Thursday, October 24, 2013

World Series Game 1: Getting the Drop on the Cardinals

By Jeff Kallman

It's not that the Boston Red Sox needed the help that badly Wednesday night, opening the World Series with a near-blowout win. But they certainly weren't going to complain if the St. Louis Cardinals wanted to help their cause early enough and often enough.

Surely the Cardinals got the advance notices on these Red Sox. They turn at-bats into duels to the death. They can pitch up (also down, in, and out) whenever the heat gets near microwave level. And if you make a mistake on them, they're not exactly inclined to give you a mulligan.

For their part, of course, the Cardinals also expected anything but sure-handed shortstop Pete Kozma, even in a shift against David Ortiz, to bobble a potential first-inning ending double play ball into the setup for a 3-run Red Sox first. Never mind expecting Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina to let a routine popup drop for a second inning leadoff hit.

When the expected met the unexpected in Game 1 the Red Sox came up alive and well with an 8-1 win in the books. And the Cardinals came up in more trouble than just their field slovenliness after Carlos Beltran's for-the-highlight-films robbery of Ortiz's potential grand slam turned into a Series-threatening rib contusion for the veteran right fielder who's their biggest bopper in the bargain.

The Red Sox hoped Jon Lester could take them into the game deep and they got better than they hoped. The Cardinals hoped Wainwright could keep the Red Sox grinders from playing their usual wait-it-out-and-whack attack. The Red Sox got better than they hoped for. The Cardinals weren't even half as fortunate.

Red Sox Nation probably expected nothing less than Mike Napoli stepping up with the bases loaded and one out in the first hitting a 3-run double for the early jump. It was how the Red Sox loaded the pads in the first place that nobody, including the Sox to their surprise and the Cardinals for dead certain, saw in the proverbial tea leaves.

With first and second Ortiz swung on a 2-1 count and the Cardinals playing the to-the-right-side shift against him. He bounced a not-too-impossible grounder to the right side of second base. Kozma on the shift ambled over. He stuck his glove out to get the toss from second baseman Matt Carpenter, who'd fielded it cleanly. Kozma moved as if to take the ball out of the glove to start a double play.

Except that the ball bumped off the glove web moments before Kozma's hand got anywhere near the glove. Incredibly, second base umpire Dana DeMuth, who had a dead-on view of the ball despite Dustin Pedroia dropping into a potential takeout slide in front of him, and could see only too plainly that Kozma never caught the hop, called Pedroia out.

Red Sox manager John Farrell needed no prompting. He hustled out of the dugout and asked for a full umpiring crew review. Crew chief John Hirschbeck called for the review. And then the crew reversed DeMuth. All hands safe. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny hurried out to holler, but Hirschbeck and company made the right call.

"There's five of us out here, okay?" said Hirschbeck, who was wearing a microphone all night and whose playback was proffered by FOX Sports a little later in the game. "And all five of us agreed 100 percent that it wasn't a catch. Our job is to get it right."

If there'd been more umpiring crews doing that diligent a job on tight, bang-bang, or so-called neighborhood plays, among other things, there wouldn't have arisen the movement for in-game instant replay. And for those philistines who still think going to instant replay next year is going to mean more unconscionable delays of game, be advised: It took longer for Hirschbeck and company to discuss the play and overturn the original call (about six minutes by my own estimate) than it took for four television replays to show there was absolutely no way Kozma got his throwing hand anywhere near his glove before the ball hit the web and fell.

All hands safe, and Napoli didn't wait too long for Wainwright to recompose himself. He took a ball outside and a ball low, before ripping a fat fastball on a high line to the gap in left center field and a carom off the Green Monster scoreboard. When Cardinals center fielder Shane Robinson bobbled the carom, even Ortiz from first could score on an almost leisurely stroll around behind Pedroia (one-out line single past second) and Jacoby Ellsbury (leadoff walk) after .

