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July 25, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

Today's game was a game to remember. Every pitch meant something, every inning was tense. Elite pitchers Pedro Martinez and Mariano Rivera turned mortal, David Wells walked nearly as many men in 5 2/3 innings as he had in 134 previous innings, role player Enrique Wilson became a hero, and Jorge Posada, whose season SLG was higher than his career OPS versus Pedro (.483 to .475), hit a home run on the first pitch he saw, opening the scoring and providing the margin of victory for what may very well be the best game played this season.

If there has been a better game played this season, I do not recall it. The fact that it was Yankees/Red Sox, and a battle for first place only added to the greatness of this game. It is because of games like these that we are baseball fans. It's because of games like these that we keep on coming back for more, no matter how expensive ticket prices and cable packages become, no matter how many of our favorite players leave for more money, no matter how many times the owners and players suspend a season to settle their collective bargaining differences. It because of games like these that baseball is the greatest game ever devised. To hell with football. Today was as good as sports gets. Today was a great game.

Once again, the Yankees defeated the Red Sox in a game that Pedro Martinez started--a game that Pedro Martinez MOVED BACK IN THE ROTATION to start. Pedro Martinez's track record against the Yankees is, in fact, as good an argument that exists that Won-Lost records are a horrible way to evaluate a pitcher's effectiveness and value. Pedro could have pitched better today, but I do not see what more he could have done to win on the 7th. His career ERA against the Yankees is 2.71, and his Quick DIPS is 2.31. He should be much better than 8-7 against them.

The Yankees were able to beat Pedro tonight because they were able to work the count early on, making him throw 49 pitches through the first two innings. They struck out ten times, but also worked four walks, and came through with seven hits. Perhaps Pedro wasn't his sharpest tonight, but the addition of Nick Johnson to the lineup provided a tremendous boost, eliminating one of the Yankees' three lineup holes. A second hole was filled by the exceptional play of Enrique Wilson, who has had inexpicable success against Pedro in the past (I believe there's a story behind this, but I don't recall it).

Part of the reason the Yankees have had such great success against Pedro is their starting pitching, which has been one of the pillars of their dynasty. They've usually matched Pedro with a great pitcher of their own, who almost always put up a performance to match the Boston ace's. Mike Mussina's start on the 7th is typical of the past Yankees/Pedro meetings.

But tonight was different. David Wells was not particularly good, perhaps suffering from a sore back. Despite his struggles, he was able to prevent a big inning, allowing single runs to the Sox in the first and second before settling down and holding them scoreless into the sixth (with a little help from a Manny Ramirez boner, running on a lazy fly ball to right-center, forgetting there was only one out). It was there that the wheels came off, and while he was able to get two outs, he lost the plate and walked the bases loaded.

But fortunately, the next batter up was Johnny Damon, a left-handed batter that Grady Little was unlikely to pinch-hit for, giving Joe Torre the perfect opportunity to bring in new accquisition Jesse Orosco...King of the LOOGYs. Orosco is the type of player that Randy Choate might become if he can throw strikes more consistently and gain Joe Torre's trust. He's a soft thrower (well, not for a 46 year old), with a motion that's tough for lefties to pick up. He struck out Damon to get out of the sixth, and retired Todd Walker to start the seventh.

At that point, he was in line for the win. The Yankees had gotten on the board in the second via Jorge Posada's unlikely home run, and tied it in the sixth on a fielder's choice. The seventh was obviously going to be Pedro's last inning, as he started the inning with 100 pitches. Wilson led off the inning with a single, then moved to second on a wild pitch to Alfonso Soriano. With Jeter up, he stole third base, and a Jeter walk gave the Yankees first and third with 1 out. At this point, Martinez was in a jam, and had thrown 119 pitches. It's tough to take the best pitcher on the planet out a ballgame, but it might have been the right decision at this point. Considering the situation, as well as Martinez's health history, the right move might have been to bring in Mike Timlin or Scott Sauerbeck to face Giambi and Williams. Instead, perhaps trying to get Pedro the win, Grady Little left him in the game. The gamble almost paid off, as he struck out Giambi on four pitches and was one strike away from retiring Williams. But Bernie laced a single to right, and Wilson scored the go-ahead run. Sauerbeck came in and promptly showed all the Yankees fans why Brian Cashman was so upset he couldn't get him, striking out Hideki Matsui, but the Yankees went to the bottom of the inning with the lead.

After Orosco retired Walker, Armando Benitez came in for his first huge relief appearance. With a postseason atmosphere in front of a hostile Fenway crowd, he faced the two best hitters in the Boston lineup, and retired them both. In the eighth, Benitez struck out Millar, gave up a single to Ortiz (whose pinch-runner, Jackson, promptly stole second), and induced a popup from Bill Mueller. It would probably have been wise to take Benitez out at this point rather than have him face the righty-killing Trot Nixon, but Torre left him in. Two balls later, one of which got away from Posada and sent Jackson to third, and Torre brought in Mariano Rivera, who completed the walk to Nixon. Rivera promptly got two strikes on Varitek, but a bloop single to left-center tied the game. Johnny Damon, with another chance to be the hero, struck out again.

Byung-Hyun Kim's last two appearances against the Yankees have done nothing to remove Games 4 and 5 from the forefront of Yankee fans' minds when Kim enters the game. He hasn't been pounded, but he hasn't gotten the job done, either. The hero of the game, Enrique Wilson, got his second hit of the game, stole his second base of the game, moved to third on a Soriano grounder, and scored on a Derek Jeter fly-ball to the goat of the game, limp-armed Johnny Damon, whose throw barely reached the pitcher's mound by the time Wilson crossed home plate.

But it still wasn't over. Rivera got Walker to pop out to second, but Nomar drilled a 1-2 pitch off the Monster, Manny worked a walk (and was pinch-run for, Joe Torre style, by Gabe Kapler), and suddenly, the Red Sox were in a position where a base hit would tie it, and a ball in the gap would win it. Rivera was able to strike out Millar, but pinch-hitter Jeremy "John Freaking Mabry?!" Giambi worked the count to 3-1. Suddenly, the Yankees faced the prospect of the bases loaded, where a wild pitch could tie it...and a single would lose it. But Giambi didn't work that walk, lining the ball softly to Alfonso Soriano, ending the game, extending the Yankees' division lead to 3 1/2, and giving a huge weekend series a great start.

The outcome of this game gives the Yankees a tremendous opportunity to win this series, with Mussina facing Burkett tomorrow, and an outside shot at sweeping it, if good Jeff Weaver shows up and bad Derek Lowe does, too. Being Yankees/Red Sox, these games are always magnified, but it is possible that these games will be some of the only times in the next couple of weeks that the Yankees will win and Boston will lose on the same day, and for that, they are very important.