the Indians an 8-6 lead.

The Sox battled all night at the plate to keep it close. Manny Ramirez got the ball rolling with a two-run shot in the first inning off Indians starter Paul Byrd.

Wily Mo Pena, getting the start in right after Trot Nixon strained a bicep in Sunday’s game, made the most of his return to the lineup, falling a double shy of hitting for the cycle. His solo shot to lead off the fourth inning helped put to rest worries of him losing power after surgery on a bone in this wrist. Pena belted an absolute bomb to left on the first pitch he saw that was easily headed for the Mass Pike.

And still the Sox found themselves down by 2 heading into the final frame. And that’s usually where the magic starts for the Sox this season.

Alex Cora led off with a single to left, and Kevin Youkilis followed with a gutsy 7-pitch walk. Falling behind 1-2 to the Indians rookie closer Fausto Carmona (they traded their regular mop-up man Bob Wickman to the Braves), Youkilis didn’t chase two pitches in the dirt and took the free pass, giving the Sox two on with no outs.

Mark Loretta failed to advance the runners by popping out to the shortstop, but that didn’t diminish the spirits of the fans in Fenway. Not with Ortiz coming to bat.

Its weird the feeling of calm that comes over Sox fans when Ortiz is batting in a clutch situation. It used to be dread and resignation to a loss, especially down by a couple in the last at-bat. But these days, with Papi on the team, the fans just seem to know that Ortiz will come through with the big hit, a long bomb, the game winner.

And why shouldn’t we expect it? In his three seasons with the Sox, Ortiz has delivered 15 walkoff hits, 9 of them home runs. He’s had five already this season.

Last night was no exception. Big Papi delivered yet again.

And the Nation rejoiced from atop his shoulders.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Fallen Heroes

I feel like I just got punched in the gut. Two well-respected faces shot down within days of each other? Ouch.

Just the other day, revered ESPN announcer Harold Reynolds was inexplicably fired from the sports network for undisclosed reasons. It didn’t take long for the rumors to start flying, and the first ones to hit the wire were those of sexual harassment allegations against Reynolds.

This was disheartening to say the least. Myself, probably along with a vast majority of US population, looked upon Reynolds as one of the good guys. He delivered his baseball insight eloquently in front of the camera, and seemed to genuinely have a good time with his coworkers, often yukking it up with fellow analysts during broadcasts.

Reynolds routinely assisted with the College World Series and Little League World Series over the years, announcing the prestigious events with flair. He even stepped onto the field to coach the Little Leaguers in an exhibition game one year. Harold Reynolds is a nice man.

Or was it just a fa├žade for the camera? As the story slowly started coming to light, more and more “inside sources” were muttering the same Sexual Harassment story that many didn’t want to believe at first.

Then talk of the working atmosphere at ESPN seeped into the discussions, making matters worse. Apparently, ESPN’s main campus in Bristol, Connecticut is a pretty laid-back environment. Not to say they tolerate the mistreatment of female employees, but reports certainly make it sound like its hard to get fired there. Employees get more than one warning with instances of Sexual Harassment, and a pattern of abuse must be present in order to warrant dismissal.

That can only mean that Reynolds isn’t quite the nice guy he appears on TV. And Reynolds recently had a child with his wife, making the allegations that much more painful for everyone involved. Though many fans are hoping for a story of some sort of miscommunication on the whole matter, it doesn’t seem like its going to happen at this point.

That story is hard enough to swallow. And now this:

Floyd Landis doped.

Today, news stories pummeled the wire about Landis and his ride to glory in this year’s Tour de France. Unfortunately, they aren’t lauding his accomplishments, rather throwing dirt over his triumphs.

Drug tests of Landis’ blood after his legendary Stage 17 victory, which rocketed him from 11th place back into contention at 3rd, revealed “an unusual level of testosterone/epitestosterone.” Though rigorously denied by both Landis and his team, Phonak, he remains suspended and the Tour victory in jeopardy if he cannot prove his innocence.

Landis has requested his backup sample of blood be tested in effort to exonerate himself, but the damage may already have been done. Nine riders, including early Tour favorites Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich, were kicked out of this year’s ride for doping allegations. That list now threatens to increase by one.

This also once again sheds a disagreeable light on 7-time Tour victor Lance Armstrong, who battled constant doping allegations as well as brutal climbs throughout his historic streak. Armstrong and Landis rode together as US Postal until 2005 when Landis switched to the Swiss-based Phonak team. Whereas the Armstrong allegations, which he successfully thwarted with repeated clean tests, were thought of as simple attacks by the French government on an American rider, these latest accusations with Landis lay some credibility to it all, should he be shown guilty.

Landis excited a nation and shocked the cycling world with his incredible comeback in Stage 17. He defied the odds, overcame a seemingly insurmountable deficit, even fought through the pain and degradation of his own body, to rise to the top and claim the most coveted title in cycling.

And now it might all be a lie.

Drugs are destroying sports all around the globe. From international stars ousted from their premiere events to big baseball names linked to steroids scandals, the urge to gain an edge over the competition by any means necessary has opened countless doors to dark and depressing avenues.

It’s a sad week in the world of sports. Two heroes, forever stained with currently unverified claims of impropriety. Will they recover? Will WE recover?

The world can only hope so.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Random Musings

Josh Beckett became the first 13-game winner in the majors yesterday, outpitching Barry Zito of the Oakland A’s. Beckett went 6 innings, allowing 3 runs and striking out 4. Despite sporting a season ERA of 4.77, Beckett has scraped together a league-lead in wins thanks to some timely offense from the Red Sox. Manny Ramirez blasted a 3-run shot off Zito (who gave up 7 runs and 3 homers in 5 innings of work) in the third inning, and Alex Gonzalez and David Ortiz followed suit with solo shots. Ortiz’s home run was his 34th of the season, putting him further in the league lead.

Tonight Curt Schilling aims to even up with his teammate and earn his 13th victory of the season. Schilling pitched 7 innings of shutout ball against Oakland back on July 15 for a win.

Beckett’s victory last night kept the Sox 2.5 games in front of the Yankees, who held off the Rangers 6-2 behind Randy Johnson. The close race in the AL East, together with the recent slump of the White Sox, has made the AL Wild Card race interesting once again. As the Tigers continue to run away with the AL Central title, Chicago finds itself in a fierce battle to hold onto the top Wild Card spot over the Yankees (1.5 back), Twins (2.0), and Blue Jays (4.5). Whereas just before the All Star break everyone was all but guaranteeing a AL Central Wild Card team, the recent struggles of the White Sox (losers of 10 of their last 13) has opened the doors to all divisions.

Harold Reynolds was fired from ESPN yesterday, for reasons yet undisclosed.

Reynolds had served as an analyst and all-around reporter for the news network for 11 years after playing 12 major league seasons. Reynolds was most visible in his role as a baseball analyst, but also covered the College and Little League World Series events.

Undoubtedly the many fans of Reynolds and his work on ESPN (and on the baseball field) are eagerly awaiting the official explanation for his firing, if it is at all to come. His insight into the game, softspoken manner and playful sense of humor will be sorely missed if he in fact does not return to the network.

The new CoolFlo batting helmets that have invaded the Major Leagues is a topic this blog has covered before, mostly to complain about the “new-age” look and unnecessary performance enhancement it offers. But now, another reason has come up.

