Monday, October 14, 2013

ALCS Game 2: Tight, High, Wild, Grand

By Jeff Kallman

This is the way the Red Sox used to lose in the big games, right? Just when they thought it was safe to put a lead and a game into their pockets, say in an American League Championship Series, either the other guys would come up big to tie and then win on some surrealistic mistake, or someone in the Red Sox brain trust would overthink himself right into disaster. Right?

These, most definitely, are not your father's or your grandfather's Red Sox.

Get damn near no-hit in Game 1 en route a 1-0 loss? Get close enough to no-hit in Game 2 and fall into a 4-run hole in Game 2? Find yourselves with the bases loaded and two out and a big bomber literally flips the Tigers — one in particular — upside down to tie it in the bottom of the eighth? Squirt the winning run home after it got into scoring position in the first place on a wild throwing error and took third on a wild pitch?

Nothing to it, folks. And even the Fenway faithful were kind enough to wait until Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter could stand up straight and stay aboard before they let David Ortiz have his 42 guns.

No way was Ortiz going to get a mere 21 after he adjusted on Detroit closer Joaquin Benoit's first pitch, a nice, slightly nasty, slightly below belt high changeup, thrown almost as hard as a pure fastball, and sent it on a high line over the right field fence. Hunter ran it down to the edge of the fence and, though he didn't quite get a glove near it, he bumped the fence and flipped onto his head into the Red Sox bullpen.

The Red Sox bullpen catcher caught the bomb. Boston police officer Steve Horgan, stationed in the bullpen, threw both arms in the air as the ball cleared the fence. Then, when he saw Hunter land on his dome, he checked on the normally ebullient outfielder and called for help. Horgan's upraised arms in the bullpen have gone viral. It's not impossible that his re-enactment of the pose astride Red Sox owner John Henry outside Fenway Park might go likewise.

But it won't go quite the way Ortiz's game-tying grand slam will. Or, the way Jarrod Saltalamacchia's game-winning single will. Even Boston's Finest have limits to their in-game charisma.

"That's what he does," Tigers starter Max Scherzer said after the Red Sox banked the unlikely 6-5 comeback win Sunday night. "He's an amazing hitter. He's an amazing postseason hitter. He's clutch. Any given moment, a swing of the bat he can always take you deep."

That isn't exactly the way the Tigers thought the first Fenway leg of the ALCS would end. Not when they wrestled a 1-0 Game 1 win and rode Anibal Sanchez's surrealistic, almost-no-hit performance to the early advantage. Not with 21-game winner Scherzer throwing everything including his kitchen sink at the Red Sox in Game 2 and taking a no-hitter to two outs in the Red Sox sixth, until Shane Victorino dropped a single to left center and Dustin Pedroia doubled him home.

That seemed almost like an excuse-me kind of run after what the Tigers unhorsed in the top of the sixth. With still-ailing Miguel Cabrera hitting a one-out, ball-one pitch into the Green Monster seats to open the carnage. With Prince Fielder rifling a double off the wall on the first pitch and Victor Martinez doubling him home. With Alex Avila — who'd singled home the game's lone run prior to the start of this inning — launching another one over the Monster one out later.

The second guessers began going to work practically the moment Fielder crossed the plate. Why wasn't there enough action in the Red Sox bullpen to lift Clay Buchholz, who'd given the best he had but whose tank was running on empty clearly enough, right then and there? Only after Avila's launch did manager John Farrell turn to his pen, bringing in Brandon Workman to keep the Tigers to a mere 4-run sixth and a 5-1 lead that seemed, with Scherzer's mojo working triple overtime, insurmountable.

"You got to give credit to Scherzer," Ortiz said graciously. "He was on tonight."

It was until Tigers manager Jim Leyland decided Scherzer had had enough at 108 pitches and decided to turn it over to his bullpen for the bottom of the seventh. Despite two of the three scheduled Red Sox hitters being left-handed, Leyland went to Jose Veras to open. Veras took care of Stephen Drew leading off with a simple groundout, but Will Middlebrooks took care of Veras with a high double.

Then Leyland brought in lefty Drew Smyly to face left-handed Jacoby Ellsbury. And Smyly probably surprised everyone in the park from the dugouts forward by walking the Red Sox center fielder. Which put a slight crimp into Leyland's tactical thinking right then and there. He wasn't planning on that pass. So out came Smyly and in came Al (I Knew I Shoulda Made That Left Toin at) Alburquerque, who's been nothing but lethal against right-handed hitting all year. (Since the All-Star Break, the right-handers hit a puny .130 against him.)

