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      F I E L D  T R I P S


September 7, 2003: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees, Yankee Stadium
For a Fat Man, He Didn't Sweat Much

The AL East race had tightened — like a noose. Only this time, the Yankees looked like the condemned. Over the past seventeen days, they'd squandered six games in the stadings. Adding insult to injury, the Red Sox had administered back-to-back bombings in the Bronx by a combined score of 20-3, pulling within a game and a half of their heated rivals. One more victory by the Sox would mean not only a series sweep, but a 10-9 tilt in the season slate, and a temper tantrum from George Steinbrenner guaranteed to peel paint off the Yankee clubhouse walls and fill the tabloid back pages for days to come. Joe Torre and Brian Cashman's job security would be questioned again while the Boss coiled rope, telling his minions, "Hang 'em high."

In a game that could legitimately lay claim as "The Most Important Regular Season Game of the Torre Era," the Yanks had something to prove, and no one moreso than the man on the mound this day. David Wells had been winless in his past seven starts since July 19 (the longest drought of his Yankee career), had his work ethic publicly questioned by pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, and had been branded a crybaby on the front page of the New York Daily News the day before — for filing a civil suit against the man who sucker-punched him in a diner last year (pint-sized assailant Rocco Grazoisa was convicted of third-degree assault in the criminal case and faces 45 days in jail pending appeal). Sucker-punched again.

But even if his suit didn't fit so perfectly, no Yankee pitcher was more perfectly suited to pitch this ballgame. Wells came in with a 41-18 lifetime record and 3.80 ERA in Yankee Stadium, and a proven capacity to shut out the bad vibes and simply T.C.B. Back in the spring, when the controversy caused by his newly-published autobiography swirled around the team, Boomer found refuge on the mound, pitching lights-out baseball — 10-2, 3.40 ERA and only 4 walks — in the season's first three months. It took no genius to envision him rising to the occasion again.

Rise he did.

On gorgeous sunny Sunday tailor-made for a pennant race, Wells squared off in a tense pitching duel against Jeff Suppan. Though neither dominated, both pitchers made short work of opposing hitters. Scoreless, the first six frames flew by in under 90 minutes. A fistful of popups (including two by Manny Ramirez) enabled Wells to limit the Sox to three hits in that span. He wriggled out of trouble in the fifth following a leadoff double by Kevin Millar by inducing groundouts to Jason Varitek and Gabe Kapler which failed to advance the runner, then striking out Damian Jackson on three pitches. The Fat Man wasn't messing around today.

Neither was Suppan. Before being acquired on July 31, the Sox starter had spent nearly all of his nine big league seasons safely distant from any semblance of a pennant race, eating innings in places like Kansas City and Pittsburgh because, well, somebody had to. He'd caught a hot streak in Pittsburgh, at 10-7 with a 3.57 ERA making himself into a more desirable commodity. But since coming over from the Pirates he'd been less than stellar, yielding a 6.34 ERA. But on this day, he baffled the Yankee batters, limiting them to one hit in the first six innings, a single by Derek Jeter. Jeter, who'd missed the previous five games with a pulled rib-cage muscle, showed no ill effects from his night on the town the previous evening.

The same could not be said for my companion for the game, my brother Bryan, for whom a combination of vodka gimlets and Jeter-induced giddiness had produced a bit of a hangover. Long story short: out with friends the night before, Bryan had come across Thee Yankee Shortstop at the World Bar in the mezzanine of Trump World Tower, where Jeter resides. A phone call and 15 minutes later, and we were all sitting 15 feet from Derek, gawking like the pathetic fan-boys (and -girls) we otherwise never allow ourselves to be... Anyway, as I headed for the concessions stand between innings, Bryan slowly croaked out his order. "The largest Coke you can procure. One hot dog. Four Advil. Two Alka-Seltzer. And a stomach pump."

