King Kaufman’s Sports Daily

Red Sox Blame Game: Graffanino's the new Buckner. Plus: NHL returns. Where's the clutching?

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I’m not here to play the Blame Game, but let’s talk about whose fault it was that the Boston Red Sox coughed up the remaining half of a 4-0 lead Wednesday in their Game 2 loss to the Chicago White Sox.

Was it Tony Graffanino, the second baseman already being labeled “the new Bill Buckner” for his error on a double-play ball that should have ended the fifth inning with Boston still leading 4-2?

Or was it David Wells, the pitcher who, one out later, hung a curveball to Tadahito Iguchi, who deposited the mistake into the left-field bleachers for a 5-4 lead that held up, giving Chicago a 2-0 lead with the series headed to Fenway Park for games Friday and, if necessary, Saturday.

In the other games Wednesday, the Los Angeles Angels beat the New York Yankees 5-3 to even up their series at 1-1, and the Houston Astros won their opener over the Atlanta Braves, 10-5.

Here’s a hint about my vote in the Red Sox Blame Game, which, remember, I don’t want to get involved in: I don’t think Bill Buckner cost the Red Sox the 1986 World Series, or that Steve Bartman cost the Chicago Cubs the 2003 National League Championship Series, for that matter.

It pains me to say this a little bit because I’ve grown increasingly fond of David Wells over the last few years. His book had its amusing moments, he routinely thumbs his nose at authority figures and he idolizes Babe Ruth, a rare case of an athlete being aware the world existed before his own name started appearing in the newspapers.

And most importantly, he’s one of four active players who are older than I am. He keeps me young.

But I have to point the finger, in a non-Blame Game-playing way, you understand, at Boomer. You can’t hang that curveball to Tadahito Iguchi in that spot and let him beat you. You just can’t.

But I have at least four or five fingers on each hand. There are plenty to go around. That’s how baseball works. Almost nothing in baseball is one guy’s fault. The New York Mets had already tied the Red Sox in Game 6 in ’86 with Buckner doing nothing more than standing next to first base and thinking about how much his ankles hurt. The Cubs still might have beaten the Florida Marlins in ’03 if Alex Gonzalez had fielded a routine grounder.

So my finger points at Graffanino too. This is the postseason and you’re down 1-0 already. You have to make that play. You can’t start scooping the ball toward second base before you have it, which is what Graffanino did. He got the yips, to use a hockey term, Wednesday being opening night in the NHL and all.

And another finger points at Iguchi, who I don’t mean to denigrate by saying you can’t let him beat you. Iguchi’s a pretty good player. He’s pretty close, actually, to much-lauded fellow rookie Robinson Cano of the Yankees, the hero of Game 1. Given a pitch to hit, he hit it out of the park. That wasn’t luck.

But giving up a game-winning homer to him isn’t exactly like giving one up to David Ortiz or Paul Konerko, where you tip your cap and say, “Great hitter, sometimes he’s going to beat you.” If you’re a big-game pitcher pitching in a big game, a description that supposedly fits Wells, it’s forgivable to lose, but not by hanging a curveball to a medium-hitting second baseman.

And let’s save a finger for White Sox starter Mark Buehrle, who after a shaky start that staked the Red Sox to their 4-0 cushion, tossed four shutout innings starting with the fourth. And one for rookie reliever Bobby Jenks, who posted a two-inning save, getting Edgar Renteria on a game-ending groundout with the tying run at second and the deadly Ortiz on deck.

The White Sox’s win was all of their fault too, with more Blame Game left to not play.

But we the people like easy answers, simple explanations, so we say, “Graffanino cost ‘em the game.” The postgame TV coverage consisted of Graffanino manfully taking the heat in one clubhouse and White Sox players, some of them his ex-teammates, in the other one saying they were happy to win but they felt bad for Tony, a good player and a fine human being.

Iguchi got a mention, but if Wells did, I missed it. It’s intellectually lazy to pin the Game 2 loss on Graffanino’s error, as lazy as a sports columnist trying to get laughs with month-old political humor.

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NHL comeback: Hey, I want to see some mucking! [PERMALINK]

Busy with the baseball playoffs, I didn’t get to watch much action on the NHL’s big comeback night, but I did catch the first shootout in league history, the Ottawa Senators beating the Toronto Maple Leafs by scoring on their first and third tries and denying both of Toronto’s, rendering the third moot.

I was surprised I didn’t find it as spine-tingling as I’d thought I was going to. That may have had something to do with the Toronto crowd being subdued after Daniel Alfredsson scored on the Sens’ first shot and Jason Allison had the puck poked away by goalie Dominic Hasek on the Leafs’ first try.

Also, I had no rooting interest. I’m keeping an open mind.

Aside from the last few minutes of that game, I caught peeks of Minnesota-Calgary, Vancouver-Phoenix, Nashville-San Jose and Anaheim-Chicago, but not enough to tell if the new rules had the desired effect of creating more skating room, boosting scoring and speeding up the game. I did catch a glimpse of new Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky behind the bench.

The quotes from around the league seem encouraging, though, with players and coaches remarking on the speed of the game and goalies whining about the smaller equipment. And: “The physical game is still there,” said Detroit Red Wings forward Brendan Shanahan, pointing to a cut under his eye picked up in a fight with Jamal Mayers of the St. Louis Blues. “My face indicates that.”

There were 94 goals scored in the 15 games, not counting the ones the Senators scored in the shootout. That’s 6.27 per game, more than a goal better than last year’s pathetic league average of 5.14, and in line with mid-’90s scoring levels. The mid-’90s weren’t exactly the go-go ’80s, but you have to start somewhere.

Lilliputian sample size and everything, but encouraging.

I did catch enough game action to see referees sticking to their assignment of calling the game with a hair-trigger whistle, sending players to the penalty box for the lightest of touches on players skating without the puck. That was also encouraging considering how little hockey I watched.

This sort of thing, which turns the game into a power-play fest in the short term but should open things up once players adjust, has been promised many times before and the promise never kept. Keeping it this time may be the key to the NHL’s long road back.

Previous column: Baseball playoff openers

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