As a University of Maryland graduate, I’m no more a fan of Duke basketball than I am of shoving bamboo shoots under my fingernails for fun. So imagine my delight when I came to this realization:

The CoolFlo helmets have been modeled after the wrinkly noggin of none other than Shane Battier!

While I’m still torn on who gets the shit end of that insult, Battier or the helmets, I’m quite pleased that I was able to burn both in one breath.

Thank you, goodnight!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Make it 8

For the past 7 years, the Tour de France has been dominated by the American rider Lance Armstrong. The tenacious, and at times arrogant, Texan punished fellow cyclists throughout the Tour’s grueling stages, somehow managing to repeatedly crush the opposition during both time trials and mountain stages alike. His narrowest margin of victory was still a solid 61 seconds; his greatest over seven minutes ahead of the second-place rider.

Lance Armstrong has embodied the brutal struggle that is the Tour de France. 20 days of punishing climbs and sprints that break down even the fittest and conditioned of riders. Armstrong himself is a lesson in overcoming adversity, though, having been stricken with cancer early in his career. He decided not to let the ailment win and returned to cycling to claim his seven titles.

This year, Armstrong was not amongst the ranks at the Tour, having retired from participating in the ride through France after collecting his record-setting 7th consecutive victory at last year’s event. Armstrong’s absence opened the door for other nations and riders to take center stage in the world’s premiere cycling event, particularly the strong riders Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, who have continually lingered in Armstrong’s shadow during his incredible streak.

However, the day before the Tour was to begin, word came down that Ullrich and Basso were kicked off their respective teams due to recent connections with doping allegations. Now all bets for a Tour victor were off, and the field was wide open for the slew of eager riders to claim their first Tour win.

What developed over the course of the next 23 days was quickly touted as an instant classic in Tour history. After stage 11, Spanish rider Oscar Pereiro and American Floyd Landis traded the yellow jersey several times. Landis overcame a 1:30 gap in Stage 15 to once again adorn the coveted jersey, only to lose it back to Pereiro in Stage 16 with a collapse of monumental proportions. Landis had nothing left to give in the Stage 16 climb, and lost over 8 minutes to the leaders as his drained legs fell way off the pace. Where many were touting Landis as a strong competitor for the Tour victory, he was quickly written off after his collapse.

But Landis wasn’t about to give up that easily despite the sudden overwhelming deficit he faces. Landis was a teammate of Armstrong for three years during Armstrong’s record title streak, before splitting off to Phonak to pursue a leader’s role of his own. Those years with Armstrong not only provided valuable experience in weathering the vigors of the Tour, it also gave insight into Armstrong’s tenacity and ability to battle through every imaginable obstacle to reach your goal.

None of this was wasted on Landis.

Landis took to the roads in Stage 17, another brutal mountain stage, with sheer determination, grit, and defiance on his face. He made an early break away from the peleton, the first move to hopefully gain back some of the 8+ minutes he lost the day before.

Landis wasn’t just battling the clocks, just as Armstong fought through more physical ailments than simple fatigue. After a severe crash in 2003 in which he fractured his hip joint, Landis developed hip osteonecrosis, a condition where blood flow to the bone is decreased.

This is basically bone death, and is extremely painful. Landis underwent surgery in 2004 to increase the bloodflow to his hip, but it was only a temporary fix. During the Tour, it was announced that Landis would undergo complete hip replacement once the Tour is complete, which would more than likely cease his pain, but also end his cycling career at the same time.

Painful arthritis due to bone death. Most people find it difficult to walk with this condition; Landis was on the verge of winning his first Tour de France with it.

The ride Landis hammered out during Stage 17 goes far beyond historic; it was mythical. Being touted by his peers as the most amazing performance they’ve ever seen, Landis charged up the first category climb the peleton hit and never looked back.

He distanced himself early on, usually a bad idea avoided by season riders as the pack tends to reel in the eager breakaways with little effort. But Landis didn’t get caught, he was doing the catching.

He started the day 8:08 and mired in 11th place. Left for dead by everyone watching the Tour. No chance.

He finished the day a mere 30 seconds off first-place Pereiro’s pace. Third place overall.

With nothing more than a time-trial in Stage 19 and the customary victory lap around Paris in Stage 20, Landis was once again the favorite to don the yellow jersey in the end. And rightfully so. He dominated the time trial, overcoming the 30-second gap and vaulting himself into first place with a lead over a minute.

This all but secured him his first Tour victory. Sunday’s stage to Paris was a celebration of an incredible tour, of new faces, and a man who, like his predecessor, overcame obstacles from both inside his own body and the Tour itself. It was a Tour for the ages.

In the end, Landis was on the podium, marking the eighth American victory in a row. Next year might prove to be another epic Tour, bringing about new first-time winners and provide the emergence of more incredible stories of perseverance in the face of adversity.

But for now, the spotlight belongs to Landis.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

This Rookie’s All Right

Faced with a pitching staff decimated by untimely injuries to key starting pitchers, Boston has been scrambling to plug the holes in their rotation. Unfortunately, most of the plugs utilized haven’t withstood the test of time, and just as quick as they donned a Sox uniform, the temporary arms taking the mound have departed Fenway to suit up for another team the very next day.

One arm that is proving to be quite valuable for Boston is that of Jon Lester. The young rookie call-up has put up a 5-0 record in eight starts, the first Red Sox rookie southpaw pitcher to win his first five decisions since 1993 (Aaron Sele). In Lester’s eight starts since his callup in June, he’s held opponents to 3 runs or fewer every outing, posting a 2.38 ERA.

Last night was further example of this rising star’s ability. Lester threw eight strong innings, the longest outing in his career, surrendering only a single in the second inning. Papelbon slammed the door in the ninth for his league-leading 28th save, securing Lester’s 5th win.

With a revolving door of minor-league starters making their debuts in a Red Sox uniform this season, Lester allowed the Red Sox Nation to breathe a collective sigh of relief with his performances so far. With few more gems like the one he threw last night, Lester may start to get mention in the same breath as Papelbon for their surprising and welcomed dominance.

Lester still has some issues to work out before he can be considered a legitimate Major League hurler, however. Despite his record and ERA, he’s been plagued with walks in almost all of his starts, allowing 29 in 45 innings. While good defense has helped bail him out of jams from time to time, he’ll need to hone his control to really make an impact at this level.

But for now, Lester has been a godsend for the Sox. After starting the season with an abundance of pitching that led the front office to trade away fan favorite Bronson Arroyo, the Sox have been scrambling to nail down a solid 4th and 5th man in their rotation. And that number may bump up to include #3 starter Tim Wakefield if his back continues to ache.

So while Lester is still a far cry from the answer to all the Sox problems, he certainly has been more than adequate in filling an immediate need for quality starting pitching.

And pitching wins titles, folks.

New York kept stride with the Sox by winning their matchup with the Mariners, but only thanks to a blown call late in the game.

Trailing Seattle by a run in the bottom of the ninth with one out and one on, Jorge Posada sent a ground ball to the second baseman, who fielded it cleanly and fired to first for what should have been the second out of the inning. Instead, the first base umpire declared Posada safe, missing the fact that the ball clearly beat him to the bag by a half step. Two batters later, on a fly ball by Johnny Damon that would have been the final out in a Yankees loss, the tying run tagged up from third to send the game into extra innings. Melky Cabrera would go on to win it with a walk-off homer in the 11th.

