Monday, October 21, 2013

ALCS Game 6: The Pennant That Wasn’t in the Plans

By Jeff Kallman

John Lennon once sang that life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. The Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers learned the hard way Saturday night that baseball's often what happens when you have other plans.

The Tigers planned to push this year's American League Championship Series to a seventh game, even in Fenway Park, as best they could. The Red Sox, who may have planned only to pick up, dust off, and get respectable again after last season's last place nightmares, planned only to avoid Justin Verlander in Game 7 as best they could.

In the end, and off the bat of one of the least likely of Red Sox stars, the Red Sox found ways to stick to their Game 6 plan and, while they were at it, stick the Tigers' Game 7 plans where the sun is usually kept at bay.

The Tigers planned no further for Max Scherzer to pitch like a Cy Young Award winner in waiting only to leave the game in the bottom of the seventh, after 110 pitches and a 2-1 lead, than they planned for Red Sox right fielder Shane Victorino to vaporize any plan for a Game 7 with one swing, two relievers later, in the same inning.

Max Scherzer's usually agreeable face, a slightly surreal union between Stan Laurel and the Looney Tunes' Beaky Buzzard, melted into an equally surreal union between heartbreak and dismay. Victorino overthrew the Tiger lead with a grand slam that turned Fenway Park into bedlam and the Tiger dugout into a funeral parlor. This guy had been 2-for-26 in the ALCS as he checked in at the plate. Where does he get off going salami?

The second guessers will be wondering for years to come why manager Jim Leyland lifted Scherzer with one out and two aboard, when Scherzer showed few if any signs of fatigue and is nothing if not a pitcher with considerable experience at sneaking out of trouble. Wasn't this the same Scherzer who came in in relief in Game 4 of the division series, loaded the bases all by his lonesome, and then struck out two hitters before getting a third to line out to center?

Hadn't he managed to sneak his way out of three jams earlier in the evening, including a play on Victorino's botched pop bunt in the third that made you wonder if he'd taken some remedial fielding training from Ozzie Smith? Scherzer had bounded off the mound and fallen into a slide as he held his glove under the pop and snapped the glove shut as his right leg crossed over his left to finish the slide. The skid marks on the grass told the story.

What was to worry, just because Jonny Gomes opened the bottom of the seventh with a double and, a swishout on Stephen Drew later, Xander Bogaerts wrung out a walk after Scherzer had him in the hole 1-2? Yet Scherzer's night ended as soon as Bogaerts arrived at first base, and Leyland brought in lefthander Drew Smyly to deal with left-handed Jacoby Ellsbury at the plate.

Ellsbury punched a grounder more or less up the pipe. Jose Iglesias, the former Red Sox shortstop prospect who's been a one-man highlight reel much of the LCS, ranged hard right to try for it behind second base. He might have been thinking of a shovel pass to launch a double play, never mind that Ellsbury would likely have beaten the play at first. Whatever he was thinking, the ball bouncing off his glove pocket onto the ground wasn't in his or the Tigers' plans, either, on a play like that.

This turned out worse than even Iglesias's Game 2 throwing error on a Gomes infield hit, moments before Jarrod Saltalamacchia lashed what proved the gamer. It left the Red Sox with the bases loaded, and it left Leyland to lift Smyly for right-hander Jose Veras. Against Victorino, the reformed switch hitter, who swore to hit right-handed the rest of the postseason no matter who was on the mound.

"I thought I'd give it a try, but it wasn't what I expected," said Victorino before Game 6, a career-long switch hitter, who had to put it on ice a good while along with the hamstring he tweaked in August, making life hitting left-handed a little too testy. Which is why his bid to hit left-handed against Anibal Sanchez in Game 5 jolted just about one and all.

"It just wasn't there," the right fielder said. "I saw the ball well, but I just wasn't comfortable with the swing and the whole approach. I felt as if I was trying to rush to get to everything. It's hard to change, especially since I hadn't done it for two months."

So Victorino clung to the right side. Until the seventh, it wasn't exactly his night. A ground out, a pop out to the mound, and a sixth-inning plunk. And as he went to work in the seventh things actually started according to the Tigers' overall plans.

Veras fed Victorino one nasty curve ball that wrapped around the inside of the plate for strike one. He fed Victorino a second nasty curve that broke low, allowing Victorino nothing but a self-defending swat foul up the third base line. Then, he fed Victorino a third curve. Only this one's nasty disappeared halfway to the plate, leaving it to travel just about up into Victorino's face.

And Victorino made sure it traveled post haste into the Green Monster seats. The Tigers' World Series hopes traveled south for all intent and purpose with it.

"Hey, let me tell you," crowed David Ortiz amidst the postgame champagne scalp treatments, "he's a money player, he's a money player. I knew he was going to come through at some point."

Oh, the Tigers still had two innings left to play, and Al Alburquerque did manage to strike out the side in the eighth, but did anyone really doubt that — after Junichi Tazawa bagged one out to get credit for the win and Craig Breslow pitched a blemish-free eighth — eventual LCS MVP Koji Uehara wouldn't let even a mere tough-chance infield single stop him from signing off on the Tigers' funeral?

