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July 26, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

Round two goes to Boston, in a game that was almost the mirror image of Friday's.

When these two met at the beginning of the month, I wrote that the first three games were not at all representative of either team's quality. Well, these last three games that they've played are representative of their quality, and what great games they have been. Had I paid money to see these games, I would say I was getting my money's worth. Oh wait, I'm paying for cable. Okay, I'm getting my money's worth.

Strangely, for games so representative of the overall quality of the opponents, there have been a great many uncharacteristic things happening. David Wells walked five batters; Pedro Martinez walked four and gave up seven hits. Mariano Rivera struggled; Enrique Wilson got two important hits on Friday, and Jesse Orosco struck out a right-handed batter today. John Burkett shut down the Yankees, who have often lit him up; Scott Sauerbeck, who dominates left-handed batters, gave up a double to Nick Johnson, who has struggled against left-handed pitchers. Jeremy Giambi stole a base...sort of. Nomar Garciaparra bunted. Up was down, black was white, dogs and cats living together! What's next, Alfonso Soriano walks? Okay, sorry, I got a little carried away there. Let's be realistic.

After the Yankees' victory last night, it seemed that this series was already decided, Mike Mussina would defeat John Burkett today, and the outcome of the Lowe/Weaver game tomorrow would be to complete or prevent the sweep. But John Burkett, entering the game with a career 9.66 ERA against the Yankees, was brilliant, not allowing more than one base runner in any of the innings he pitched, holding the Yankees scoreless two outs into the sixth, before being pulled for lefty Alan Embree. Not to disrespect Burkett, but the Yankees should have scored more runs against him, or at least had more scoring opportunities. Their failure to do so is the biggest reason that they lost this game.

But they didn't give in. With one out, Raul Mondesi singled and Jorge Posada drove an automatic double over the right-centerfield wall. Pinch hitter Ruben Sierra singled them both in, but the Yankees lost an opportunity to perhaps tie the game in that inning when Sierra's pinch-runner Enrique Wilson ran through Willie Randolph's stop sign, trying to score from first on a Jeter double off of The Monster.

Had Wilson stopped, the Yankees would have had Jason Giambi, their best hitter, at the plate with the tying run on second base. However, it is likely that Scott Sauerbeck would have come in to face the lefty Giambi, and the Yankees would probably not have scored any more runs. Wilson's gaffe seemed costly at the time, but it did not likely change the outcome of the ballgame.

Sauerbeck did come in for the eighth, and got Giambi and Matsui to pop out to left. But in between those two outs, he allowed Bernie Williams to get to second base when he threw a ball squibbed to his right past the first baseman. Nick Johnson followed Matsui's out by pulling a clutch double to right, hopefully ending Todd Zeile's career as a Designated Hitter. Grady Little brought in Byung-Hyun Kim to try and get out of the inning, but pinch-hitter Karim Garcia bounced a single past Todd Walker to tie the game.

Walker quickly atoned for his lack of range, ripping a double to left-center off of Mussina to lead off the bottom of the eighth. But on a 1-0 count, Nomar Garciaparra inexplicably tried to bunt, instead lining it right into Mike Mussina's glove. If Grady Little called that play, it is a wonder that he wasn't fired by Theo Epstein on the spot, and if Nomar Garciaparra did that on his own volition, one has to hope that someone told him after the game, "You're Nomar Garciaparra. Don't do that." Either way, one half-expected furniture to come flying through the window of Epstein's skybox, which it did not. Maybe he wasn't at the game. Yeah, right.

The free out allowed the Yankees to walk Manny Ramirez, and Kevin Millar followed with a harmless line drive out to Garcia. With righty-killing Trot Nixon at the plate, Torre gambled, bringing in LOOGY Jesse Orosco. This time, rather than leaving his lefty in there like he did last night with Damon, Little pinch-hit righty Gabe Kapler. A passed ball on the first pitch moved the runners to second and third, and Torre was presented with the option of walking Kapler and bringing Benitez in to face Bill Mueller. Instead, he allowed Orosco to pitch, and on a 3-2 count, Kapler was called out on check swing by the first-base umpire, though replays (well, replay. Thanks FOX!) showed that if he went around, it was by a nanometer. It would not be the last call the umpires would blow.

The Red Sox kept the Yankees from scoring in the ninth with two excellent plays, the first by Nomar Garciaparra, who showed great range in fielding Enrique Wilson's bouncer. The second was by Johnny Damon, who, following a Jeter single, made a diving catch on a shallow fly ball by Giambi that might have scored Jeter had it dropped in. It went to the ninth, and Armando Benitez came in.

I have been defending the Armando Benitez trade since it became official, which was the first time I really looked at Benitez critically, instead of dismissively. Let me say this: Armando Benitez did not pitch badly today, but he did lose the game. After retiring Bill Mueller to start the ninth, he gave up a hard hit ball to Jeremy Giambi, who held at first when Karim Garcia fielded it perfectly. That was a good break, what followed was a bad break.

On a 3-2 pitch to Jason Varitek, Giambi took off for second base. Varitek swung and missed, and Posada threw down to second base. The throw was a little to Jeter's right, but still beat Giambi by plenty. Jeter tagged Little G before his foot hit the bag, and the ninth inning was over.

But the second base umpire called Giambi safe. He was not safe. He was out. I looked at it twenty times, and it wasn't close. He was out. The inning was over. That's all I will say about that. If you take away the bad break and the good break, Giambi should have been at second anyway, so in a way, things evened out.

Johnny Damon was intentionally walked, bringing up pinch-hitter David Ortiz. On an 0-2 pitch, Benitez through a pitch at the knees, but off the plate that he felt should have been a strike. The next pitch was supposed to be in the same spot. Instead, it was thigh-high and over the plate. Ortiz drilled it off The Monster, Red Sox win.

You could rationalize things by saying that the Yankees should have lost yesterday and won today, and things even out. That might make you feel better, but it ignores the reality of the situation. The Yankees didn't lose yesterday, they won, and today they gave away a ballgame. You cannot afford to give away games if you want to win pennants; especially not to the team you are fighting for first in the standings. This game was a great boost to the Red Sox, and a lost opportunity for the Yankees.

But it was still a great game. John Sterling said on the radio today (one of the only sensible things he's said), "If someone says that these last two games weren't great, then they just don't like baseball." If Red Sox fans don't want to call yesterday's game the best game of the year, then we have today's for you. Something for everyone.

I think sjohnny, in today's chatter, summed up how this game represents why baseball is the greatest of all sports:
Why does[n't] Bud preach about stuff like this[?] Do you think there is 30 minutes of sustained drama anywhere in the middle of the season in the NBA?
There is no greater drama in sports than baseball drama, and these last two games have had more dramatic tension than the entire NFL, NBA and NHL regular seasons combined.

Derek Lowe and Jeff Weaver tomorrow night on ESPN, in a game that cannot possibly live up to the first two. But then, the way uncharacteristic things have happened this weekend, I half expect Weaver to strike out 21.

* * *

Benitez Game Rating: I gave Benitez a "good" for Friday's game, he did a good job, but put Mariano in a tough situation when he left. Today, he didn't pitch badly, but he did give up a single that should have been a double to Giambi, and he gave up the game-winning hit to Ortiz. I don't want to give him a "poor" rating, but I don't feel comfortable saying that this is "okay", either. So, I'll give him half-credit for each for now, unless someone can talk me into changing it one way or the other.

Benitez still hasn't had a single game where I wished he hadn't been in there. If Mets fans are gloating over this loss, and think that Benitez is going to sink the Yankees' ship, Mets fans are idiots. Armando is doing just fine.