The good news? ARod still sucks, going 0-4 in the game, including a strikeout to end the ninth. Keep up the good work, Alex!

Red Sox Captain Jason Varitek set a new team record for most games behind the plate, passing Boston legend Carlton Fisk. Tek caught his 991st game last night, eclipsing Fisk’s mark of 990.

As Tek strode to the plate in the top of the sixth inning, when the game becomes official, he received a raucous standing ovation from the Fenway crowd. Ever the humble yet gracious player, acknowledged the Fenway Faithful with a wave, sending the cheers to a new level.

The crowd had more reason to celebrate than just Tek’s new milestone as well. In the bottom of the fifth, Tek doubled and would come around to score the games only run on an Alex Gonzalez two-out single.

Oh Captain, My Captain!

The Red Sox have just completed a sweep of the Royals, taking another close 1-0 victory in a day game at Fenway. Josh Beckett pitched a great game, going 8 innings with 4 hits and 7 strikeouts. Papelbon once again recorded the save for his 29th of the season.

Manny Ramirez provided the only offense the Sox would need, blasting the first pitch he saw in the fourth inning over the Monster in left. It secured the second 1-0 victory over the Royals in as many days, and secured yet another day atop the AL East for Boston.

The Mariners are clinging to a 3-2 lead over New York in the eighth inning of their day game. A Seattle victory would pad Boston’s lead to 1.5 games over New York. But don’t get excited yet: the umpires still have a chance to swing the game in the Yankees favor.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Dougie’s Goin’ DEEP!

Doug Mirabelli might have single-handedly saved the Sox season last night.

With the offense struggling to get on base against a surprising pitching performance from Luke Hudson, who must have been channeling the likes of Tim Hudson last night, the Sox needed a three-run blast from their knuckleball catcher to pull a victory from the jaws of defeat at the hands of an MLB-worst Kansas City squad.

Mirabelli’s dreadful .195 batting average was all too prominent when he strode to the plate in the seventh inning with two men on and his team down by 3. Mirabelli worked the count to 3-1, though, and would have drew a bases-loading walk on the next pitch, which was low and outside. Not low enough, though, as home plate ump called Mirabelli back to the plate to face a full count. With the next pitch he saw, Mirabelli made his uninspiring batting average a distant memory when his shot to left-center stayed up long enough to land in the front row of the Monster seats.

Though not considered the Clutch Hitter fellow teammate David Ortiz has proven to be over the years, Mirabelli somehow manages to make the few hits he does get count, either tying games up or giving the Sox the lead. And he couldn’t have come through at a better time last night.

Boston headed into the All Star break still high from an incredible 12-game win streak which saw them sweep four straight National League teams (Braves, Nationals, Phillies and Mets). Despite losing 3 of 4 to the Devil Rays, they rebounded nicely against the defending champion White Sox and won 2 of 3. At the break, they held a comfortable 3-game lead over the Yankees.

Since then, however, the wheels have started to come off. The Sox lost 3 of 4 to an unimpressive Oakland team, and the Yankees went on to sweep Chicago to pull within a half-game of Boston in the AL East. With an early victory over Seattle last night, the Yankees had pulled even with the Sox, and waited anxiously to see if the Royals could hold on for the win.

Thankfully, Mirabelli had other plans.

Last night’s win kept the Sox mere percentage points over the Yankees for the AL East lead (the Red Sox have one more win than New York), an advantage Boston is lucky to have. With a pitching staff decimated by injuries to key players (Wells, Clement, Foulke, and now Wakefield), every win counts. That goes double when looking at how well New York has overcome extended DL stints to star players on their squad.

With Detroit and Chicago putting together amazing seasons of their own in the AL Central, it’s a sure bet that this year’s playoffs will feature a Wild Card team from elsewhere in the league than the usual East division. Only time will tell if Boston’s half-game lead will be enough to hold off New York for the remainder of the season. A late come-from-behind victory might just give them the confidence they need to bear down, weather the rough starts while the pitching staff heals, and make a mad dash for the finish line in October.

Thanks, Doug. You came through for the team yet again.

David Ortiz swiped his first stolen base in over a year last night. On a botched hit-and-run play (Trot Nixon struck out), Ortiz was scampering over to second base. Pausing to glance towards home, he realized the catcher was firing the ball to second in an attempt for a strike 'em out, throw 'em out double play. Ortiz quickly beared down, and thanks to a high throw to second, was able to sneak in under the tag. It was his first stolen base of the season, and only the sixth of his career.

Willie Harris has been sent to the minors, a fitting place for a light-hitting utility fielder who falls asleep on the basepath. Harris singlehandedly took the Sox out of two games this season, leading to two losses, which comes to two more than any pinch-runner should account for on any team.

Earlier this season, Harris made a big splash when he attempted to steal second with two outs in the bottom of the ninth with the Sox down by a run. However, Harris didn't have the steal sign and was promptly nailed at second, ending the game. More recently, Harris stepped in to pinch-run late in another close game. Instead of running through a steal sign this time around, Harris didn't even give the catcher a chance to catch him at second: Harris was snoozing at first and was picked off by the pitcher.

So long, Willie Harris. Your quick feet are no match for your slow brain. Don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.

The headline of this post references one hell of a funny website about a day in the life of Doug Mirabelli. Open your mind, click the link, and enjoy the hilarity.

Dougie's Goin' Deep Tonight!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Furious Fan

I am so mad at the Red Sox right now, I’m shaking.

Its not a rare occasion for me to be upset with my favorite baseball team, especially since we’re talking about Boston. They’re the kings of disappointment, of letdown, of frustration. They have a long and sordid history, including an 86-year championship drought, of driving their fans absolutely insane.

But this time, I just can’t believe them. I’m beyond mad, past angry, leapt right over enraged. I don’t even have words to describe the extreme, intense, fiery, passionate IRE at the Sox.

Here’s a team that has been overperforming all season long. With a team full of new faces, including a completely revamped infield, not many people expected much from Boston. This was looking to be a rebuilding year while the team learned to play together, management found the necessary missing pieces of the puzzle, players regained their prior All Star form.

But, to the surprise of many, Boston hit the ground running and has been in first place in the AL East for a majority of the season. The team clicked immediately and have looked like they’ve been playing together for years, not months. Aging vets found their Fountain of Youth in Fenway, putting up career stats. New pitchers proving they're ready for the Big Time. And the sun shone down upon Boston.

But as is usually the case in the life of a baseball fan, the question isn’t so much “What have you done?” as much as “What have you done for me lately?” And in the case of the Red Sox, the answer is nothing much besides give me a raging case of heartburn.

Let’s set the stage: Boston’s rival, the New York Yankees, is more banged up than my neighbor's '69 Dodge Dart, relying on a slew of minor-league callups and ineffective veteran signings to fill the holes in their lineup. Sheffield, Matsui, Posada, Damon, Jeter and others have all spent time on the pine this season due to injuries.