Don't let anyone kid you. Even Uehara, who only seems unflappable, has his moments of fleeting doubt, though he's mature enough to joke about them. As might you be, too, if you'd started your American baseball life as a weak Baltimore starter before discovering, short range, that you had a fastball to die for and a splitter that could be tried by jury for first degree murder when it's late and close.

"To tell you the truth," Uehara said through his translator, about going out for the biggest save of his American Show life to date, "I almost threw up." He makes it sound as though that 5-out save in Comerica Park Thursday was child's play in comparison. Come to think of it, the Red Sox bullpen have made this postseason child's play so far: once the pennant was in hand, their resume showed a 0.43 ERA on one run in 21 innings' total work.

Actually, the Tigers probably shouldn't have anything much to be ashamed about. They did what they could with what they had, did their best to weather injuries (Miguel Cabrera's barking groin and catcher Alex Avila's almost series-long battering behind the plate) and invisibility (Prince Fielder), rode their stellar pitching as hard as feasible, and still came up Victorino.

Look deeper and it wasn't as unlikely as it seemed that Victorino had such a grand chance to put the Tigers to sleep. He checked in at the plate in the seventh 3-for-5 with the bases loaded in his postseason lifetime, including one such salami in his Philadelphia years. It's not exactly as though the Tigers got murdered by an out-of-character scrub with an invisible resume, even if Victorino was one of last winter's alternative targets among the free agency class.

Unfortunately, the Tigers managed to run themselves right out of a possible explosion of their own an inning before Victorino's mayhem. Victor Martinez had already overthrown the Red Sox's early 1-0 lead with a 2-run single off Boston reliever Franklin Morales, last seen working a little mop-up in Game 4. Brandon Workman relieved Morales, and Jhonny Peralta grounded into the kind of double play once thought part of the Red Sox repertoire, in now-ancient eras.

Peralta's grounder reached Dustin Pedroia at second. He tagged Martinez and whipped a throw home, catching Prince Fielder in a rundown that ended with Fielder hitting the deck like a whale falling out of a boat as Saltalamacchia tagged him out. Then, in the top of the seventh, Austin Jackson's one-out single off Workman went for nothing when Workman picked Jackson clean off first base. Iglesias managed an infield hit and Workman's miscue allowed Torii Hunter aboard safe, but in came Tazawa and Miguel Cabrera—whose barking groin has made him a sad imitation of his customary self — grounded out to short on 1-0 for the side.

All this almost made you forget the Red Sox pried that early 1-0 lead off Scherzer in the first place, when Bogaerts doubled to the rear of center field and Ellsbury scored him on a line bullet to right in the fifth. Breaking up a pitching duel between Scherzer and Clay Buchholz that wasn't exactly pretty or deadly efficient but enough to keep both teams at bay until then.

Or, that Pedroia damn near made it 3-0 two innings earlier with a drive off a Scherzer service that flew high enough down the left field line to have 3-run homer engraved in the hide. Two swift television replays showed the ball traveling barely a foot past the wrong side of the foul pole. Then, Pedroia grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Once upon a time that would have deflated the Red Sox almost completely. This time, the thought never crossed anyone's mind in the Red Sox dugout or the Fenway seats. That's what a complete, irrevocable reversal from the disaster of 2012 does for you. "A lot of guys bought into the team," Pedroia said after the game. "It seems like it has been someone different every night."

"There is something special about this team," said Victorino. "We have one mindset. Just like the song says, 'Every little thing is gonna be all right.' We still have one more step. We proved everyone wrong and have one more step to go."

Actually, they have four more steps to go. Against the Cardinals. Who aren't exactly the same Cardinals a somewhat different group of Red Sox rolled to bust the actual or alleged Curse nine years ago. Only one of those Cardinals still plays for them now, catcher Yadier Molina — the rookie backup to current Redbirds manager Mike Matheny. Only one of the Red Sox's beloved 2004 Idiots is still with them now: Big Papi.

The Cardinals who think they've just finished the fun-loving Los Angeles Dodgers a lesson in manners and pennants should know that these Red Sox are just as fun-loving without being quite as willing or able to forget how to play grind-it-out, swing-it-out, pitch-it-out, hit-it-out baseball. You can bet these Red Sox know these Cardinals aren't quite that easy to steamroll.

They'd have to. For the first time since 1999, the teams with baseball's best regular season records — identical 97-65 records at that — will tangle in the World Series. Come to think of it, teams whose butts were parked in first place in their respective divisions at regular season's end ended up playing for the now-consummated pennants. We're actually getting champions playing championship baseball this month.

And the Red Sox are going there on the bat of a fellow who was picked up last winter because — coming off the 93-loss, dead-last 2012 nightmare — they didn't expect to play for a pennant this season and said fellow was thought to be just enough to help them survive until contention time came around in earnest.

"The one thing that I like the most about this year, what makes it more special," Ortiz said, "is that nobody thought we were going to go this far."

Instead, Victorino drove home the exclamation point at the end of the sentence that would decree these Red Sox have discovered the pennant can be what happens when you actually made other plans.

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