The seventh brought another threat for Wells in the form of a leadoff double to rightfield by Ramirez. Karim Garcia's strong peg off the carom nearly nailed Manny as he nonchalanted his way to second base. Boomer settled down to strike out the dangerous David Ortiz on three pitches, then battled Millar to a full count before giving up ball four. On the next pitch, Varitek ripped a scorcher into the hole between short and third. Jeter dove and gloved the ball, not only saving the potential run but recovering in time to force Millar at second, and barely missing a double play. Kapler then worked Wells to another full count, with Varitek stealing second. With two men now in scoring position, Wells got Kapler to ground to third again, ending the threat.

By this time the caffeine and grilled meat has brought some color back to Bryan, and he'd even pumped his fists after Kapler's groundout. The night before had ended with a rare partisan display from him, a rallying cry of "Lets Go, Yan-kees!" on the way to hailing a cab. For somebody who gave me shit about my own evolution into a Yanks fan, this was a breakthrough, albeit a well-oiled one. Now in the bottom of the seventh, with Jeter leading off, my brother turned resourceful. He folded up his Teton Gravity Research hat into a Rally Cap, and urged me to do the same to my Yanks cap. I followed suit, but after Jeter grounded out, I turned to him and asked, "Is this thing even plugged in?" I restored my cap to the upright position as Jason Giambi popped out to third baseman Bill Mueller in shallow leftfield. The Yankee offense was looking down the barrel at its 18th consecutive scoreless inning.

But when Jorge Posada drew a two-out, four-pitch walk, I reconsidered my options and returned to the Rally Cap. The slumping Bernie Williams needed all the help he could get; Bernie had gone 13-for-64 since his last homer on August 19 and had recently been dropped to sixth in the batting order. On Suppan's 2-2 pitch, Williams connected, lofting a towering fly ball to rightfield. The ball hung in the air so long I swear they started playing the theme from The Natural while it was still midflight. Kapler chased it back to the wall, but he ran out of real estate eventually — a two-run homer! The Stadium erupted as "Disco Inferno" blared, a surprisingly bipartisan crowd of 55,212 at last coming down squarely on the side of the home team. Hideki Matsui followed with a double, just the third hit on the afternoon for the Yanks, but Aaron Boone flew out, ending the inning.

Wells began the eighth in strong form, striking out pinch-hitter Lou Merloni looking. Johnny Damon then hit a grounder to short, but Jeter had to rush his throw and missed his target. E-6. Mueller blooped a single to shallow left, with Damon stopping at second. At last, this spelled the end of Boomer's afternoon, and he got a richly deserved standing ovation from the crowd, doffing his cap on his way to the dugout. In a surprising move, Torre called upon Mariano Rivera. His closer had been struggling with some of his longer save opportunities, but with Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz the next three batters, Joe was — to put it bluntly — in no mood to fuck around with the fickleness of his setup men today. Fair enough.

Rivera retired Nomar on a flyout, but Manny then pooched another base hit into short right, scoring Damon. But Ortiz hiit into a force, keeping the Yanks ahead by a run. They widened the margin in the bottom of the eighth with Suppan gone. Facing Alan Embree with one out, Alfonso Soriano, who'd had lousy at-bats all day (so what else is new?) swung at the first pitch and replicated Ramirez's bloop to right. With Kapler, Merloni and Millar converging on the ball, Sori turned on the afterburners and stretched his hit into a double. He stole third two pitches later, then scored as Nick Johnson slapped a single to right. Boston manager Grady Little continued his bullpen shuffle, bringing in Scott Williamson to walk Jeter, then Scott Sauerbeck to induce Jason Giambi to ground into a double play.

The ninth started ominously, as Millar lashed Rivera's second pitch up the middle for a single. But Varitek hit into a fielder's choice and pinch-hitter Trot Nixon popped out. Pinch-hitter Todd Walker then slapped Rivera's first pitch right back to the mound, and Rivera, mindful of his own fielding woes, jogged the ball halfway over to first before underhanding it to Nick Johnson. Ballgame and season series to the Yanks, and at last, a bit of breathing room.

Final Score: Yanks 3, Red Sox 1: Two hot dogs, a Coke, one great pitchers duel, one well-timed Rally Cap, one "Disco Inferno," one fat guy who knows how to pitch, one 10-9 series edge to the Yanks, and three games ahead in the loss column. BOX SCORE