It turned Victorino around to his left side, though. Alburquerque can turn it up against lefthanders when he needs to, and he pounded Victorino on a 2-2 swishout. But Dustin Pedroia, apparently ignoring Alburquerque's resume for the moment, singled to right, and Red Sox third base coach Brian Butterfield alertly stopped Middlebrooks at third despite two outs and all hands on base running.

Leyland could have gone to lefthander Phil Coke to face Ortiz, except that Coke hadn't pitched in Show competition since mid-September ... and, until then, left-handed hitters spent 2013 feasting on Coke for a .299 batting average against him. So Leyland went to his closer, Joaquin Benoit, a right-hander with a changeup that tied left-handed hitters up into a paltry .194 average off him on the season.

Benoit's first pitch may not have been that far out over the plate, and it might have been just enough below the beltline to give a lesser hitter a fit, maybe swinging over it, maybe beating it into the ground for an inning-ending out. But this was David Ortiz, and he did what great hitters do. He looked to have adjusted in early swing, and drove it high enough and far enough.

"You don't want to face David Ortiz in that situation," said Hunter, whose head-first bullpen landing after he nearly got a glove on the ball hadn't robbed him of his marbles, clearly enough. "Everybody in the whole world knows he can beat you."

"I got my boy Torii chasing everything out there," Ortiz said after the game. (Ortiz and Hunter have been friends since their days with the Minnesota Twins.) "Nine time gold glove. You never know, and he almost got that ball."

With one lethal swing Big Papi turned Fenway Park into the country's largest outdoor insane asylum and the ALCS onto its head, never mind what the drive did to poor Hunter. The Tiger bullpen that looked at least as dangerous in Game 1 as their vaunted starting pitchers have looked so far — they combined with Sanchez to take a no-hitter to within two outs of completion Saturday — looked like paper Tigers as Game 2 crawled to its unlikely finish.

The only way anyone could have gotten Hunter out of the game after he flipped for Ortiz's drive was probably at gunpoint. And even then...

"This," the smiling outfielder said affirmatively after it was over, "is the postseason. I'd die on the field for this. You're not going to take me off this field. I was trying my best to just stop that ball from going over the fence. I'd sacrifice my body if I have to. I've done that my whole career."

He was the third of Red Sox closer Koji Uehara's three swift outs in the top of the ninth. Rick Porcello relieved Benoit for the bottom. And Jonny Gomes grounded a 1-2 pitch to shortstop that was slow and weak enough to beat out even on one leg. Someone should have gotten the memo to Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias. He grabbed it and threw as though he had Gomes all the way, except that Gomes had first in hand and the ball inexplicably sailed into the Red Sox dugout.

Fielder barely made a move to block the ball, which would have held Gomes at first. Instead, the Tigers had to deal with the leadoff hitter in scoring position and nobody out. Then, Porcello fell into a 2-1 hole against Saltalamacchia that became a 3-1 canyon when his pitch shot past Avila behind the plate and handed Gomes third on a plate.

Those guys are playing what used to be Red Sox baseball when crunch time arrived! you could hear Fenway's ghosts whispering among themselves.

And then Saltalamacchia cued one hard and fast right beneath Iglesias's hard dive. Gomes ran home yanking his batting helmet off his head with about three or four steps left before crossing the plate, windmilling both arms wildly. The Red Sox had begun pouring out of the dugout to celebrate at just about the moment his hand reached the helmet in the first place.

"I tell you what, man," Ortiz said when it was over, "the postseason is something that works both ways for you. It can go well if you stay calm. Or it can go bad if you try to overdo things."

Spoken like a man who knew he and his mates tried overdoing it just a little in Game 1, to no avail, but did nothing more than what they could and did do in Game 2 when it mattered the most. Including taking just advantage enough when the opposing manager tried overdoing things in the bottom of the eighth.

FOX Sports reporter Erin Andrews interviewed Saltalamacchia near the dugout when it was all over. Well, she was trying to interview him. "It took never giving up, a lot of big at bats," the Red Sox catcher began. "Obviously, pulling in that home run there was huge for us. It just got us back in the game energized."

Saltalamacchia was finishing the last sentence as Victorino slunk out of the dugout with the Gatorade tank in hand to let him have it. Except that Andrews got about 99 percent of the orange shower. She wasn't exactly complaining.

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