It was a crisp, autumnal New England night in the major leagues' oldest ballpark last night as two old warhorses, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling, took the mound against one another for the first time since Game Seven of the 2001 World Series. Nearly six years have gone by since then, and both pitchers have lost nearly as many miles per hour off their famous fastballs, but they turned back the clock last night for a stirring pitchers' duel that recalled not only that famous finale in Phoenix, but also, albeit to a lesser degree, Clemens' legendary duel with Pedro Martinez on Sunday night baseball the year before.
Clemens, who hadn't pitched in nearly two weeks and left his last start after struggling through four innings due to elbow pain, was a bit tentative in the first inning. Clemens started the game with three straight balls to rookie Jacoby Ellsbury. On 3-1, Ellsbury lifted a soft fly to left that Johnny Damon lost in the lights to put the Red Sox's leadoff man on base. After Dustin Pedroia flew out to right, Ellsbury stole second on the first pitch to David Ortiz, setting up what might have been an intentional unintentional walk by Clemens. Mike Lowell then stroked a single to left to plate Ellsbury. Clemens retired the next two men on four pitches, but it took a spectacular play by Doug Mientkiewicz that saw him first dive toward the foul line to glove a hard hopper off the bat of Jason Varitek, then dive to beat Varitek to the bag to get Clemens out of the inning. The Rocket settled down from there. Hitting 93 on the ESPN gun and showing good movement on his slider, Clemens didn't allow another hit until Lowell again followed a walk to Ortiz with a single in the sixth. Along the way Clemens struck out Ortiz, Lowell, J.D. Drew, and Varitek in order amid a streak of retiring eleven straight batters in a row.
Meanwhile, Schilling allowed just two singles through the first four innings before Robinson Cano led of the fifth by taking an 88-mile-per hour fastball up and away and depositing it in the Monster Seats in left for a game-tying homer (shades of Alfonso Soriano's tie-breaking shot in 2001).
Clemens escaped his jam in the sixth when Johnny Damon made up for his first-inning error with a sliding catch on a sinking liner by Varitek to end the inning. Though Clemens had only allowed two hits and one unearned run to that point and thrown only 87 pitches through six, Joe Torre--who made all the right moves all night, including giving Mientkiewicz his first start since coming off the DL--decided to take no chances and go straight to Joba Chamberlain in the seventh. Chamberlain gave up a leadoff double to Eric Hinske, who was promptly bunted to third by Coco Crisp, but recovered to strike out Julio Lugo on four pitches and get Ellsbury to ground into another excellent play by Mientkiewicz to maintain the tie.
Schilling entered the eighth inning having allowed just one run on three hits and thrown just 69 pitches through the first seven. He then struck out Melky Cabrera to start the eighth (Melky, incidentally, is 1 for his last 27 with eight Ks and no RBIs). Doug Mientkiewicz followed with his second single of the night at which point Torre again went for the jugular. Despite the fact that Jorge Posada started at DH and the Yankees have inexplicably not called up a third catcher, Torre sent Jason Giambi to the plate to hit for Jose Molina. On a 2-2 pitch, Schilling sawed Giambi's bat off at the handle with a 93-mile-per-hour cut fastball up and in, but the ball trickled foul. Giambi then cracked the next pitch, a breaking pitch on the outside corner, off the top of the Green Monster, missing a two-run homer by a couple of feet, for a double that pushed Mientkiewicz to third. With Bronson Sardinha running for Giambi, Schilling sawed off Damon as well, getting a weak ground ball that Dustin Pedroia fielded in on the grass for the second out. Mientkiewicz held on the play, likely due to the confusion of bat shards flying through the infield. That brought Derek Jeter to the plate with the go-ahead run on third and two outs.
Jeter missed badly on a breaking pitch low and away to start the at-bat, then took a pair of fastballs away, the first of them clocking in at 95-miles-per-hour, to get ahead 2-1. Jason Varitek then went to the mound to talk things over with his pitcher. As Jeter stood waiting at the plate with holding his bat on his shoulder with his right hand, he began to smirk. Schilling's next pitch was a splitter low and away, which Jeter fouled off with a check swing. That brought Varitek back out to the mound. Schilling came back with another 95-mile-per-hour heater up in the zone which Jeter flared foul just two rows deep where the seats angle toward fair territory down the first-base line. As Varitek took a third trip to the mound, the smirk returned to Jeter's face. Schilling's next pitch was another fastball, but one that was ten miles per hour slower and belt-high on the inside corner. Jeter turned on it and creamed it to the last row of the Monster Seats for a game-breaking three-run home run that drove Schilling from the game.
With Posada catching, Chamberlain gave up his first major league earned run in the bottom of the eighth when Mike Lowell took a letter-high 98-mile-per-hour fastball over the Monster, but Joba struck out two of the other three batters he faced, both on his seldom used curve ball, and got David Ortiz to fly out to left. That gave Mariano Rivera a two-run lead to protect in the ninth.
Mo had an off night, however, and started the ninth by walking Varitek on seven pitches. A pair of ground balls moved Varitek to third, but also put the Yankees one out away from the win. Then Julio Lugo crushed a head-high heater into the gap in left for an RBI double. Mo's next pitch hit Ellsbury in the left kneecap. Pedroia then battled back from an 0-2 hole to work a nine-pitch walk and bring David Ortiz to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth and a chance to win the game with a well-placed single, or tie it with a walk.
Joe Torre went to the mound to meet with Rivera and his infielders. Then Rivera went back to work. The best place to pitch Ortiz is in on his hands and that's exactly where Posada set up for the first pitch. Rivera's offering, however, drifted toward the outer part of the plate and Ortiz fouled the 95-mile-per-hour fastball back for strike one. Rivera then hit Posada's target with another fastball low and away for ball one. Jorge Posada then set up under Ortiz's hands again, but Rivera floated a letters-high fastball over the plate for ball two. As a smirk came across Joe Torre's face in the dugout, Posada set up under Ortiz's hands again and Rivera threw a fastball right on the inside corner that Ortiz grounded just foul outside of first base where it was gloved by Mientkiewicz, who was playing on the line. Finally, on the fifth pitch of the at-bat, Rivera hit Posada's target with a cutter up and in on Ortiz's hands that Papi muscled to shallow center. Derek Jeter, who was playing at normal depth, unlike the last time Rivera faced a bases loaded situation in the bottom of the ninth of a game started by Clemens and Schilling, hauled it in for the final out to seal the 4-3 win.
And so the Yankees take the series and five of six from the Red Sox over the last three weeks and maintain their 2.5-game lead (three in the loss column) over the Tigers, who swept the Twins over the weekend. Meanwhile, in Chicago, Jim Thome hit a walk-off tater to beat the Angels and join the 500-home run club, thus preserving the tie between the Indians and Halos for the second seed in the American League. Cleveland and Detroit now face of four three games at the Jake starting tonight. Yankee fans should be pulling hard for Cleveland to pull of an unlikely sweep in that series. As for the Yanks, only a bakers' dozen against the cupcakes stands between them and a thirteenth-straight playoff berth.