Wainwright might not have been that badly rattled once he escaped further first inning mischief, but nobody could explain what happened on 2-2 to Red Sox shortstop Stephen Drew opening the second. Drew popped one straight up the elevator shaft in front of the mound. Wainwright stepped down from the mound onto the grass and held his arms aloft as if to call off the infield. Catcher Yadier Molina trotted toward the mound. Either man could have had a bead on the descending ball.

And it hit the deck like a dead fish right between the Cardinals' battery.

These Red Sox don't let the other guys' brain freezes go unnoticed or unexploited. Catcher David Ross ripped a 1-2 pitch just over Carpenter's leap for a base hit. Ellsbury flied out to shallow left but Shane Victorino bounced one up to the hole at shortstop. Poor Kozma hustled for the ball only to come up short enough of handling it, and, as they used to say in the ancient times — you know, when innings like these two tended to go against the Red Sox's interest at the most fatal moment — the bases were full of Bostons again.

Wainwright and Pedroia fought a mini-epic that began with three balls and the final revelation that Wainwright's usually effective curve ball wasn't fooling the Red Sox a lick. Wainwright then threw a strike down the pipe, Pedroia fouled one outside of third base, then he stroked a base hit through the left side, eluding third baseman David Freese on the cross-dive, sending home Drew.

Then Ortiz turned on a 1-2 pitch and looked for all the world to have hit his second postseason grand slam in just over a week. Except that Beltran drew a bead on the low enough liner, chased it to the fence, took a small leap, and speared it after it cleared the fence — banging his right torso into it in the bargain. Ortiz settled for a sacrifice fly, but the Cardinals would be forced to take Beltran out of the game in the third.

Even without the key errors the Red Sox hitters played their normal game against Wainwright. No Red Sox swung on a first pitch until Ellbury fouled one off in the bottom of the second. They made Wainwright throw 31 pitches in the first inning and 60 through the first two, with Wainwright getting only four outs on his first 52 pitches.

And the Cardinals may actually have lost one critical element of their most recent October conquest. Freese — the MVP of both the 2011 National League Championship Series and the World Series; the man who yanked them back from the dead in that Series' Game 6 when the Cardinals were down to their final strike — had a storybook opportunity to yank the Cardinals back into this Game 1 with one swing.

Freese got to check in at the plate with the bases loaded and one out in the top of the fourth, thanks to a leadoff walk (to Jon Jay, not starting against Lester but back at his normal center field stand after Beltran's injury compelled moving Robinson to right) and two one-out singles (Allen Craig — in DH mode — and Molina).

He found himself ahead of Lester on 2-1. And he rapped a meek comebacker to the pitcher who tossed home post haste to nail Jay before Ross fired up to first to get Freese. As easy as 1-2-3, Freese's none-too-explosive 2013 postseason suddenly looked even more as though his staggering 2011 was merely one over-his-head postseason for the ages.

Just like that, the best Cardinal threat of the night went into the mist. Oh, they got a little uppity in the fifth thanks to Jonny Gomes momentarily mishandling Carpenter's two-out, low line single near the line, enabling Carpenter to have second while Robinson (one-out single) took third. Lester looked as though he had 'em all the way as he served Jay an inning-ending grounder to shortstop.

Ortiz's 2-run bomb in the seventh off St. Louis reliever Kevin Siegrist and Xander Bogaerts's sacrifice fly in the eighth off Carlos Martinez probably weren't needed to seal the Red Sox win, but they did serve a little bit of notice that the youthful Cardinals bullpen isn't exactly an invincible force. It might also have put a small spot of doubt into the Cardinals' relief corps: it was the first time the left-handed Siegrist had been hit for a left-handed homer at all.

On the other hand, Ryan Dempster, brought in to work the ninth in a situation that was anything but a save, shook off an excuse-me leadoff bomb by Matt Holliday and a 2-out single (Freese) to close things out with a pounding strikeout on Matt Adams.

The Cardinals-dropped-the-ball jokes probably began whipping around the world the moment Adams swung and missed on that one. It figures.

Maybe they'll learn to laugh at it all in due course. It might take winning the Series to accomplish that, and that could pose a problem. With or without their own contributions to the cause, these Cardinals didn't expect the Red Sox's advance notices to be that accurate.

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