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April 6, 2005

Captains Clutch
by Larry Mahnken

No question, 2005 is off to a good start. No major disappointments to speak of, some outstanding performances, some great surprises. One great game, two wins.

Will it all go this well? Of course not, there will be stretches of immense frustration, and there will be stretches where it all goes even better. At least they've started out the good way this year.

Last season, coming off of an excruciating defeat in the ALCS, the Red Sox started out hot and laid the smack down on the Yankees in six of their first seven meetings. This year, the Yankees have rebounded from their humiliating ALCS defeat to make Boston look bad. As well as things have gone for the Yanks, they've gone just that bad for Boston. There is little to be happy about so far for the Red Sox, the things that have gone well were more or less expected to go well, and several things that were hoped for or expected to go well have gone poorly. Of course it's just two games, of course it doesn't mean that much, but these are two games that Boston fans recieved almost no enjoyment out of, and Yankees fans recieved almost complete enjoyment from.

There were high expectations for the Yankees today, with the debut of the newly accquired Carl Pavano. Pavano had a career year in 2004, posting a 3.00 ERA and winning 18 games, after being generally mediocre and often injured. He is expected by many in the mainstream to repeat his 2004 in pinstripes, and by many in the online community (including myself) to struggle somewhat this season due to his low strikeout rate and reliance on his defense.

So he came out and struck out two in the first inning. Then he struck out two in the second, and another two in the third.

Of course he returned to form after that, striking out only one more over the next 3.1 innings, but he only gave up seven singles and a homer to David Ortiz, and two runs. When he left, the Yankees lead 3-1, behind an RBI groundout by Gary Sheffield and a two-run homer by Hideki Matsui (his second in as many games). Mike Stanton gave back one of those runs, but the Yanks went into the ninth with a 3-2 lead and Mariano Rivera on the mound.

Unfortunately, after two consecutive seasons of close games and 7-game ALCS's, the Red Sox have a good bead on what Rivera's doing. He still has a low ERA against them, but they've come back a number of times in recent years, more than anyone else by a wide margin. Few teams are more capable of jumping on Rivera's mistakes than the Red Sox, and it happened again today.

It's easy to overblow this, Rivera's two blown saves in the ALCS last year consisted of a walk, single and a fly ball. Today it was a little more straightforward, as Rivera gave up a home run to Red Sox captain Jason Varitek.

Rivera got out of the inning after a single to Mueller, a strikeout by Bellhorn and a long flyout to the warning track by Johnny Damon, but with Keith Foulke already in the game, it looked like a repeat of last October's excruciating extra-inning battles was in order.

But at least the Yankees had the top of their lineup leading off the ninth, and Derek Jeter quickly took the count to 3-0. In the top of the ninth, my friend Kristen had asked me to give her some quick analysis to tell her boss so she could look like she knew a lot about baseball (all she knows is that she likes baseball, especially the Yanks. Smart girl). I told her to tell him that Jeter would win it in the ninth, because he's Mr. Clutch. I also told her that saying that kind of thing was a good way to piss me off, because it's so irrational and stupid.

But lo and behold, after Foulke battled back to get the count full, Jeter smacked the ball over the right field wall to win the game for the Yanks, make Kristen look prophetic to her boss, and made her boss a pleasure to work with the rest of the day. It was a truly outstanding finish to a great game, one of those "thank God baseball is back" moments, or if you're a Red Sox fan, a "I thought this stuff was supposed to end after October 27th" moment.

Maybe now Sox fans will realize that all those heartbreaking moments from the past 86 years had nothing to do with Babe Ruth or a curse... it was just baseball. That's how it goes sometimes.

Of course, it all adds to the Jeter legend now, a legend of clutch hitting, clutch fielding, clutch leadership, clutch fist pumping, clutch banging of hot chicks. It will be overblown in today's pregame and for the first half of the game as a deflating loss for the Red Sox, when in fact this is about the only time of year where this kind of loss (or victory) will have a negligible impact, because there's so much time to make up for it left.

No doubt the demons of last October are being exorcised this week in The Bronx. The "2000" chants will rain down upon them in a week, but if things keep going this way, they'll be raining down upon a first place team. Last year is gone, that loss and shame is permanent. All that matters now is this year. And this year is going just dandy so far.