Who would have thought it would come down to a balaclava?
Expecting a cold and rainy night in New York, Los Angeles Angels second baseman Maicer Izturis dressed warmly for Game Two of the American League Championship Series. He wore long-sleeves underneath his jersey and a balaclava, a form of headgear that covers the whole head and exposes only the face. Bundled up, he was ready for a long night on the diamond, and a long night it was.
As evident in the first game, as well as in this second, a curse hangs over the head of whoever wears the balaclava. With a runner on second and two out in the first inning of Game One, Yankees designated hitter Hideki Matsui lifted a pop-fly to the left side of the infield.
Shortstop Eric Aybar hovered under it, as did third baseman Chone Figgins. There was no rain, so a ball could easily be spotted in the night’s sky, but neither knew where it was. Aybar thought Figgins would catch it, and Figgins thought Aybar would.
Amidst confusion, it dropped in front of Aybar , who was wearing the balaclava, allowing Johnny Damon to score the Yankees second run in an eventual 4-1 victory.
It was bitterly cold during Game One, and similarly so in Game Two, but perhaps superstitiously, Aybar discarded the head mask, and decided to freeze if it meant better fortunes.
What he didn’t know about the curse, however, was that once the balaclava has been worn, the curse can’t be undone. His night began harmlessly, as he turned three double-plays , one in the fifth, another in the sixth, and the final in the seventh.
The last of the three was questionable, and foreshadowed a blunder to come. Robinson Cano, who was wearing a balaclava himself and committed two errors at second base , hit a hard grounder to Izturis, who then flipped to Aybar. Aybar snagged the flip, made the turn and threw to first for the out–double play.
But Aybar didn’t touch the base, instead quickly toe-tapping in front of the base, something that usually goes unnoticed or just uncalled by umpires and has been done with regularity by shortstops for years.
It’s called the neighborhood play, and shortstops take advantage of the umpires positioning (they don’t stand even with the bag; instead on the infield grass between first and second) and are given the benefit of the doubt. Aybar did on this play. Selling the call is part of the game.
This didn’t work in the tenth, however, as Aybar’s neighborhood play was a bit too blatant. Jorge Posada shattered his bat with one out, sawing off a grounder to Izturis. He made the flip, as always, to Aybar.
But instead of touching the bag or standing very close, Aybar had it surrounded , with six inches of infield dirt between each cleat and the edge of the base. Cabrera slid under him as he leapt and made the throw to Morales.
Fox’s scoreboard in the top-left corner of the television screen immediately erased Cano from the basepaths and acknowledged that two were out. Second base umpire Jerry Lane said not so fast, calling Cano safe. Aybar went ballistic, as did Izturis. Manager Mike Scioscia stormed out of the dugout not to protest the call, but to ask why, after letting the neighborhood play go in the seventh, call it now?
Nothing came of the threat, but one thing was clear: The curse still had ahold of Aybar. After the teams traded runs in the eleventh, and after an exciting but scoreless twelfth, Izturis became the Balaclava’s next victim in the thirteenth.
The game was five hours old when Izturis gobbled up Melky Cabrera’s grounder. Runners were on first and second. The second baseman had only one play, to go to first for the inning’s second out, but he decided not to make it.
Instead, after snagging the hot shot, he turned to second and without hesitation, fired. He tried to do the impossible, to get the speedy Brett Gardner out at second and give Aybar a chance to turn his fourth double-play.
Aybar wasn’t expecting the throw, a throw that was wide of the bag. He stretched out, trying all he could to catch errant lapse in judgement, but he couldn’t, as Gardner slid into him, blocking his path and thwarting an attempted dive. The ball skipped beyond him.
Jerry Hairston Jr., who led off the inning with a single, sped around third. Third baseman Chone Figgins, who collected his first hit of this postseason to give the Angels a short-lived lead in the eleventh, couldn’t collect Itzuris’ errant throw cleanly, allowing Hairston to score the winning run.
Izturis walked off the field with the red balaclava still covering a majority of his face. His error put the Angels in a 2-0 hole, but now they head to sunny and warm Los Angeles for three games. Only there, in a new climate where balaclava’s aren’t necessary, can the curse be lifted.