Friday, October 25, 2013

World Series Game 2: No Time For Generosity

By Jeff Kallman

Want to know what we learned from World Series Game 2? Easy. The St. Louis Cardinals aren't the only ones who can hand their opponent a game on an infield platter. When necessary, as it seemed to be Thursday night, the Boston Red Sox can be just as generous to just as much of a fault.

Let's put it this way: pending any further cases of the defensive trips, slips, and yips from either side, St. Louis second baseman Matt Carpenter's loft in the top of the seventh hereby goes down as the most powerful sacrifice fly of the 21st century, and Boston reliever Craig Breslow's attempt to bag Jon Jay at third in the same play sequence will go down as the wildest non-pitch pitch of the same time period.

The sad part was that the Red Sox managed to wrest the game back from Cardinals' phenom Michael Wacha, who didn't exactly look as phenom as he had earlier this postseason, with some swift enoughin-game supplemental study from the Red Sox and one swing from (didn't it figure?) David Ortiz.

All night long, the Red Sox did to Wacha what the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates couldn't. Even as he wrestled with the Red Sox order the first time, you could see their intent study of Wacha continuing. Their at-bats turned into wrestling matches with him by the time he started going a second time around the order.

Then, they wasted almost less time handing the game back to the Cardinals than the Redbirds had in handing the Red Sox Game One right out of the chute. Which wasted at least an even and possibly just superior mound performance from John Lackey, the Red Sox's elder starter, out of whom the Cardinals pried a mere run through the top of the seventh.

Believe it or not, and those who still have starry eyes over the amazing young flying Wacha-lenda may not believe it, through six full Lackey actually out-pitched the kid by a slight margin, despite being in a 1-0 hole thanks to Matt Holliday's Fenway triple (it caromed off the bullpen sidewall in center field and traveled around the track) and a run-scoring ground out by Yadier Molina. Lackey threw five more first-pitch strikes than Wacha and surrendered two fewer walks.

When manager John Farrell lifted Lackey following a one-out walk to the otherwise futile David Freese and a line drive single by Jay to right, Lackey — who usually has to be taken out of a game at gunpoint — couldn't possibly have expected his mates to pick this time to begin thinking they needed to return the Cardinals' Game 1 favors.

But Breslow got just careless enough with pinch-runner Pete Kozma (for Freese), the Game 1 pigeon, that on ball three to Daniel Descalso, starting at shortstop for Game 2, Kozma and Jay executed a double steal for which even Casey Stengel would have bought them filet mignons after the game. Then Descalso walked to load up the pads.

And Carpenter on the first pitch lofted a fly to none-too-deep left. Jonny Gomes hauled it down cleanly enough and threw home despite his cutoff man being within easy reach. About five feet closer to the plate and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia might have grabbed it and possibly bagged Kozma crossing the plate. But the offline throw yanked Saltalamacchia to his own right and the ball squirted past him.

The good news was Breslow hustling to behind the plate area to back the play alertly. The better news was he had a dead bead on Jay, who'd scrambled back to second somewhat inexplicably as Gomes' throw took off, and then broke for third. The bad news was that Breslow's throw would have nailed Jay — if only it had been about ten feet lower in altitude, rather than flying into the box seats.

The worst news was a flaw in Red Sox thinking exposed at last. Inexplicably, they trusted Gomes as a kind of good luck charm even though he's not as strong a defender as Daniel Nava. It was a marvelous stroke of fortune that the Red Sox came into Game 2 6-0 in postseason games in which Gomes was the starting left fielder. Now it's 6-1. Like Wacha's absolute mound invincibility, that one's been punctured, but good, too.

Had Farrell thought to make his defensive switch for the seventh inning maybe the throw home comes online enough that Kozma runs into the side-retiring out instead of crossing the plate as the tying run. I know, you don't normally make defensive switches in the seventh. But the World Series isn't normal baseball, either.

Just like that, it didn't seem to matter that Wacha's early-and-often aura of postseason invulnerability was blown apart in the bottom of the sixth, especially once the Red Sox began reading and laying off his already-vaunted changeup. He walked Dustin Pedroia on four straight balls following strike one. Then, he let Ortiz fight him to a full count before throwing Big Papi a fourth consecutive changeup. And Ortiz sent it into the lower steps between two sections of Green Monster seats.

On the other hand, what on earth was Breslow still doing in the game with ailing but still formidable righthanded hitter Carlos Beltran coming up? Beltran had managed a soft line single in the top of the first, but was hitless otherwise, until now, with righthander Junichi Tazawa throwing in the pen and the Cardinals ahead by a measly run.

Sure enough, Beltran swatted a line single the other way, and Descalso scored the fourth Cardinal run easily. And, just as sure enough, now Farrell brought in Tazawa, and he got Holliday, also a right-handed swinger, to beat one into the ground for the side retiring groundout.

Nobody else scored the rest of the way. Too late. The Cardinals, who'd somehow been posssessed by the ghosts of the 1962 Mets in Game 1, managed to become the Cardinals again just in the nick of time in Game 2. The Red Sox, who'd shown the Cardinals' Game 1 stoogery no mercy, became the Three Stooges at the wrong time in Game 2.

There's a time and a place for returning favours. The World Series isn't it. The good news for the Cardinals: they shook off the Game 1 drubbing into which they blundered stoutly enough and cashed in on the Red Sox's short but profound Game 2 largesse.

The good news for the Red Sox: they split the first two League Championship Series games at home against the Tigers and wrestled back to win the pennant in six. That's bad news for the Cardinals, especially with the Red Sox having won two of three on the road against the Tigers before nailing it. And the Cardinals won't be able to serve up Adam Wainwright again until a Game 5, which doesn't seem likely to be anyone's elimination game. So far.

It must be part of the Red Sox charm. They can blunder their way into an early World Series tie and still have a slight advantage. But they'd better not get too comfortable with that knowledge. The Cardinals still have ways of discomfiting the prematurely comfortable. Even if they need a little help from their friends in the opposition uniforms.

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