Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Turn, turn, turn

We media types just love to portray calalytic or emotional moments in a baseball season as "turning points." Sometimes we do so with good reason, other times at the expense of facts. Example: Many words were spent in recent days regarding the upcoming one-year anniversary of one of the supposed turning points of last season - the Nomar Garciaparra trade, after which the Sox went 42-18 and . . . hell, you have the DVD. You know the rest. But it's scarcely mentioned that the Sox struggled mightily in the immediate aftermath of the deal, losing five of nine games, and only started their championship run when Orlando Cabrera settled in and had all his handshakes memorized. Turning points? Sometimes there is something to them. Oftentimes, though, they are only as good as the next day's starting pitcher.

I mention this now because . . . well, because if the Sox put together a good stretch of baseball the next few weeks, tonight's ballgame will be undoubtedly (and perhaps even justifiably) be tagged with those two familiar words. Tonight's epic damn well could be a turning point, as Tom Caron mentioned .0098 seconds into the postgame show. The first-place Red Sox played their 100th game of the season - and their most eventful, for both pleasant reasons and terrifying ones. They defeated the better-than-you-think Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 10-9, in 10 innings, in a game that featured everything but Roberto Hernandez taking target practice at Brian Daubach. Because so much happened, I'll attack it in chronological order, just to make sure I don't forget one of the game's . . . ahem. Turning points.

Top of the first inning: Manny Ramirez (soon to be known as Big Manny, now that Little Manny has flashed on the scene) cranks a two-run homer off Mark (I Shoulda Stuck With Hoops) Hendrickson, giving the Sox a 2-0 lead that will soon expand to 5-0. A Manny tater (to use EckSpeak) is notable only in the context of the day's news. According to Sports Illustrated's reliable Tom Verducci, Manny has asked the Red Sox for a trade, saying he no longer has any privacy in Boston. The TATB take: We hate to join the condescending pack and dismiss his frustrations with the usual "Just Manny being Manny" refrain, but as long as he keeps hammering the baseball in his usual awe-inspiring way, we promise to quit peeking in the windows of his pad at the Ritz Carlton trying to catch a glimpse of the ridiculously lovely Mrs. Manny. Honest. In the meantime, shouldn't Millar be making sure he's happy? Isn't he supposed to be Manny's concierge? Don't tell me they're actually paying Cowboy Out to play.

Top of the third inning: Trot Nixon swings at a pitch. Trot winces in his patented gritty, gutty way. Trot leaves the game with what is diagnosed with a strained oblique muscle, a lingering, frustrating injury for a hitter. At first glance, it looks like he'll be gone awhile. Get ready for Part II of the Gabe Kapler era, with some Adam Stern and Adam Hyzdu liberally sprinkled in. Say, is it too late for Tito to kiss and make up with Jay Payton? Seems there's some playing time available now. In all seriousness, this could turn out to be a devastating injury for the Sox. While they made it to the postseason without much of a contribution from Trot last year - he missed all but 48 games with back and quad problems - he's a essential cog this year, what with Mark Bellhorn having whiffed himself out of a job and Millar posting a Podsednik-level slugging percentage. The Sox's lineup depth ain't what it used to be, and tonight it weakened even further. Adam Dunn, anyone?

Bottom of the third inning: You hear the crack of the bat, followed almost instantaneously by the most sickening sound in sports - the sound of a batted ball hitting a helpless pitcher flush in the head. As Sox starter Matt Clement slumped motionless on the mound, the victim of a Carl Crawford rocket that ended up deflecting into left field on the fly, frightening thoughts flow through your mind. Your first fear is the worst fear. You wonder if he has a wife, children. You hope they were doing anything but watching this real-time horror. You think about Bryce Florie and Dick Pole. You wish they'd just stop the game, pick it up again another day. You look for a sign, any sign, that he's alive, let alone okay. You only exhale when you see his legs kick and you realize his teammates on the scene are concerned, but not panicked. Later, after he has been carted off the field on a stretcher and taken by ambulance to the hospital, Eric Frede delivers the word that Clement is conscious and alert and all tests have come back negative. He'll be okay. Thank god. Then, and only then, do your thoughts return to the game, and your team, and it dawns on you that the Red Sox's biggest winner might not step upon a mound again for weeks, if not longer. Sometimes, a turning point arrives with the speed of a sizzling line drive, and the Sox suddenly require a starting pitcher a lot more than they did before the third inning began tonight. A.J. Burnett, anyone?

