It really was starting to look like the Red Sox's year, like the supernatural forces that seem to be at work against the Bostons might be giving way.
Call it the Curse of the Bambino if you must, or maybe it's just the curse of lousy management, perhaps cosmic revenge for passing on Willie Mays in 1949 and waiting 10 more years to become the last team to sign a black player. Whatever it was, the Red Sox seemed to have found the antidote potion.
Facing elimination, they'd spent the last two weeks pulling out improbable wins. Against the A's, down 2-0 in a five-game series, they yanked a game-winning Trot Nixon home run out of a hat, made base-running lunacy appear out of thin air, sawed a Cy Young winner in half with a series-clinching Manny Ramirez home run. Down 6-4 in the seventh inning of Game 6 in New York Wednesday night, three innings from doom, they put a hex on the Yankees. A throwing error on a triple. A wild pitch. Then another. A bases-loaded walk? These are the Yankees? The Sox won to force a Game 7.
They made Roger Clemens disappear in the fourth Thursday night, trailing 4-0. Pedro Martinez had the New Yorkers mesmerized. It was 5-2 in the eighth. The Sox were five outs away. The potion was working ...
"They bundled up the charms and amulets, the love philters and voodoo powders, the shrunken skulls and soggy old tea leaves and crystal balls and magic wands, and pitched 'em into the Harlem River yesterday." That's the great Red Smith writing in the New York Herald Tribune about the 1951 World Series, when the Yankees dispatched the Giants team that had come from 13 games back in August to tie the Dodgers, then beat them in a playoff on Bobby Thomson's famous home run.
"Magic and sorcery and incantation and spells had taken the Giants to the championship of the National League and put them into the World Series," Smith wrote. "Their flying carpet had carried them as far as the ninth inning of the sixth game. But you don't beat the Yankees with a witch's broomstick. Not the Yankees, when there's hard money to be won."
The Red Sox's flying carpet didn't quite get them to the World Series, but otherwise not much has changed. You don't beat the Yankees with magic, with destiny and believing, with not moving from the couch when things are going well, or everybody hugging that big bear Ortiz in the dugout. They have too many good players they can throw at you, too many Jason Giambis, who hit two home runs in Game 7 after struggling through a 2-for-16 slump in the first six, too many Mariano Riveras, who threw three shutout innings Thursday, starting with the ninth.
And when they get tired of throwing good players at you, they give you Aaron Boone, whose home run sent them to their 39th World Series. That's how many the A's, Red Sox, Tigers and Orioles, the four most successful American League franchises after the Yankees, have combined to reach.
What is it about the eighth inning lately for teams about to win a series? It was in the eighth inning Wednesday when the Cubs, five outs from the World Series in the NLCS Game 7, blew their lead against the Marlins and lost. It was in the eighth inning a year ago when the Giants, six outs from taking the World Series in six, lost their lead to the Angels. The A's were four outs from eliminating Boston in Game 4 of the Division Series before Ortiz's double put the Sox on top.
And it was the eighth inning Thursday when the Yankees rallied from 5-2 against Martinez, who had been so good through seven. With one out Derek Jeter doubled over Nixon's head and Bernie Williams singled him home. In an ordinary game, Boston manager Grady Little would have taken the tiring Martinez out here, brought in a lefty to face Hideki Matsui, and Red Sox fans will argue for years about whether he should have. But Little figured that Game 7s aren't ordinary, and he left the best pitcher he's ever managed out there -- at that pitcher's urging -- and hoped for the best.
Matsui whipped a ground-rule double to right, and still Martinez stayed on the mound. Then Jorge Posada hit a little flair, a dying quail to short center that fell in. Two runs scored, and Posada reached second when no one covered. On a similar ball in Game 5 of the Oakland series -- the one on which Johnny Damon and Damian Jackson collided -- the Sox had thrown out the batter at second when third baseman Bill Mueller alertly covered the vacated bag. Not this time. It didn't matter, Posada died at third. But if you believe in all that magic stuff, it was a clue that the potion bottles were all empty.
Rivera came in to throw three shutout innings, and Boone led off the Yankees 11th with the pennant-winning homer that will plant him squarely in the aching hearts of Red Sox fans, right next to Bucky Dent, who beat the Sox with a home run in a 1978 divisional tie-breaker game. From this day forward Boone, like Dent, will have a new middle name in New England, one that starts with an F and ends with an apostrophe.
So now the Yankees meet the Marlins in the World Series, starting Saturday night in the Bronx. The Marlins play their home games in front of small groups of college football refugees, but they've beaten the Giants and the Cubs this postseason in front of their crowds, and they aren't likely to start being intimidated by mystique and atmosphere at this point.
Both teams have starting rotations in disarray. The Marlins used Josh Beckett, Mark Redman and Brad Penny in their Game 7 win Wednesday, and the Yankees used Clemens, Mike Mussina and David Wells in theirs Thursday after Andy Pettitte pitched Wednesday. Florida will start Dontrelle Willis, the rookie sensation who fizzled in the second half, in Game 1. Yankees manger Joe Torre might ask for volunteers, and Wells seems like a good bet.