Yet somehow, the Yankees stayed in the race, thanks to both the elevated play of their fill-ins, and Boston’s inability to deliver a knockout blow. Despite Boston’s hot start, they’ve hit some rough patches along the way. Toronto owns us. Wells is on the DL for the second time this season. Clement is proving to be ineffective once again. And beyond Timlin (injured), Foulke (injured), and Papelbon, our bullpen is a constantly-rotating collection of AAA callups.

All this equates to a mere half-game lead over the Yanks heading into this weeks four-game series. A lead, mind you, that everyone, EVERYONE, expected the Red Sox to increase. The Yanks are hurt. They’re struggling. Two of their big boppers are down, their bullpen is atrocious, and starting pitching is spotty. The Red Sox were slotted to take advantage of the black-and-blue Yankees, pound out at least three wins in the series, and leave New York with a comfortable 2.5-game lead.

Instead, the Sox are now the ones looking up from second place.

After Beckett’s disaster Monday, which must have been the worst start of his career, and last night’s stomach-punch loss, the best Boston can hope for is a split and that meager half-game lead back. No big advantage, no padding their lead, no going into the All Star break feeling good about their position.

So the question is, Why? How? What the hell is going on?

I’ll tell you what’s going on. The Sox are on autopilot right now. They’re just going through the motions against the Yankees. With just as many Yankee All Stars on the DL as on the field, the Sox figured they could coast through New York, take a few games with no problem, and come out the other end smelling like roses.

They couldn’t be more wrong. The Replacement Yankees got something to prove, and they are doing one hell of a job of proving it to the Sox. Meanwhile, the Sox pitching is horrible and batters don’t seem to want to get on base. Red Sox Captain Jason Varitek hasn’t hit the ball hard in weeks, and is facing one of the lowest batting averages in his career. Even Mr. Clutch himself, David Ortiz, seems to be waving at the ball as it goes by him. Guess what, Ortiz: Alex Cora has a better batting average than you. Embarrassed? Good, you should be.

To make matters worse, the Sox were given a GIFT last night in the form of a stellar performance by a rookie starting pitcher. David Pauley gave the Sox six strong innings, against the Yankees in New York nonetheless, and what did the Sox give him in return? One run. One god-damned run. And yes, I can say God Damn because this ain’t radio. (Ten points for whoever identifies that reference.)

Pauley pitched a gem, and should have gotten out of the seventh with no problems. But with two outs and nobody on, a Cairo dribbler snuck under his glove and past Loretta (who was charging and tried to barehand the ball). Two more runners reach, and now we have the bases loaded.

Enter ineffective relief pitcher, Rudy Seanez, who promptly walks Giambi to give the Yanks a 2-1 lead. Thanks Rudy, you may go now.

That’s not even the real kick in the nuts, either. Top of the eighth, Manny Ramirez hits a BOMB to left center for a sure game-tying home run. Out of nowhere, Melky Cabrera, the same Melky Cabrera that flat-out dropped a pop-up earlier this year that opened up the floodgates for a lopsided Sox victory, the same Melky Cabrera that let a liner skip by him in Fenway for extra bases in another Sox win, this little bastard comes flying up the fence, does his best Tori Hunter impression, and pulls Manny’s game-tying home run ball back onto the field for the final out of the inning.

That’s not just a rally-killer, folks. That’s a game-ender.

There’s no two ways about it: the Yankees deserve first place. They wanted it, hungered for it, and played hard enough to earn the right to sit atop the AL East. Boston has dogged it so far against New York, and if they keep it up, will be lucky to hold on to second place over Toronto.

Get your shit in gear, Boston. Start playing ball. Hit the field like you know what the hell you’re doing. Show us some passion, some fire, some desire to be out there representing our great city. You’ve got one of the best fan bases in baseball supporting you, start fucking playing like you deserve it.

The 2004 championship may have earned you some slack for winning another World Series quickly, but it certainly did NOT excuse you from trying.

Now that I’ve thrown some much-deserved praise the Yankees’ way, it’s time to bring them back down the Earth and rip ‘em a new one:

What the hell is up with all the curtain calls the past two games?

Before you get all bent on me about being a poor loser or something, let me say that I’m all for the curtain call. I think it’s a great way to honor a player for an accomplishment or great play, and love to see that player acknowledge the fans cheering for him with a quick visit to the top step of the dugout and a tip of the cap. I was at Fenway for Curt Schilling’s 200th career victory, and not a single person in attendance left until we were able to coax Curt from the locker room after the game with deafening chants of “We want Curt!” The stadium erupted when Schilling popped out from the dugout and gave the crowd a few waves in appreciation. I actually got goosebumps at that moment.

So please excuse me when I cry foul after Yankee fans demand, and players reciprocate, a curtain call after a second-inning home run. That’s not appreciation, that’s gloating. There is no need to call a player to the top step after he hits a home run that early in the game (which didn’t even give them the lead, mind you). In Monday’s blowout, both players to homer in the second inning received curtain calls. Two in one inning! Are you kidding me? The game was already a blowout at that point, that’s just rubbing it in.

Along the lines of inappropriate cheering, how about that near-miss to Manny Ramirez last night? Wang tossed a high-and-tight fastball to Manny, sending him stumbling backwards out of the box.

And the fans went wild.

That near-beaning (at his head, nonetheless) was applauded almost as much as those damn curtain calls. I know these teams have a long, sordid history, but at NO point over the years has it been considered okay to plunk a batter in the head. And these clowns cheer.

You can bet the bank that if such behavior took place in Fenway, if Boston fans applauded when a Yankee almost got laid out by a fastball to the head, sportswriters around the GLOBE would rip the town apart for representing the ugliest side of human nature and fandom. Boston would be disparaged for wishing ill-will as serious as a concussion upon anyone. We would be beasts.

But somehow, its okay for New Yorkers to act like animals. So much for the classy fans and players at Yankee stadium. They can take that misnomer and cram it right up their pinstriped asses.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Bad Boy Beckett Becomes 26

Josh Beckett’s 26th birthday outing last night was almost the shortest of his career. Two batters, to be exact.

In the first inning, home plate umpire Jim Joyce granted Baltimore slugger Miguel Tejada a late time-out request. Beckett had already begun his delivery, and had to stop his motion mid-stride as Tejada backed away from the plate.

Some pitchers take great offense to such an act. Suddenly halting a 98-mph fastball, which Beckett was flinging all night, can create some serious muscle pulls. Most professional players know this.

But what most professional players also know is that you don’t show up the umpire, either. Beckett vehemently voiced his displeasure with Joyce’s decision, going as far as to stride towards home as he hollered. In a move you see less often, Joyce started to meet Beckett halfway, walking out towards the mound as the jawing between umpire and player increased. It took Boston’s team captain Jason Varitek to diffuse the situation, intercepting Joyce on his way out to the mound and talking him back from the dangerous ledge both combatants were headed for.

It’s a good thing cooler heads prevailed, because otherwise the Red Sox Nation would have been deprived of witnessing one of Beckett’s finest outings in a Boston uniform. Despite surrendering a solo home run to Tejada after the confrontation with Joyce, Beckett settled into a groove, retiring the next 13 Orioles he faced. In his 80-pitch outing, shorter than usual due to the damp and dangerous mound conditions, Beckett threw 7 innings of two-hit ball, striking out six.

