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.


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 …

Monday, May 01, 2006

Getting the Band Back Together

Welcome Back, Dougie!

Even with all of the hype and excitement and what’s at stake concerning the arrival of the Yankees in Fenway for the first Boston-New York matchup of the season, not to mention the initial return of Johnny Damon to the city that made him famous, there’s just no getting around leading off this blog entry with what can only be described as fantasterrific news for the Red Sox.

Doug Mirabelli, personal catcher for Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, is back in a Boston uniform.

After enduring a month of the Bard experiment, which failed miserably, Theo Epstien pulled the trigger on a deal that sent the troubled backup catcher, who managed to log as many passed balls in the month of April (10) than Mirabelli did all of last season, to San Diego in exchange for the piece of mind that our every-fifth-day backstop is able to catch a knuckleball with some consistency.

From the business standpoint, the Sox probably had to fork over more than they should have, sending minor-league pitching prospect Cla Merdith, cash, and a player to be named later along with Bard. Bard’s $350,000 salary compared to Mirabelli’s $1.5 million may cause some to raise eyebrows, too.

But from a baseball standpoint, the decision was an easy one. Though Mirabelli probably won’t help the Sox score more runs, he will help fewer opponents cross the plate. Mirabelli knows the knuckleball, having been Wakefield’s catcher since 2001. Whereas Bard seemed unsure where the ball would land, much less how to dive in front of it when it did, Mirabelli is a seasoned professional at keeping Wake’s dancing devil at bay.

Some statheads have analyzed Bard’s performance so far this season, and came to the conclusion that his passed balls are responsible for almost two runs per game when Wake pitches. So even though Wake’s ERA is around 3, over 5 runs cross the plate. That’s not bad pitching, that’s bad catching.

And let’s not forget the piece of mind Wakefield gets with the return of his battery mate. I’ve heard announcers comment on how lively Wake’s knuckleball has looked all season, meaning its darting all over the place. But how confident can he really tossing it up to a catcher who can’t corral the pitch? If Wake is on the mound thinking Bard will probably boot his knuckler on a two-strike count or with a runner on base, he probably shakes off his money pitch and serves up a “fastball” to ensure Bard can handle it. Since Wake’s fastball is most pitcher’s change-up, its gonna get belted.

Mirabelli gives Wake that confidence he needs to rattle off an entire game full of floating knucklers with no reprieve. And obviously its not just the Red Sox that think so. Its being reported that Steinbrenner jumped into the bidding war for Mirabelli at the last minute to try to block his return to Boston.

How unbelievably shifty of Steinbrenner to try to pull a move like that. Trading for a player just to keep him from going to the Red Sox? Especially when they have absolutely ZERO need for a catcher! Poor Mirabelli would be wallowing in the mire that is the Yankees minor league system for the rest of his career, just so he wouldn’t catch for Wake, if Steinbrenner had his way. That’s ridiculous. My only consolation here is that he failed. Suck it, Steinbrenner. I hope Dougie sticks it to the Yankees tonight.

Mirabelli is currently on a plane heading back to Boston to rejoin his old team. All of Boston awaits his arrival, hoping the plane gets him to town in time to catch Wakefield when he takes the mound against the Yankees.

I can only wish I was in the locker room when Wake greets Doug with a giant man-hug. I’m gettin’ all misty just thinking about it.

Let the Battle for First begin. After a horrible week on the road, where they dropped 6 of 9 games and lost consecutive series to division rivals Toronto and Tampa Bay, the Red Sox limp back to Fenway for a 7-game homestand. Their recent slide has taken them from the best record in baseball into a tie for first place as they struggle to find ways to get men across the plate.

Its only fitting that the Sox are tied with the very team they open their homestand against: the New York Yankees. Though the Yankees are still struggling with their starting and relief pitching, their offense has been clicking on all cylinders and keeping the Yankees on a winning trend. Now that these teams are knotted up at the top of the AL East, today begins the first of eight games against each other.

The gloves are off. The true start to the 2006 season begins today.