The Beatdown in the Boogie-Down (or, The Weekend that Made Us Men)
It took four nights to answer a year's worth of questions.
The stakes were unthinkably high for a series in early August. This series wasn't going to be the run-of-the-mill battle for bragging rights. It was even going to be about more than the division title that was almost absolutely at stake already, a month and a half before the season's end.
It would be about justifying the $420 million committed to three big-name players in November in an attempt to shift the balance of power back to the Bronx after watching the Yankees go home early for the first time in over a decade.
It would be about whether the team could keep Derek Jeter's lofty promise to bring the venerable ghosts from the old Cathedral with them into the new Stadium.
It would be about the team's biggest star, and biggest distraction, finally coming up big in big moments.
It would be about a star rookie coming of age, gutting out a victory on a day when his best stuff was nowhere to be found. And it would be about an aging veteran proving that he still had enough left in the tank to earn the full balance of an incentive-based contract, and the full measure of respect he felt he deserved from the front office.
It would be about the Big Picture. It would be the defining answer to the question every fan faithful to the pinstripes needed to know:
Did these New York Yankees, by far the best of any team in the league on paper, have what it takes to be Champions?
It took four hot, sweaty nights against the most hated of rivals, in the earliest must-win series in recent memory, to announce to the world of baseball that the answer is a resounding Yes.
Thursday—Yankees 13, Boston 6
The weekend began with an ugly, badly-pitched game that lasted at least an hour longer than anyone really wanted to watch.
On the winning side of the record was 23-year-old Joba Chamberlain. The big right hander was shaky from the start, walked a career-high seven batters, and was forced to work hard for every single one of the 15 outs he got.
In every one of the first three innings, the Red Sox put two runners on base. They came away with one run. And the two they scored in the fourth would make very little difference.
After the Yankee offense exploded for eight runs in the fourth, Chamberlain walked the bases loaded and give up a run with one out before finally, mercifully striking out the last two hitters he faced.
He spun and punched the air, triumphantly, and then sagged as he walked from the mound, relieved to have his run support, knowing that it hadn't been pretty. It would be Boston's last true threat of the day.
The losing pitcher was 42-year-old John Smoltz, a mighty warrior with a World Series ring and a couple of Cy Young Awards, but a shadow of his former self as he struggled to recover his command after Tommy John surgery in 2008.
His breaking ball spun, instead of breaking, and his once vaunted fastball was a few miles short. Five straight runners reached base against him to start the fourth, and when all the damage was done he would be held responsible for seven runs over three and a third innings pitched.
The Red Sox cut him on Friday.
If that was Smoltz' last start, it was a sad day for the game. Anyone who saw him dominate the National League East for an entire decade, then voluntarily move to the bullpen—eschewing his chance at 300 career victories in the process—and continue to dominate the division from there, could not doubt his toughness or his greatness.
Here was a Man. He will certainly have earned his place in Cooperstown when they vote him into the Hall.
Friday—Yankees 2, Boston 0 (15 innings)
And now, a little trip back in time to June 9, 2009
A.J. Burnett walked into Fenway Park...and got so amped up after giving up a home run to David Ortiz that he sped his delivery up to almost twice its usual time to home. Needless to say, he had no idea where the ball was going, and gave up four more runs very quickly before getting the hook in the third inning....
Burnett's big question mark when he came to the Yankees was the number of pitches he has thrown in the playoffs in his career (that would be zero). His big blemish, on the eve of the biggest start of his career, was his tendency to overthrow in big situations (like in Fenway, twice in the first half).
His task on Friday night would be to stand toe to toe with one of the three best pitchers in the game, who'd made his bones beating the Yankees time and time again and was sure to allow their offense next to nothing.
And whatever happened, he must not blink.
By the time Girardi came to take the ball, with two outs in the top of the eighth, Burnett had crowned himself the staff's ace. He allowed one hit, a leadoff single. He walked six Red Sox, and stranded them all on base. No runs had scored. He had faced down Beckett, and his own adrenaline, and become the pitcher the Yankees need him to be.
But he would not get a win. Beckett was just as good for Boston through seven innings, and for seven more the bullpens stifled their opponents, back and forth, neither side willing to give an inch or able to force a runner across the plate.
By the fourteenth the Red Sox had used every pitcher in their bullpen besides Japanese rookie Junichi Tazawa. The first hitter he faced was his childhood hero Hideki Matsui. He retired his idol, and then he got into trouble.