The win was an encouraging mark for the Red Sox on many levels. Beckett notched his record to 5-1. Terry Francona received his 500th career management victory. Boston improved to 7-0 against the Orioles this season, and 12-0 dating back to last September. After a rare two-day, thanks to a deluge of rain that’s still soaking New England, the Sox looked sharp as ever.

The offense was firing on all cylinders, too. Varitek scored a career-high four runs, going 2-for-2 with three walks on the night. Mike Lowell tripled for his second hit of the day, and Mark Loretta continued his hot hitting, raising his average to .273 after recording two hits,

Not to be outdone by the veterans, Wily Mo Pena continues to improve his prowess at the plate. He rifled two hits to the opposite field for four RBIs on the day, two of which came on a home run that gave the Sox a 2-run lead. Wily Mo is shattering critics’ expectations from early in the season, quickly gaining the patience few thought he could attain and becoming a real threat in the Sox lineup.

The biggest question raised by Wily Mo’s level of play has been, where do we put him when Crisp is ready to return? Wily Mo has been manning the centerfield spot, allowing Nixon’s hot bat to remain in the game. And though Wily Mo’s massive bulk is sure to take someone out as he chases down fly balls, he’s done a fine job defensively so far.

Too bad Wily Mo can’t play shortstop.

With the Yankees falling to the Rangers, the Sox again regain sole possession of first place in the AL East. After a brief interleague stint in Philadelphia over the weekend, Boston faces New York at Fenway for a three-game set. As is usually the case with this rivalry, first place could very well be at stake between these two teams.

The Yankees are facing serious personnel issues, still searching for an answer to their outfield woes. With Matsui out indefinitely and Sheffield showing no rush to return to the lineup, New York is making due with light-hitting Bubba Crosby and AAA-callup Melky Cabrera in the corners.

Their pitching staff hasn’t fared much better. The Big Unit has been showing his mortal side his last few outings, raising his ERA over 5 on the season. Tanyon Sturtze, long man in the Yankee bullpen, just landed on the DL for perhaps the rest of the season with a torn rotator cuff. Key starter Carl Pavano has yet to throw a single pitch this season.

And who knows what’s waiting for them around the corner? Damon injured his shoulder crashing into the centerfield wall last week. Giambi strained his neck diving for a ball and had to leave yesterday’s game in the third inning.

Shambles.

But somehow the Yankees find a way to win games and keep hanging around atop the AL East. Boston has been playing some amazing baseball as of late as well, though, making next week’s showdown a pivotal one.

As usual.

Doug Flutie has bid the NFL and a 21-year professional football a sad farewell. Flutie became a household name in 1984 with Boston College with a gimmick play, completing a last-ditch Hail Mary pass for a touchdown as time expired to beat Miami on national television. After a lackluster start to his NFL career, Flutie headed for the CFL, where he more than prospered as a quarterback. Over his eight-year career in the great white north, Flutie won three Grey Cups (the equivalent of the Super Bowl) and was named league MVP six times. His 6,619 passing yards in his second season remains a league record.

Despite his size and constant criticism as to such, Flutie wove an incredible career in the CFL, eventually returning to the NFL in 1998. Though he didn’t break any records back in the states, he constantly defied the odds and produced as both a starter and backup. He was revered during his years with San Diego, and proved to be an ample mentor to rising Charger star Drew Brees.

Just as Flutie entered American lives on a gimmick, he will go out with one as well. On his last play from scrimmage, playing as a member of his home team in front of his home crowd, Flutie converted the first drop-kick extra-point in over 60 years.

Thanks for the memories, Doug, we’ll miss your determination and grit.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Swingin’ in the Rain

The Red Sox have played many frustrating games in their long history as a professional ballclub, but in my days as a fan, I can’t recall one as infuriating as last night’s matchup against the Yankees.

Boston has shown a tendency to leave small villages on the basepath in past years, a fact on the forefront of every fan’s thoughts after stranding 15 last night. On three separate occasions, they had the bases loaded and plated none. Two of the biggest offenders on the night is most surprising: the uber-clutch Yankee killer David Ortiz, and hot-hitting doubles machine Mike Lowell, who left 5 and 7 runners on base respectively. Facing a 2-run deficit for most of the night, those LOBs became more and more apparent as the innings ticked by.

The New York defense didn’t help matters, either. Twice in the game, Yankee outfielders crashed into the wall pulling back home run shots from Boston; the most notable catch made by former Sox Johnny Damon when he challenged the center-field wall to rob Doug Mirabelli of extra bases.

Even the umpires got in the act of stealing from the Sox. Mark Loretta lined a hot grounder down the third base line that appeared to pass over the base in fair territory and under the glove of a diving Alex Rodriguez. But the blue at third had other ideas, waving the ball foul despite protests from the third base coach and Tito Francona. The next pitch Loretta saw tapped weakly to the pitcher to end the inning.

Coming off a bad Schilling outing that lead to a 7-3 loss the night before, the 3-1 Yankee lead started to feel insurmountable. It seemed the Sox would waste another great Tim Wakefield outing, as he striking out nine Yankee batters in his six innings of work.

But then the ball started to bounce our way.

As the rain set in during the seventh inning, Bernie Williams horribly misplayed a pop fly in the right field corner (a position he was playing to help fill in for the injured Matsui), letting the ball drift back into the field of play, land untouched in fair territory, and bounce into the stands for a ground-rule double. Bernie looked lost on the play, and it would come back to haunt the Yankees.

Two batters later, with two on and two out, Loretta hit a shot into the gap between third and short. Derek Jeter made a nice diving stop, but the throw from his knees forced Miguel Cairo off the bag at first. He managed to glove the throw and get the tag on Loretta streaking down the line, but the ball popped loose. Two runs scored, giving the Sox a 4-3 lead they would not relinquish.

Jeter’s throwing error lost the lead, and eventually the game, for the Yankees, yet Steinbrenner didn’t make a peep as he did when grilling Rodriguez for his errors that led to a 14-3 embarrassment two nights prior. Jeter failed to execute in a clutch situation, just like Rodriguez, so where’s his grilling from the Boss? Though Steinbrenner is known for ruling with an iron fist and speaking his mind when the team doesn’t live up to expectations, it appears he isn’t willing to call out the Golden Boy when he falls short. Hypocrisy, or just playing favorites?

And what about Mariano Rivera, George? He continued his recent woes against the Sox as well, failing to keep the Sox from plating an insurance run in the ninth. The light-hitting Willie Harris would score after leading off the inning with a single. Willie Harris! No criticism for Rivera, George? Didn’t think so.

The biggest loss of the night for the Yankees wasn’t the game and a share of first place, however. In the first inning, Hideki Matsui fractured his wrist diving for a sinking hit from Loretta. Matsui’s wrist was wrenched backwards as he hit the turf, and was limply hanging on the end of his arm in a sickening manner when he scrambled to get the dropped ball to the infield. As he held his wrist in pain after the play, his injured hand already swelled up to twice its normal size.

With Gary Sheffield sitting on the DL, the Yankees suddenly find themselves scrambling to find available left fielders to fill in for Matsui, who could be out anywhere from three months to the rest of the season. For most teams, this would be a huge blow to the lineup, making rival fans quite happy; however, given Steinbrenner’s ability to light cigars with 100-dollar bills, Sox fans fear its only a matter of time before the Yankees land a big-name slugger to fill the gap. Its inevitable.