However the pitching matchups sort out, the Yankees are a little better and a little deeper, and they have Rivera to fall back on, a pitcher who added another piece to his legend Thursday, the greatest October reliever of them all.
But the Marlins have speed, power, defense, pitching and the wonder that is Ivan Rodriguez in a contract year. They're a tough team not to like if you ignore the larcenous history of their ownership, and they're a hard team to bet against. But then, it's never wise to bet against the Yankees. Not the Yankees, when there's hard money to be won.
In the aftermath Thursday, or actually Friday morning, someone asked Little, the manager, what it's going to take to get his Red Sox over the hump next year, to take that next step and get to the World Series, especially since they play in the same division as the team that had just knocked them out.
Little's answer was as simple as it gets: "We've got to win one more game."
They ought to engrave those words on the Bunker Hill Monument. It seems that Boston always has to win one more game.
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NFL picks: The power of no information [PERMALINK]
I did my best picking of the year last week, going 11-3 and coming dangerously close to running the table. After Week 5 I claimed that I'd been close to going 14-0, but I was obviously hallucinating. This time, it's true.
The three I blew were two overtime games -- the Panthers beating the Colts, who never got the ball in OT, and the Chiefs beating the Packers, who had coughed up a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter -- and the Eagles' to-the-wire loss to the Cowboys.
So my season record is at 52-36, meaning I'm slinking, Bengals-like, toward respectability. And here's the best part: The Jets' 30-3 medievalizing of the Bills was my second straight winning What the Heck Pick of the week, shattering the old record of one in a row, set the week before.
Please hold your applause. I'll let you in on my secret. In the first four weeks of the season, I went 32-28, a .533 winning percentage. In the last two, I'm 20-8, a .714 mark. What's been the difference? The baseball playoffs started, and I've had much less time to pay attention to the NFL. Since I stopped looking at injury reports, trends and tendencies and just started picking off the top of my head, I've gotten much better. Jets over the Bills 30-3: I just had a feeling. You know, I like the Jets' uniforms.
So, unburdened with any useful information of any kind, I give you my Week 7 picks, with winners in all caps.
New Orleans (2-4) at ATLANTA (1-5): OK, I know Mike Vick is still hurt and Kurt Kittner is replacing Insert First Name Johnson, the one who's not Doug but whose name I can never remember. Oh, wait, it is Doug. Damn. Anyway, a vague notion that the Saints are lousy enough for the Vickless Falcons to beat.
PHILADELPHIA (2-3) at N.Y. Giants (2-3): Oh, hang on, I know something about this game too. The Eagles won't onside kick to start it. One of these teams will be toast after this week. I have no idea which one, but I'll say the Giants, and if they lose I'll say I knew it all along.
Denver (5-1) at MINNESOTA (5-0): Injured Jake Plummer takes on a Jimmy Carter-like quality for Broncos fans: The longer he's gone, the better he looks.
SAN DIEGO (0-5) at Cleveland (3-3): There are a lot of What the Heck Pick of the week contenders, but I'm going with the Chargers to become the last team to get off the schneid.
BALTIMORE (3-2) at Cincinnati (1-4): This is one of those contenders.
DALLAS (4-1) at Detroit (1-4): Uncle. I give. I'm buying in to the Cowboys, OK? Now watch them lose 48-6. (See what I did there? Whoever wins, I can point to this blurb and say, "See?")
Green Bay (3-3) at ST. LOUIS (3-2): Here's another of my prognosticating secrets: If it's a tossup and a team I root for is involved, I pick against them, so I'll be happy either way. That is, unless I don't do that, like with this game.
TENNESSEE (4-2) at Carolina (5-0): I know the Panthers aren't going to go 16-0, so I'll just keep picking against them and one of these weeks I'll be right.
NEW ENGLAND (4-2) at Miami (4-1): The Patriots never win in Miami, so they're due. Very scientific.
N.Y. Jets (1-4) at HOUSTON (2-3): Good work last week, Jets. Take the day off.
Chicago (1-4) at SEATTLE (4-1): A great What the Heck candidate, but I'll have plenty of chances to WTH the Bears.
Washington (3-3) at BUFFALO (3-3): I have no idea what to make of either of these teams. The Bills were good to me by losing last week, so I'll take them.
TAMPA BAY (3-2) at San Francisco (2-4): This looked like a great game for prime time when the schedule was made. Now these teams are a combined 5-6. The Bucs are better than their record. The 49ers, not so much.
KANSAS CITY (6-0) at Oakland (2-4): In two weeks the Raiders have gone from the favored team in the first-ever successful What the Heck Pick, when they lost to the Bears, to being a What the Heck candidate themselves, and not a very attractive one at that.
Season record: 52-36
Last week: 11-3
What the Heck Picks: 2-4, and on a two-game hot streak!
Secret sports columnist tricks revealed: 3
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