With two on and one out, Girardi gambled and emptied his bench, pinch-running for weary catcher Jorge Posada at second base. But the rally was cut short by a magnificent leaping catch. The game continued.
With two outs in the bottom of the fifteenth inning, Alex Rodriguez stepped to the plate.
Through scandal and injury, Rodriguez has played through the worst statistical season of his career with a new, serene look on his face. He seems finally to enjoy his teammates' company—especially fellow ex-Ranger Mark Teixeira.
Perhaps with Teixeira taking some pressure off of his shoulders he has found some equanimity. Or perhaps by the bottom of the fifteenth, he was just too tired to over-swing.
The towering home run fell into Boston's empty bullpen. Burnett, still on the bench watching the drama unfold, was there to administer the de rigeur reward for a walk-off hit: a whipped-cream pie to the face.
Rodriguez laughed, mugged for the camera, and let the whipped cream linger on his face as he finished his postgame interviews. It was the first time he'd ever looked so much like a Yankee.
Saturday—Yankees 5, Boston 0
If you look really closely at his delivery, the difference between CC Sabathia's most dominant performances and his poor outings exists within a fraction of a second. When his release point is perfect, he can place his fastball anywhere he wants at 95-97 miles per hour.
When he's off, he releases the ball an almost imperceptible moment earlier and it flies high and off-target towards the first-base side of the plate by several inches.
Sabathia had predicted in an interview before Saturday's game that his best work of the season was ahead of him. After an inconsistent month of July that saw him go 3-3 with a 4.62 ERA, and an ugly victory in the series finale in Chicago, there was plenty of room for improvement.
Boston's prized young right-hander Clay Buchholz battled valiantly through six innings, allowing only two runs on six hits in a tough-luck loss. Against almost any other pitcher an outing like that might have gotten him a win.
But Sabathia, true to his confident word, allowed only four baserunners in seven and two-thirds innings, striking out nine along the way, and the Boston bullpen continued their struggles in the late innings of the Yankees' third straight victory in the series.
Other stars included captain Derek Jeter, who hit a two-run home run in the eighth inning to put the game away, and Robinson Cano, who had three hits.
The game saw a bit of controversy unfold in the seventh, when Boston reliever Ramon Ramirez was ejected after throwing a fastball high and tight to Mark Teixeira, then hitting the next batter, a fellow named Rodriguez, in the back with a high, inside fastball.
Fox's crack announcing team of McCarver, Buck, and Rosenthal, truly a modern-day Three Stooges, argued briefly whether Ramirez' actions were intentional, vengeance for a fastball that hit Dustin Pedroia on Thursday night, and unanimously came to a nonsensical conclusion that to them seemed obvious—that Boston manager Terry Francona would certainly not risk another baserunner in a close game.
After all, as the Reverend Ozzie Guillen teaches, sometimes you have to take an eye for an eye, no matter what.
I'm not suggesting Francona gave an order. My theory is that Ramirez acted on his own, trying at very least to intimidate the Yankees into yielding the outside part of the plate a la Pedro Martinez, circa 2003.
And certainly, I think the ejection was hasty, but understandable from the umpires' point of view; a middle-reliever doesn't ever get much benifit of the doubt when he throws two fastballs in the vicinity of an arch-nemesis' biggest stars.
The moment mattered very little, in the scope of the game, and would serve as little more than a darkly humorous counterpoint to the high drama that would unfold in the finale.
Sunday—Yankees 5, Boston 2
Andy Pettitte and John Smoltz have a combined twenty-eight postseason victories between them.
They faced off twice in the Torre Dynasty's first World Series, in 1996, and Pettitte beat Smoltz 1-0 in the fifth game of that series to complete a three-game sweep in Atlanta that propelled the Yankees to the championship. Their teams met again in the 1999 World Series, that one won by New York in four games.
Both pitchers are proud veterans, almost certain to be Hall of Famers. Both have witnessed, and made, history. And both had the same thing to prove coming into this season: that they had something left.
Three days after Smoltz' comeback with Boston was well and truly derailed, the most senior member of the Yankees' starting rotation took the mound with the chance to virtually end the Red Sox' aspirations to a division title.
After fourteen seasons of big games, Pettitte's body had broken down somewhat at the end of 2008 and he lost seven of his last nine decisions, helping to bring the Yankees' season to an early close.
