39 and Holding

The New York Yankees’ quest for a 40th pennant hit another bump in the road on Monday evening. In a game that bore alarming similarity to the epic that had concluded only 16 hours beforehand, the Yanks again held a late-inning lead which Mariano Rivera could not hold, sending the game into extra innings where it was won on a hit by David Ortiz. Stop me if you’ve broken a household object — either in anger or in celebration — over this storyline before.

The tenacious Boston Red Sox, on the brink of a humiliating elimination just 48 hours before, have rallied to send the ALCS back to the Bronx by virtue of 26 innings and nearly 11 hours of baseball over the past two days. Even the most diehard of fans on both sides have been pushed to the brink of exhaustion, to say nothing of the two teams’ bullpens.

And suddenly it’s the Yankees who must look in the mirror and ask themselves about their ability to close the deal, to deliver the knockout punch. Their fans, many of whom assume a trip to the World Series is their birthright, can now be found second-guessing Joe Torre for extending his top relievers and muttering to themselves about some curse. C’mon, folks, did you really think this would be an easy tiptoe through the tulips? Did you even watch last year’s series?

On what was supposed to be an off-day, one that got cancelled due to Friday night’s rain, Monday’s game started just after 5 PM. And it began with a twist: the Red Sox jumped out to an early 2-0 lead against Mike Mussina, the first time they’ve opened the scoring in the series. Moose wasn’t nearly so sharp as he had been in the series opener, relying on a fastball rather than his assorted bag of tricks. Three straight one-out singles put their first run across, with Ortiz delivering the capper. Mussina then sandwiched two walks around a fielder’s choice, putting himself in a bases-loaded jam which could have broken the game open early. He whiffed Bill Mueller to end the threat, but only after he’d thrown 34 pitches in the frame.

The Yanks answered right back against Pedro Martinez, with Bernie Williams clubbing a solo shot to rightfield on Pedro’s first pitch. But that was the only run they could put over on him through five despite putting runners on base in every inning. With first and third and two outs in the Yankee third, Martinez exacted some revenge by striking out Williams on four pitches.

In the sixth, Pedro exhibited his usual 100-pitch clockwork, falling apart like a cheap timepiece. He entered the frame having thrown 82 pitches, quickly disposed of Williams on a flyout (85), got unlucky on a Jorge Posada chopper that went right over the mound into no-man’s land for an infield single (86), gave up a single to Ruben Sierra (88), went to a full count against Tony Clark before strking him out (95), plunked Miguel Cairo (97) to load the bases. On pitch 100, Derek Jeter slapped the ball down the rightfield line for a bases-clearing double and a 4-2 lead. Pedro Express #100 to Oblivion arrived right on time.

Clearly frustrated, Martinez drilled Alex Rodriguez on the elbow, then walked Gary Sheffield to reload the bases. Trot Nixon made a sliding catch on a Hideki Matsui drive to keep it a two-run game. Martinez, having thrown 111 pitches, was done for the day and turned matters over to a bullpen that had thrown 6.1 innings of one-run ball the night before.

Mussina had settled down after his rocky first inning, at one point retiring 11 out of 12 Boston hitters. But Mark Bellhorn led off the seventh with a double, and with Moose having thrown 105 pitches, Joe Torre elected to go to his own tired bullpen, which had given him six innings of one-run ball the night before until Paul Quantrill came in and yielded a single and a homer in the bottom of the 12th without retiring a batter.

In an attempt to buy as many outs as possible to lessen the load on Rivera and Tom Gordon, each of whom had thrown two innings on Sunday, Torre brought in Tanyon Sturtze. He too had put forth two strong innings in Game Four’s losing cause, but he wouldn’t be asked to go that far; Torre clearly had his eye on a Gordon-Manny Ramirez battle three hitters down the road. Gordon had limited Manny to 5-for-31 with a homer and a .555 OPS.

Sturtze induced Johnny Damon, mired in a slump that’s limited him to one hit in the series, to pop up. But Orlando Cabrera battled to a nine-pitch walk, putting two runners on as the fearsome Ramirez, still without an RBI in the series, came to the plate. Torre countered with Gordon and the move paid off as Manny grounded into a 5-4-3 double-play to end the inning.

The Yankees blew a golden opportunity against Mike Timlin in the top of the eighth. Miguel Cairo smoked Timlin’s first pitch for a double to centerfield and then Derek Jeter, one at-bat after delivering the game’s crucial blow up to that point, turned into the Derek Jeter Lite model that so many of us have railed against, the one which dropped an astounding 16 sacrifice bunts, second-highest in the league and a total just off that of his previous five years combined.

As statheads tore out their hair in fist-sized clumps, Jeter bunted Cairo over to third, something he might as easily have done with a fly ball or a grounder to the left side, to say nothing of the fact that with a base hit under his belt he might have been able to muster another one, so clutch is he (at least if you believe Tim McCarver). Grrrrrr.

Alex Rodriguez struck out swinging for the second out, and then Gary Sheffield drew a walk, ending Timlin’s evening. Keith Foulke, who’d thrown 2.2 innings on Sunday, came in and ran the count full to Matsui before he flied out to leftfield, yet another sign that this wasn’t Hideki’s night.

Gordon stayed in for the top of the eighth to face Ortiz. Recall that he gave the big slugger a triple in Game One on a ball that just missed leaving the yard. Here he did even worse, giving up a looooong homer to Ortiz on his second pitch to cut the margin to 4-3. Gordon then got ahead of Kevin Millar 0-2, but ended up throwing several curves in the dirt and walking him. Millar instantly gave way to pinch-runner extraoirdinaire Dave Roberts, who had scored the tying run the night before. Dancing off the first base bag, drawing several throws, Roberts immediately worked himself inside of the setup man’s head, and after Gordon fell behind 3-1 to Trot Nixon, he gave up a single that sent Roberts to third.

