Bronx, N.Y., October 20, 2004 — Well, that which cannot happen has come to pass. It’s a true statement on several levels, but for our purposes let’s just concern ourselves with two: First, when push comes to shove, the Yankees always beat the Red Sox. And more generally, teams who lose the first three games of a best-of-seven series in most major sports, and certainly in baseball, can’t recover from that deficit.
Of course, the first of those two is clearly incorrect, as anyone with a sense of the rivalry’s history before 1978, and again in the years from that victorious season until Joe Torre’s arrival behind that Yankee bench, already knows. What’s more, looking back 100 years and 10 days ago (nice round numbers, huh?), the New York Highlanders were denied a pennant on the 1904 season’s final day when after taking the first of two from the Boston Pilgrims, they were unable to come through with the doubleheader sweep. One side can hardly be characterised as “always” winning, when they lose the second big game in the rivalry.
As for the second point, well, much has already been written and said about the manner in which the Red Sox came back to win Games Four and Five, and held on to win Game Six. All we’ll be dealing with for now is how they added the fourth arrow in their victory quiver. The answer to that question begins and ends with Manager Terry Francona’s decision to hand the ball to Derek Lowe rather than the rumored Tim Wakefield.
Staked to an immediate 2-0 lead before he ever made a delivery from the Stadium mound, Lowe dominated the Yanks in a way that few ever do. Relegated to the role of long man in the pen coming into this set on the evidence of a very inconsistent year, Lowe delivered two huge outings, and his Wednesday Game Seven start was one for the ages.
A fired-up Yankee crowd bellowed in unison as Lowe’s first offering to Derek Jeter spun outside. The hometown throng was disappointed when their Captain and leadoff man flied to center on the third pitch and when Lowe strode off the mound following a 13-pitch, one-two-three frame, but they shouldn’t have been. Jeter’s flyout was one of just three the Pinstripers managed off Lowe through six, and the 13-pitch-inning figure would not be topped until Francona made the ill-considered gesture of bringing on Pedro Martinez to pitch the seventh.
Lowe was precise, and he was economical. He filed a 13-toss and 12-toss count in the next two frames, even though he allowed a walk in the former, and gave up his only run on a hit by pitch and single in the third. The hit and the run would be the only he would surrender, and he coasted in with a six-inning total of 69 pitches after retiring nine straight (11 counting the last two outs in the third) on inning pitch counts of 11, 10, and 10. He was throwing strikes, 44 to 25 balls (roughly a four-per-inning average). He whiffed three and as mentioned coaxed three fly-ball outs, but his weapon of choice was the sinker, as he retired 12 on ground balls.
The Yanks were clearly frustrated, as the lead ballooned to 6-0 early, then 8-1, and the fans were clutching at straws as to how their hometown heroes could snap Lowe’s spell. Some screamed the Bombers should take more pitches, but that proved ineffective. Lowe got 16 called strikes from home plate ump Randy Marsh, and eight of them were called when Yankees took the first pitch. Only seven times did the Yankees swing at and miss an offering, four of them in Derek’s last frame.
Of course, although this column is deliberately written in a congratulatory tone in honor of the Sox’ achievement, things could have been different. Facing that “rock” and “hard place” himself, Yankee Manager Torre opted, as he often does, to go with the experienced Kevin Brown over the younger Javy Lopez to start this game, a “Lady and the Tiger” choice between two who have been ineffective in the second half and in the postseason. And Brown proved unworthy of Joe’s trust almost immediately. He was lucky that Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez singles around a stolen base netted an out at home on a nifty 7-6-2, but Ortiz’s first pitch blast to the lower seats followed with a quick two.
Three hits right off the bat, so to speak. It was clear Brown’s pitches were up. It was clear he would be hit. But Torre allowed him to start the second in a win-or-go home game, and he, the Yankees, and their fans paid for it. Millar stroked a one-out single, and still no one was up in the pen while Mueller worked a six-pitch walk. Finally Vazquez began to warm, as Cabrera toyed with Brown’s ineffective sinker during an eight-pitch walk. To bring the young starter off the inconsistent year in with the sacks filled on Brown’s watch would thrust Vazquez into a situation for which he was not prepared. It would be unthinkably obtuse managing. And it was exactly what happened.
What followed was a travesty. Given his second-half troubles, many will disagree, but I think that one can’t assume Javy would have made as many goofs on his own had he not been pressed into service and failure from the get-go. Johnny Damon laced Vazquez’s first toss into the seats for a grand slam, his first of the Sox centerfielder’s two first-pitch homers on the day. I have always considered Torre’s faithfulness to his players admirable. But I don’t believe he owed anything to Kevin Brown considering his behavior down the stretch. During one postgame interview Torre lamented that “we didn’t pitch well.” Agreed. But “we didn’t manage well,” either.
I have to thank Francona for the Martinez move, replacing Lowe with him. It lifted the moribund Yankee crowd, and the team too. New York scored a quick two, and threatened to make it a game, settling for two tallies in the long run. Matsui and Williams doubles had us dancing; Lofton’s first-pitch single delivered the third Yankee run of the game.
That ends the uplifting Yankee portion of the column, and my complaint as well, although I will add that in this game, and the other day, veteran righty Esteban Loaiza, more ineffective even at season’s end than either Brown or Vazquez, earned his way into a long look when setting up next year’s staff. Had he started, I might be writing a very different report.
I’ll close with a tip of my Yankee cap to the Red Sox. They battled us well in last year’s Game Seven before falling. It was perhaps with that in mind that the Stadium played Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York in tribute, rather than the Liza Minelli version usually reserved for losses. If only we could have played as valiantly in loss this day.