Offered a one-year deal at $10 million (down from $16 in 2007 and 2008), Pettitte held out, and eventually signed a deal with a base salary of $5.5 million—with an additional $6.5 million in incentives for a full season's work.
At 9-6 with a 4.35 ERA, he'd more than earned his keep thus far, and was riding a hot streak over his first four starts of the second half.
Opposite him would be Jon Lester, a young lefty who drew myriad comparisons to a young Pettitte. Both had impeccable control. Both were seasoned veterans with playoff experience at a young age. And both were at their best in games where their team's back was to the wall.
At the seventh-inning stretch, there was no score. Pettitte, working constantly into and out of trouble, had thrown ninety-two pitches through his first five innings, but then found enough in reserve to retire the next six hitters he faced with only 20. He'd given up five hits, and struck out four.
Lester had been even better, allowing just three baserunners through the first six innings.
Leading off the seventh inning was Friday night's hero, Alex Rodriguez. For the second time in three days, he hit a monstrous home run to left field to break a scoreless tie. Lester finished the seventh inning without further damage, but it seemed his brilliant night would also go to waste, like Beckett's and Buchholz' before.
Phil Coke, Friday's winner, came out to pitch to Ellsbury in the eighth inning...and then almost inexplicably stayed in to face the next four hitters—all right-handed. Phil Hughes was nowhere to be found.
Pedroia singled, and newly-acquired slugger Victor Martinez hit a home run to snap Boston's scoreless streak at 31 innings, and give the Red Sox a 2-1 lead. After another single, Coke coaxed a double-play grounder out of Jason Bay, but left the field trailing.
Fire-thrower Daniel Bard, Boston's answer to Phil Hughes and/or Chamberlain, retired the first two batters he faced on soft ground balls. Four outs separated the Red Sox from new life.
Then the ghosts came out. And the first form they took was that of an old Boston hero.
"Don't swing harder, swing quicker." - Joe Morgan
A 1-1 fastball, ninety-eight miles per hour, flies from Bard's hand into the strike-zone, knee-high on the inner third. Damon swings quicker.
Bard, obviously spooked, resolves not to throw a fastball to Mark Teixeira. The first slider floats in the middle of the strike zone. Teixeira lays off. Strike one.
The second slider floats in the exact same spot. Teixeira is ready for it. His slight uppercut does the moment justice; the ball flies high over everything, seeming to take forever to land in the second deck. 3-2 Yankees.
Bard, completely undone, walked Rodriguez and was pulled. Okajima allowed two more runs to cross the plate before the inning ended.
In trotted Rivera. Ballgame over.
At first glance, this is the telling comparison: the Yankees' bullpen allowed four runs in fourteen and two-thirds innings, for a series-long 2.45 ERA. Conversely, in four games and nineteen and a third innings pitched, Red Sox relievers surrendered fifteen runs, giving the American League's best bullpen a 6.98 ERA for the series.
With as much emphasis as the Red Sox placed on upgrading their offense for the stretch run, they left their pitching staff in a state of disrepair that cost them mightily in all four games.
The loss of Masterson (in the Martinez trade), combined with Smoltz' ineffectiveness and the injuries to Matsuzaka and Wakefield, has taxed the remaining members of the bullpen. The Red Sox' pitching staff no longer looks like it can even contend for more than three days out of five.
But in reality, the biggest difference between this series and the eight Red Sox victories in the first half, was the Yankees' starting pitchers. From Friday night to Sunday night, the Yankees starting pitchers held Boston's offense scoreless for 22 and 2/3 innings.
Beckett, Buchholz and Lester were just about equally good, allowing only three runs in twenty innings. But the true eye-opener comes from comparing this weekend to the Yankees' starters' ERA over the first eight games of the season series, when they up thirty earned runs in just 38 and a 1/3 innings—a 7.04 ERA.
The playoff rotation of Burnett, Sabathia, Pettitte, and Chamberlain is a Big Four that absolutely no one in the major leagues wants to face right now. And it's official—after this weekend, it's no longer premature to start talking about the playoffs.
With 51 games to play, a six-and-a-half game lead is historically pretty safe. With the competition reeling, and our team fully healthy for the first time in months, the division title is New York's for the taking.
And now that they've proved themselves against the only foe that really matters, the very sky is their only limit.
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