Burned by Gordon’s ineffectiveness, Torre had no choice but to summon Rivera yet again. With nobody out and a speedster on third, it was nearly academic that Mo would soon be saddled with his second blown saves in as many nights. Rivera quickly gave up a sac fly to Jason Varitek, but retired the Sox in order to escape the inning. The Yanks had been six outs from a pennant, but once again their motor had stalled.

That appeared to be only a momentary hiccup when Ruben Sierra drew a two-out walk off of Foulke in the ninth and then Tony Clark sent a drive down the rightfield line that was only a few feet short of leaving the field. The ball bounced once and went over the wall for a ground-rule double that stopped Sierra at third; had it stayed in the playing field the Yanks would almost surely have put the go-ahead run across. Two pitches later and still smarting from the bad break, the Yankee threat ended with Cairo fouling out.

The Sox were now in position to end the game with one swing. The winning run moved up 90 feet when Damon beat out an infield single, only his second base hit of the series. Foolishly, on the next pitch he took off for second base, and Posada nailed him. Rivera got Cabrera to ground out, then escaped a 2-0 count on Manny when the slugger lifted a harmless fly to centerfield.

The tense battle continued into extra innings. Game Three starter Bronson Arroyo, knocked out after three innings, opened the Boston tenth and dispatched the Yanks in impressive fashion, striking out both A-Rod and Sheffield. Felix Heredia came in for the Yanks and did his usual uneven job, striking out David Ortiz and then yielding a ground-rule double to Doug Whatsizname after a nine-pitch at-bat. Paul Quantrill came on and fared better than the previous night by actually getting hitters out.

The two managers continued to shuffle through their bullpens. Mike Myers and Alan Embree teamed to strike out the Yanks in the 11th. Quantrill got into trouble in the home half with two hits to open the inning. With the winning run on second and nobody out, Damon tried to bunt, and he ended up popping up to Posada. Quantrill appeared to turn his already-injured knee awkwardly and after summoning the Yankee trainers, departed in favor of Esteban Loaiza.

In the deservedly maligned Loaiza, such a bust after the deadline-day trade for Jose Contreras that he soon was dropped from the rotation and ended up winning only one game as a Yankee, the Yanks were now down to their last pitcher. “Game over,” I thought to myself. But Loaiza induced a double-play ball from Cabrera, 6-4-3, and the fight extended yet again.

Boston again got overzealous on the basepaths. Loaiza walked Ortiz with one out and the hulking slugger, with only four major-league steals under his belt, actually lumbered for second as Doug Mienkiewicz took a strike (a busted hit-and-run?). Posada’s throw nearly went over Jeter’s head into centerfield, but the shortstop hauled it down and put the tag on Ortiz and second-base ump Randy Marsh bought it. Replays show the big man, who had already launched into obscene tirades at striking out three times before, was probably safe.

Loaiza’s luck — not to mention that of the Yankees — finally ran out in the fourteenth inning. Two strikeouts and two walks, the second to Ramirez, brought Ortiz up yet again. Loaiza got ahead 1-2, and then Ortiz fouled off five out of six pitches. “Put me out of my misery,” I thought aloud, and on the at-bat’s 10th pitch, Ortiz did, singling to centerfield as Damon, running on contact, dashed home without a throw.

Many, including the commenters at this site, have chosen to second-guess Torre’s handling of the bullpen over the last two days for the predicament the Yanks now find themselves in. With the exception of Gordon’s outing in Game Five, it’s tough to see how it could have been improved by leaps and bounds. Instead, blame should be cast on the Yankee offense, which went eight innings last night against a makeshift lot of overworked relievers and came away with bupkus. Their patience evaporated in extra innings, as they drew only one walk while striking out nine times. If anybody seems to be getting tired out there, it’s that vaunted lineup, which has failed to score after the sixth inning two nights in a row despite numerous opportunities.

• • •

As fate would have it, I’m about to depart for Yankee Stadium, the holder of a bleacher-seat ticket (courtesy of my pal Cliff Corcoran) that three days ago I suspected I wouldn’t get to use. It’s cold and wet here, the weather may yet prevent the game from being played tonight, but I’ll have to head up to the Stadium — an hour-long trip each way from deep in the East Village — because MLB insists on raping the home-crowd for as much concessions income as they can before the game is called. Given everything that’s happened in the last 48 hours, it’s probably the least enjoyable set circumstances under which to be heading to a postseason game that I’ve ever experienced.

But damn it, I’m absolutely not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. I’m headed to a potentially decisive game in the ALCS, one in which the Yanks are up 3-2 and a single win away from a pennant. They’re playing in their own ballpark and not the Boston Bandbox of Horrors. The Sox have a gimp (Curt Schilling) and a dead-ass bullpen going for them. The Yanks have Jon Lieber, who’s given Boston fits in his last two starts (they’ve got a dead-ass bullpen too, but we’ll skip that). There are fans of at 28 other teams that would kill to be in this position. I ask no sympathy and offer only good thoughts, positive vibes, warm smiles, and a sunny disposition despite the rainy forecast.

No matter how often this seems to come around for the Yankees, I never take the opportunity to experience a sliver of it in person for granted. I’ll brave the weather, scream myself hoarse, and hope like hell for another goosebump moment on the level of the 1999 clincher, when Roger Clemens’ eighth-inning exit started Yankee Stadium shaking for hours. This is still as good as it gets and I enjoy the ride immensely. The faint of heart, who expected the Yanks to be polishing their World Series rings already, should find a way to do so themselves.

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