But today, Sox fans aren’t thinking about the Yankees. Sox fans are opening the paper, and reveling at seeing Boston atop the AL East yet again. The team stumbled a bit, key hitters hit slumps, ace pitchers got shelled, but the Sox found a way to stay in the race and climb back to the top of their division. Loretta has been on a tear, tagging four hits last night and batting over .450 the past few weeks. Manny shrugged off his season-opening slump and is now batting .310. Interim leadoff batter Youkilis is hitting over .350 with runners on base. Wily Mo Pena has learned patience, and its paid off in the form of a .325 average.

The pitching staff has been working hard too. Beckett pitched a gem on Tuesday for key win in New York. Papelbon recorded his 13th save and dropped his ERA to an infinitesimal 0.44. Timlin has continued to defy his aging arm, coming through with key strikeouts of Rodriguez and Jason Giambi in last night’s victory.

And where defense was a concern coming into the season, its been more than impressive thus far. Wily Mo Pena has rebounded nicely from early-season defensive woes. Lowell shows range and Billy Mueller-esque finesse at the hot corner. Youkilis is a picking machine over at first. And let’s not forget Mirabelli back behind the plate for Wakefield.

A well-rested Clement takes the mound tonight against the Rangers, and the Sox have got to feel momentum is on their side. Fending off the Yankees for first, taking two of three in New York, is no small feat, the significance of which is not lost on any of the players.

Let’s keep the ball rolling, boys!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Back In First

It was a comedy of errors in the Bronx last night, with the Yankees headlining the show.

New York posted a 3-spot in the E column by the end of the game last night, led by two key errors from the undeniably un-clutch Alex Rodriguez. His pinstriped partner in crime was AAA callup Melky Cabrera, manning the right field spot while Gary Sheffield sits on the DL nursing a sore wrist. All three Yankee errors led to Red Sox runs, and the eventual 14-3 shellacking on their home turf.

A-Rod’s miscues couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Yankees. Hanging on to a two-run lead in the third inning, Rodriguez booted a David Ortiz grounder with two on and two outs. Half-diving towards his left, as he was the only player on the right side of the infield due to the Ortiz shift, he knocked the ball down but couldn’t find it when he got to his feet for the throw. By the time he located the ball and zipped it to first, Ortiz had already hustled down the line to first. Instead of ending the inning and heading to bat with the lead, Rodriguez’s miff plated two runs and allowed the inning to continue, eventually giving the Sox a 3-2 advantage.

That was all the Sox needed to get to Yankee starter Randy Johnson. The Big Unit was way off his usual game, lasting only 3.2 innings, his shortest outing against the Sox since 1991. Johnson allowed five walks, threw two wild pitches (one of which scored a run), and allowed seven Red Sox to cross home plate. Thanks to the horrific defense of the Yankees, only two of those seven runs were earned.

Sox starter Josh Beckett was Johnson’s antithesis. Beckett shined in his return to Yankee stadium, pitching seven strong innings of three-run ball, notching seven strikeouts along the way to his fifth win of the season. To the delight of the Red Sox Nation, two of those K’s came via Johnny Damon.

For the entire game, everything seemed to bounce in favor of the Red Sox. Mike Lowell lined a hard grounder that bounded up and over Rodriguez at third, his second error of the game, and would score three batters later on a three-run homer by Sox shortstop Alex Gonzalez, his first of the season. Did you catch that last part? A home run by Alex Couldn’t-Knock-a-Butterfly-Off-a-Branch Gonzalez? I bet he couldn’t believe it either. I was fully expecting him to pimp at home plate a-la Omar Epps (as Wesley Snipes) as Willie Mays Hayes, only to have it fall short for the lazy fly ball out.

But it didn’t drop in the left fielder’s glove; it almost made the second deck. That made the score 10-2, and the Sox were cruising along.

Mark Loretta got the green light to swing away on a 3-0 count, facing Johnson, and smacked a two-run single down the left field line past the diving Rodriguez. Ortiz shuffled around to score from second base on a Ramirez single, just getting under Jorge Posada’s tag at home. Ramirez belted a leadoff homer in the sixth.

And in a play that truly illustrates how Boston caught all the breaks, Beckett took a liner from Robinson Cano off his calf in the seventh with a man on first and one out. The ricochet bounced right to Lowell on third, though, who was able to get the force out at second.

It was just that kind of night for the Sox.

The frustration of the Yankees was readily apparent. After getting punched out watching strike three zip by him for the third out of the seventh inning, the usually mild-mannered Bernie Williams flipped his helmet back towards home plate in disgust, nearly hitting the umpire. Williams didn’t bother to argue his ejection, and will be lucky to escape a fine from the incident: replays show that Williams glanced back over his shoulder before throwing his helmet towards the umpire, a move that may prove to be too closely reminiscent of Devil Ray minor leaguer Delmon Young’s bat-tossing spectacle that landed him a 50 game suspension.

Even Steinbrenner, who has been suspiciously quiet this season compared to his rantings and blow-ups of past years, couldn’t help to voice displeasure with his multi-million dollar lineup. When asked what he thought of the lopsided loss to division rivals, Steinbrenner simply replied, “I’m upset at a lot of them.”

But without further solicitation, he added, “The third baseman.”

With 19 regular-season head-to-head games, its hard to call this series a Key Series. Though first place is at stake (and currently in control of the Sox), there’s too much season left to make any definitive conclusions.

But this series is still important. The first real matchup of these two powerhouses. Incredible pitching duels. Games played in the heart of enemy territories. It could all very well set the tone for the rest of the season, and the Sox have firmly planted themselves in the driver’s seat.

Barry Bonds* remains at 713 home runs, one away from pulling even with Babe Ruth, thanks to a highlight-reel leaping grab at the fence by Cubs centerfielder Juan Pierre. Had the blast gone to any other part of Giants stadium (AT&T Park, ugh.), especially the short right field porch designed to give Bonds those dramatic home runs into McCovey Cove, the number two spot on the all-time home runs list would be shared by two sluggers. Instead, Pierre tracked the long fly ball back to the wall, timed his leap perfectly, and hauled in a shot that would have just cleared the 399-foot fence.

Bravo, Pierre. I applaud you for keeping the Giants Juicer in the park, even if its just for one more night. It would take a miracle for Bonds not to catch and pass Ruth on the home run list at this point. Everyone knows its only a matter of time before he launches a few more moon shots and claims sole possession of second place.

But Pierre wouldn’t let that happen on his watch.

The fans in Philadelphia had it right, in my opinion. The seats in left field displayed a special banner for Bonds during Friday night’s game.

“Ruth did it on hotdogs & beer. Aaron did it with class.”

The legacy Bonds has built is a little harder to swallow.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Countdown to the Showdown

I couldn’t be more pleased with the Red Sox Nation as I am after Friday’s game at Fenway.

When Kevin Millar was announced over the Fenway loudspeakers for the first time since signing with the Baltimore Orioles, the stadium erupted in a standing ovation for the former 2004 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox as he strode to the plate. As the hallowed hall of Boston echoes with the applause and overwhelming cheers, I couldn’t see a single fan in attendance that wasn’t on their feet to pay Millar the proper respect. This reception generated ten times the noise Damon received last week in his first return to Fenway, and there wasn’t a Boo to be heard this time around.