Bottom of the third inning, epilogue: While the crowd remains hushed after the 11-minute delay, still shell-shocked by what they'd just witnessed, the Devil Rays erase a 5-1 Boston lead in the span of three pitches. Aubrey Huff takes a bite out of a Chad Bradford submarine sandwich, crushing a grand slam into the top deck in right field of the Drab Dome. It's now 5-5, a new ballgame, and the Nation is demoralized. Bringing in Bradford, a righty specialist more or less, to face the lefty-hitting and scalding-hot Huff, is a curious move by Sox skipper Terry Francona, one of many he has made in recent games. (Doug Mirabelli hitting third? Alex Cora hitting, period?) But we're willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. After what just happened to Clement, he can be excused for not thinking clearly.

Bottom of the eighth inning: Hmmm. Looks like we might have a Local Kid Makes Good story on our hands. Manny Delcarmen, the pride of Hyde Park, made his big-league debut tonight after getting the dream-come-true call and arriving in Tampa (minus his glove, spikes and the rest of his luggage) a few hours before game time. It was amusing to see the saucer-eyed Delcarmen, who's 23 but looks a half-decade younger, shagging fly balls and listening to words of wisdom from that sage, seen-it-all veteran . . . Bronson Arroyo. But once Delcarmen took the mound, with the Sox trailing 8-6 in the eighth, he looked like he'd been here for years. He retired the side 1-2-3 on 14 pitches, striking out the first batter he faced (Tampa Bay's Johnny Gomes) swinging at a 94 mph fastball on the outside edge. He hit 95 on the gun, showed decent command and a vicious curve, kept his team in the game, and best of all, gave us our first taste of the fruits the Sox's farm system is about to bear. Delcarmen may not prove to be the Sox's version of Anaheim's Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez, circa 2002, but just the notion that it's within the realm of possibility is cause for optimism. This kid looks like he's going to be calling Fenway home for a while - and the cool part is, he already knows the neighborhood.

Bottom of the ninth inning: The Sox are still trailing, 8-6, three outs from what would be a soul-crushing defeat. Danys Baez, whose name has been floated in Sox trade rumors, comes on to close the door, having converted his last 15 save opportunities. But (in-game turning point alert!) Jason Varitek clubs a one-out homer to make it 8-7, and Baez suddenly takes on the sheen of a young Calvin Schiraldi. Millar singles. John Olerud singles. Bill Mueller, who almost always delivers in these situations, delivers in this situation, roping a double into the right field corner. Adam Stern, running for Millar, scores easily, but windmill-lover Dale Sveum inexplicably sends Olerud, who'd have been safe if he weren't the slowest skinny guy in the history of organized sports. He's out without any debate, and instead of having a second-and-third, one-out situation, the Sox have a runner on third and two outs. Tony (Quit Calling Me Merloni) Graffanino is retired for the third out, and we have one more piece of evidence telling us that Sveum is in the wrong line of work.

Top of the 10th inning: Condensed version here, since it's 3:14 a.m, my contacts are glued to my eyeballs, and this post is turning into the world's longest chronological game story. Heathcliff Schilling enters. He retires the first two D-Rays with relative ease, gives up a single to Julio Lugo, and then Jorge Cantu (TATB's rot league steal of the year, as if you care) hammers one to deep left. Your loyal blogger spews a string of expletives, figuring it's a goner and the Sox are about to suffer the most excruciating loss imaginable, at least involving the Devil Rays. But Johnny Damon Superstar doesn't give up so easily. Tracking the ball all the way, he times his leap perfectly after a brief hesitation, and catches Cantu's blast as he bangs into the wall . . .

Bottom of the 10th inning: . . . then, after saving the game, he wins the danged thing, going deep on Baez's first pitch, bringing joy and relief to Sox fans and another smirk to Scott Boras's face. (Why Baez, whom we should never, ever wish to see in a Sox uniform, was still in the game I have no idea, but I suspect Lou Piniella, who's practically wearing a "Fire Me" sign on his back these days, had retired to the local watering hole by this point.) Anyway, the Sox added an insurance run, Schilling closed the door with an assist from Olerud's slick glove in the bottom half, and the most emotionally torturous game of the season went in the books as a victory.

The final tally: The Sox lost their best starting pitcher and their dependable (if blockheaded) right fielder, both perhaps for an extended time. They fought to win a ballgame they simply had to win, even when circumstances would have distracted a lesser team. They retained their one-game lead over the Empire. And they introduced a dazzling young pitcher whom we've heard raves about since he was schoolboy and were thrilled to finally meet tonight.

A hell of an evening, all in all. Should the coming days bring string of victories, and should the Sox eventually find their way to the postseason, there is no doubt this particular wild-and-crazy ballgame will be recalled as. . . well, yeah, you've heard.

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As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card . . .

Sweet Lou, pre-rabies.