It's just about 11:30 on Saturday night, and I've been watching baseball since 1:00 this afternoon. I can't remember a better day for the game in recent memory. It started yesterday evening when I returned home to catch the second half of the Marlins-Giants game. Pudge Rodriguez had one of those kind of superstar performances that will stay with him---and us---for a long time. He was virtually everywhere, making things happen, all day long: hitting an early home run, throwing a runner out a third, crashing into the second baseman to break up a double play, and eventually smacking the game-winning hit into right field.
Florida upset the Giants, and Jose Cruz Jr. opened the door for heartbreak. Later on, Mark Prior and Greg Maddux lived up to advanced billing. Prior was masterful, pitching a complete game two-hitter, and Maddux was very good, allowing 2 runs, but only for six innings. The Cubs won, 3-1.
Meanwhile, Roger Clemens made what could be the final start of his career in America's heartland this afternoon and he made the most of it, allowing one run over seven innings. (And no matter what happens to the Yankees in the coming days, Boss George assures us that Joe Torre will return in 2004. Heard that one before?...) Hideki Matsui hit a two-run dinger early in the game, and Bernie Williams added an RBI single later on.
That was all the Yankees would need. Mariano Rivera came on in the eighth inning for the second straight game, and for the second straight game he retired all six batters that he faced, bringing Yankee fans back to the glory years of the late 1990s. Mariano has faced twelve Twin batters in two games and retired them all in order. Mmmm.
The Twins got good pitching from their bullpen again, and the Yankee bats were unable to get rolling, but this game was all about Rocket and Rivera, who overpowered the Twins offense. The Bombers will send Boomer Wells to the mound tomorrow afternoon against Johan Santana.
Next up, the Cubs and Braves faced off again in Chicago. It was a brilliant, sunny day, and Chipper Jones blasted two homers for the Braves, who held on for a 6-4 win. Not for nothing, but I called Chipper's second homer. And as nuts as this sounds, I was rooting for the Braves to win. It's not that I dislike the Cubs. If they win, I'd be more than pleased, but there is something in me that is pulling for Atlanta. No matter how good they are in the regular season, people tend to dismiss them. More to to point, if Atlanta forced a Game 5, the Yankees would play on Sunday at 4 pm and not 7:30. I wanted to watch the Bombers at 4, so I got my wish.
John Smoltz, who looked hurt in the ninth inning, gutted out the save, getting Sammy Sosa to fly out deep to center to end the game. It was a classic match up of star power. If Sammy had hit the ball six feet further, the game would have been tied. When it left the bat, I got goosebumps for a flash. Just like I did when Mike Piazza made the last out of the 2000 World Serious. It looked good off the bat. The crowd surged and then exhauled.
What did they really expect? They are Cubs fans, after all. Did they think their boys were going to make it easy on them?
Lastly, the Oakland A's pissed away a golden opportunity to put away the Red Sox for good. The game was another tense contest, but it was also a fundamentally sloppy affair, with both teams making errors and collecting few hits. In the sixth, the A's blew two runs by a lack of focus and poise. If they lose the serious, this inning will go down in Boston and Oakland lore.
Eric Bryne was thrown out at home on an infield hit after colliding with Boston's catcher, Jason Varitek. Bryne never touched the plate. The ball got away from Varitek, but Bryne shoved the catcher when he started after the ball, and then Bryne started to hobble off the field, unware that he hadn't touched home. Varitek retrieved the ball, and tagged the unsuspecting Bryne for the out. Eric Chavez was the on deck hitter, and he should have been coaching Bryne to go back and touch the base, but he fell asleep at the wheel. It was an inexcusable error on Chavez's part.
This huge error was outdone moments later when Miguel Tejada rounded third and headed for home on a Nomar Garciaparra error. The tying run had already scored when Tejada ran into the third baseman. (Jason Varitek had been awarded home earlier in the game, scoring Boston's only run, on an obstruction call on Chavez, and Tejada.) The ump at third signaled interference by raising his hand, and Tejada slowed down. The throw from left field was ten feet up the line, but since Miggy had stopped running, the Sox tagged him and he was called out.
There will be much debate about whether the umps made the right call--there was a lengthy meeting with the entire crew following the play---but the bottom line is, Tejada was not awarded home plate and the A's had squandered their second run of the innning. One could argue that Tejada had to sell the call, and that is why he stopped. You could also say that he assumed he would get to go home because that's what had happened to Varitek earlier in the game. However, he chose to give up on the play. If he continued to run hard and finish the play, he would have scored, and the arguement would have effectively been moot.
All I could think about was when Jason Giambi scolded Tejada in Game 5 of the 2001 playoffs. (Derek Jeter would never make a mistake this this.) Both bullpens then did fantastitic relief jobs until Rich Harden gave up a two-out, pinch hit, walk off bomb to Trot Nixon in the bottom of the 11th.
It was fitting that Nixon got the game winner. He's Mr. Red Sox as far as I'm concerned, and I'm glad he got to be the hero. But Boston did everything they could to not win the game. Their monstrous offense was impotent tonight against Ted Lily, who pitched a stellar game. Several members of the Sox actually taped Lily's names on the back of their jackets, and stood at the top step of the Boston dugout, promting the fans to heckle Oakland's young southpaw.
What a class bunch of guys. Kevin Millar, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, the heart of the Red Sox offense, failed to cowboy up for the Home Nine, but fortunately for them, Oakland had other things than winning on their minds. If the A's go on to lose this series, it's going to get even colder than it already feels by the Bay.
They come back and play the early game tomorrow. Pedro will pitch in Game Five Monday, if it gets that far. Old man Burkett goes against Tim Hudson, who will pitch on three days rest, at 1:00 Sunday.
If tomorrow is anything like today, we're in for a treat.