Millar tried to play the stoic act, simply taking a few practice cuts next to the batter’s box during the commotion, but couldn’t resist the extreme display of gratitude from the city of Boston, and saluted the stadium for their kindness.

It was a great moment for Boston and its fans. Not only did it give every Sox fan the chills to offer such a great response to a World Series champion that once donned our uniform, it was proof positive that this city, though hard on its players from time to time, can truly appreciate a good player with a great attitude, even after the relationship with Boston is severed.

Millar, like Damon, was lost due to free agency. But whereas Damon shunned reasonable offers from Boston to sign a more lucrative deal with the hated Yankees, Millar was simply set off into the wind, free to land where he may. Even coming back to take the field for another division rival, the Red Sox Nation understands the circumstances surrounding his departure were easier to swallow that Damon’s actions.

I hope sportswriters and players alike who seemingly have an unending supply of criticism for this city and its treatment of professional athletes took notice of Millar’s reception on Friday. I hope everyone saw how he was welcomed back in grand style, even though he was far from the face of a championship squad.

Boston has heroes, ones we freely throw due respect towards. Its when we fail to receive that same respect as fans that we find it difficult to dish it out.

The game that followed Millar’s party was just as amazing, too. Youkilis lead off the game with a bomb over the Green Monster, Loretta showed signs of breaking out of his slump after roping two hits, and Lowell continued to tear the cover off the ball with three doubles on the day.

Schilling pitched a gem en route to his fifth win of the season, going seven strong innings of 3-run ball, striking out 5 in the process. Timlin and Papelbon slammed the door in the eighth and ninth to seal the victory.

The real sparks of the day were provided by, who else, David Ortiz. After Alex Gonzalez tied the game at 3 with a double in the sixth inning, the Sox loaded the bases with two outs. Ortiz quickly fell behind into an 0-2 count, but didn’t chase the next three pitches out of the strike zone. Facing a full count, bases loaded with two outs of a tie game (I’m getting excited just typing this), Ortiz ripped a bases-clearing double down the right field line for the 6-3 lead. Fenway erupted. 99% of the fans in attendance simultaneously lost their voices from cheering.

Ortiz delivered a clutch hit once again. All is right in the Red Sox Nation.

Pitchers for the upcoming Sox-Yankees series have been juggled around a bit, a move Francona says will give the Sox a better chance to come out on top after the three-game stint in the Bronx. New York also skips over Jaret Wright in their rotation, bumping everyone up a day and giving Chacon the start on Thursday. The new matchups are as follows:

Tuesday: Josh Beckett vs. Randy Johnson
Wednesday: Curt Schilling vs. Mike Mussina
Thursday: Tim Wakefield vs. Shawn Chacon

This has quickly become a can’t-miss series between these two teams. Deadlocked in a tie for first place in the AL East, both teams are coming off of sweeps of their weekend series. Boston handled the Orioles, while Texas rolled over and played dead to the Yankees in Arlington. Momentum is favoring no one.

The pitching duels are epic as well. Young phenom Beckett against the Big Unit. Boston hero Schilling facing the streaky Mussina. Dodgy Wakefield tossing opposite Chacon, who lost his only outing against the Sox.

I have to give Schilling a slight advantage over Mussina on Wednesday, as he’s the stronger pitcher in big games. Timmy definitely gets the nod over Chacon in the finale.

But Tuesday’s opener is hard to pick. Beckett has shown flashes of brilliance that warrents comparisons to greats like Clemens, but has already had some bad days on the mound in Boston. Johnson is Johnson, always firing in tough pitches, but has shown his mortal side more often in later years. Regardless of who comes out on top, I’m sure it will be an instant classic pitching duel.

There’s a lot at stake in this early three-game series. We’ll see how new pitchers stand up to the pressure of the biggest rivalry in baseball. We’ll witness how new Boston players handle the same intensity.

And most importantly, we’ll see who comes out in sole possession of first place in the AL East.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

On such a joyous Mexican holiday, I really hate to start off with bad news. But I just can’t figure out how or why, but once again, the Blue Jays seem to have Boston’s number. The Sox have already dropped 5 of 8 games against the Jays, with 11 games left to go between these teams this season.

Even with the 7-4 win yesterday, giving Clement his much-needed third win of the season, the Blue Jays continue to be a thorn in Boston’s side. Thankfully the Sox put up a 5-spot right out of the gates, slapping Blue Jay starter Josh Towers around Fenway in the first inning for the quick lead. Towers settled down after that, but ran into trouble again in the sixth, where the Sox plated two more insurance runs. Youkilis had another huge night, going 3-5 with a homer, and Lowell continues his amazing rebound from last season.

The Orioles head into town for the weekend series, bringing with them a former member of the Idiots from 2004, Kevin Millar. Though he didn’t necessarily tear the cover off the ball in his time here, he definitely came through with some big hits and defensive gems over the years. Ask any Sox fan about his contributions, and they’ll spin you a tale of the 2004 ALCS, where Millar drew a key walk off of Yankee closer Mariano Rivera to lead off the bottom of the ninth of Game 4 with the Sox down by a run. That walk set up pinch runner Dave Roberts’ steal of second base (“The Steal”), and eventual scoring on a Bill Mueller single.

Millar was quite a character in the clubhouse, too. Always with a smile on his face, always joking with teammates, always doing whatever he could to get people fired up. He even coined the infamous “Cowboy Up!” catch phrase that became the battle cry for the 2003 Sox. Despite the few times when he said the wrong thing at the wrong time (Doing shots of Jack before a playoff game? Really Kevin?), his motivation and upbeat attitude was infectious, making him a fan favorite. Though universally understood as a necessary move, Red Sox Nation and team members alike were sad to see him go.

If Millar even gets in the game tonight, I fully expect him to get a standing ovation that rivals the mediocre reception Damon received upon his first return to Fenway. Millar was a fan favorite, as was Damon, but didn’t reject an offer from Boston to sign with the Yankees. Millar simply wasn’t re-signed and moved on in the free-agent market. Even if he had been picked up by New York, I doubt he would be booed as bad as Damon, beings as our former center fielder turned his back on a very reasonable offer to stay in Boston.

So tonight, when I’m at Fenway, I will stand and cheer and raise my beer (shot of Jack) to Millar when he’s announced for his first at-bat. Then, I hope Schilling sits him down in three pitches.

Welcome back, Millar!

Not to look ahead too far, but next week takes the Sox into the heart of enemy territory, as they travel to the Bronx for a 3-game set with the Yankees. The Sox took the only game these teams have played so far this season due to a rain-out and those weird two-game “series” scheduling format, so this will be the first true head-to-head battle for first place in the AL East.

And what a battle it will be. Pending any rainouts for either teams, the pitching matchups for the three-game series look like this:

Tuesday: Josh Beckett vs. Jaret Wright
Wednesday: Matt Clement vs. Randy Johnson
Thursday: Curt Schilling vs. Mike Mussina

Our biggest advantage comes Tuesday when Beckett takes the mound opposite Wright. Beckett last saw the Yankees in the 2003 World Series, where he pitched a complete-game shutout in the series-clinching Game 6. Did I mention he did that in Yankee Stadium? Wright hasn’t lasted more than 5 innings in any of his three starts so far, letting four runs plate each time he’s pitched.

Wednesday’s game is a crapshoot, flip-of-the-coin tossup as to which team gets the nod. It all depends on which version of each pitcher shows up that day. Both Clement and Johnson have been Jekyll-and-Hyde so far this season, following up a great outing with one that lasts only a few innings. Clement looked great in his game against the Blue Jays yesterday, while Johnson struggled against them his last outing, giving up 6 runs in 5 innings.

And Thursday brings together staff aces, with Schilling and Mussina taking the ball. Though Mussina has been tough against the Sox, he’s also proved to be very hittable in some games. I’m not sure how accurate my memory is, but I seem to remember him not pitching well against the Sox in Yankee Stadium. Let’s hope I’m right.

Should be a great series, no matter the outcome. Let’s hope Texas gives Alex Rodriguez a rude Welcome Back in the Yankees weekend series, and get the Sox to capitalize on a weak-pitching Orioles club. I’d like to see a game or two cushion before we head to New York.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

And In This Cornah ...

If the other 18 games the Sox and Yankees play against each other are as exciting as last night’s matchup, its going to be one hell of a ride.

Fans expect a show when they sit down to watch these rivals square off, and last night did not disappoint. The headline for the event, outside of the actual game, was the return of Johnny Damon to Fenway … in Yankee pinstripes. NESN did a good job of broadcasting from the stadium during pre-game to capture the reaction of the fans. And it was pretty much as expected.

Every time Damon stuck his head out of the dugout, he was showered with a rousing round of Boos from the Fenway Faithful. But as he made his way to the plate to lead off the game after being announced, a few cheers could be heard amongst the jeers from jilted fans. The cheers grew enough that Damon stepped out of the box before the first pitch, and turned to the crowd.

In a show of class, Damon tipped his cap to Fenway. Tucking away the Grin of the Idiot he usually wears, Johnny wore a look of sincerity as he acknowledged the fans that cheered him for the hard work he gave and World Series Trophy he helped bring to Boston.

Continuing the gesture of good will, he turned to the Red Sox dugout, throwing props to his former coach Tito Francona, and teammates he once shared uniforms with just a year ago. As the boos became more and more scarce throughout the hallowed walls of Fenway, Damon paid one last piece of respect to the city and team, giving Wakefield a little point-out on the mound before taking his stance in the batter’s box.

Damon was expecting the boos, and handled them with grace. Though many fans will hold onto the grudge of his signing with the Yankees, many more of us will remember the 2004 season and everything Damon meant to the city. Damon’s actions before his first at-bat yesterday let everyone know that he will remember the very same thing.

The sappy moment aside, Sox fans moved on to the more good-natured and relentless razzing normally given to enemies of Fenway. When Damon took his place in centerfield in the bottom of the inning, fans showered him with dollar bills in effigy of his off-season contract with the Yankees. Throughout the game, chants of “Da-mon! Da-mon!” rained down from the stands, coaxing that idiot grin from number 18.

As big a story as Damon’s return to Fenway was for last night’s game, Mirabelli practically stole the show before the first pitch was even thrown. Dougie was on the first flight out of San Diego yesterday, hoping to make it to Fenway on time for the game. When he emerged from the Police Escort he received from the airport to the stadium, Mirabelli was already decked out in his Boston whites, having changed along the way.

Where Damon’s ears rang with boos, Mirabelli’s received a deafening cheer when he stepped out of the dugout and headed towards home plate, taking his rightful spot as Tim Wakefield’s catcher.

The game itself was amazing. Even from just watching it on TV, I could feel the electricity emanating from the crowd, giving the game a playoff atmosphere. There was no doubt why this rivalry is one of the greatest in professional sports.

Youkilis lead off the game with a walk, and don’t think there was a single fan in Fenway that didn’t notice our new leadoff guy reached while our old leadoff guy on the Yankees didn’t touch a single base all night. That point was driven home two batters later when Ortiz drove a single to the outfield, scoring Youkilis and giving the Sox an early 1-0 advantage.

Mirabelli stepped up in the third inning when he threw out the stealing Bubba Crosby, killing a scoring opportunity with the top of the Yankee order on deck. Johnny Damon promptly grounded out to Wakefield on the very next pitch, ending the top half of the inning.

With the game tied at 3 heading into the bottom of the eighth, the Yankees’ pitching strategy was unfurled. After reliever Tanyon Sturze gave up an RBI single to the struggling Mark Loretta to give the Sox a 4-3 edge, Torre went to the bullpen again.

With Ortiz striding to the plate, the Yankees brought in former Sox reliever Mike Myers, a pitcher Steinbrenner picked up in the offseason. Myers is a lefty killer, and is viewed as the answer to Big Papi.

All night long, a strong wind blowing straight in from centerfield, knocking down any ball lofted into the air long before reaching the stands, including a Wily Mo blast that would have been a key grand slam in the game. But Mother Nature proved to be no match for Ortiz. With two on, one out, and facing a full count from the sidearming Myers, Ortiz crushed a pitch to deep right-center field that found its way into the Boston bullpen for a three-run shot, giving the Sox a 7-3 advantage.

Its only fitting that Ortiz’s home run to the bullpen was caught by Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon. Ortiz gave the Sox a nice cushion late in the game with the blast, and now it was up to Papelbon to slam the door on the Yanks.

And slam it he did. Alex Rodriguez was retired on three straight heaters from Papelbon, and after Hideki Matsui popped out to third, Jorge Posada ended the game waving at strike three. Papelbon needed only 13 pitches to retire the 4-5-6 hitters in the Yankee lineup.

Round 1 has gone to the Red Sox after a game that featured the return of old heroes and new enemies, beloved figures, monster shots and spectacular finishes. I’m exhausted just thinking about the game, much less the 18 other ones yet to take place. Though the rivalry isn’t quite what it used to be pre-2004, it’s still the best in baseball.

And I can’t wait for Round 2.

As I mentioned before, last night marked the triumphant return of Doug Mirabelli to Boston. Dougie not only serves as Wakefield’s personal catcher, he’s also a great clubhouse presence and fan favorite on the Red Sox.

But another reason on my personal list of why I’m happy to see Mirabelli back in Boston: no more hockey-style catcher’s masks for the Red Sox! Josh Bard wore one of those ridiculous pieces of headgear in his short time here, and I cringed at the very sight of it (almost as much as I cringed when he let another Wakefield knuckler bounce to the backstop). Mirabelli and Varitek both don the traditional (and completely functional) helmet-and-mask combination that should be worn by MLB catchers. They need to outlaw the hockey-style ones just as much as those new CoolFlo batting helmets.

And if that wasn’t enough reason to love Mirabelli, rumor has it that in the mad rush to get to Fenway in time for the game, Dougie actually caught the first inning without wearing a cup.

Granted, his jewels probably weren’t in too much danger of getting crushed considering Wake’s money pitch flutters in at 60 mph, any guy can attest that it doesn’t take much to put a hurtin’ on the boys. And with that knuckleball jumping all over the place like it does, Mirabelli gets both StudBoy and CrazyMan points for not sporting a shell, even if only for an inning.

And today’s closing thought, just because I find it damn hilarious that they don’t even realize they’re ripping their own kind …