The 2003 World Series is finally beginning to assert a personality, now that it might be within nine innings of ending. This is not a Series of spectacular plays and dominant performances. It's a Series of close, tense games that keep turning on the unexpected and coming down to the final at-bat.
Game 5 looked for a while like it was going to be something we haven't seen much of this postseason: a dog of a game. The Yankees were having one of those nights, and the Marlins led 6-1 after five innings. But by the ninth the lead had been cut to 6-4, and with a runner on base Bernie Williams' fly ball was soaring toward the right-field seats. It landed in Juan Encarnacion's glove on the warning track, and after Ugueth Urbina got Hideki Matsui to ground sharply to first baseman Derrek Lee, the Marlins had a 3-2 Series lead heading back to New York.
The Yankees, with Alfonso Soriano benched and Jason Giambi scratched with a sore knee, pushed an unearned run across in the first, but lost starting pitcher David Wells to back spasms after one inning. Jose Contreras, who had been unhittable in two innings of relief in Game 4, came in and got two outs, then fell apart. Two walks and a ground-rule double to Game 4 hero Alex Gonzalez had the game tied with runners on second and third. But a break for Contreras: The next hitter was Brad Penny, the Marlins pitcher. Get him and the damage would be limited, thanks to the lucky break for the Yanks of Gonzalez's ball hopping over the fence, forcing Lee, the runner on first, to stop at third.
Penny drilled a single past a diving Enrique Wilson, Soriano's sub -- Soriano almost certainly wouldn't have fielded it either -- for two runs. The Marlins made it 4-1 in the fourth, Contreras' last inning, on a single by Lee and a double by Juan Pierre.
Wells' early departure meant New York manager Joe Torre had to search his bullpen for arms that could give him innings. Lefty Chris Hammond was found under a pile of sunflower seeds to throw two innings. In the first of them, the Marlins scored twice to blow the game open -- apparently -- thanks to a botched rundown.
With Ivan Rodriguez at second and one out, Jeff Conine grounded sharply to third baseman Aaron Boone, who made a nice pickup, then noticed Rodriguez had strayed too far from second. He ran him back a few steps, then threw to Wilson, the second baseman. Rodriguez headed to third, and Wilson threw to ... no one. It was a confusing, improvised play, and neither Boone, shortstop Derek Jeter nor Hammond, all in the neighborhood, covered third.
The error went to Wilson, but the man at fault was Boone, who made the elementary mistake of throwing to Wilson too quickly. The idea in a rundown is to limit it to one throw by running at the baserunner until he commits to a bag -- preferably the previous one -- then throw him out there. Boone let Rodriguez off the hook. His play in this postseason suggests that the fielding statistics that show him to be a middle-of-the-pack third baseman, nothing special but perfectly good, paint a generous picture.
The play ended with Pudge on third and Conine on second. Mike Lowell dumped a single into right-center and it was 6-1.
Penny cruised through seven, the Yankees getting a single run in his final inning on singles by Nick Johnson, Karim Garcia and Jeter. Dontrelle Willis pitched a scoreless eighth, and Braden Looper, the closer before losing that job to Urbina, took over for the ninth with a four-run lead.
It's clear by now that no win for the Marlins is going to be easy. With one out Jason Giambi hit a pinch homer for 6-3. Jeter singled and Wilson doubled him home. 6-4. In came Urbina to face Williams, the Yankees' hottest hitter and the tying run. Williams hit a towering fly to right that looked like a home run, but Encarnacion caught it on the track. Matsui hit a screamer that Lee short-hopped. He raced to the bag ahead of the hitter and the Marlins were one win away from handing the Yankees their second straight World Series defeat.
Andy Pettitte, the Game 2 winner, will pitch Game 6 for New York at Yankee Stadium Saturday, and if there's a Game 7 Sunday Mike Mussina, the winner of Game 3, will go. Those are big-game pitchers, and the Marlins are hardly in the catbird seat just because they're up 3-2.
Florida manager Jack McKeon said he'd decide later who he'd throw. He appeared to have two choices. He could send ace Josh Beckett out for Game 6 on short rest, then use Carl Pavano, so good in Game 4, to start Game 7 if necessary, also on short rest. Or he could start either Willis, Mark Redmon or Rick Helling in Game 6, then go to a fully rested Beckett if there's a Game 7. Pavano would then be available for Game 7 relief.
This is just a hunch, but it feels like McKeon is leaning toward starting Beckett in Game 6. Managers get understandably enamored with their aces in the postseason, and keep running them out there on three days' rest despite overwhelming evidence that this is a bad idea. Simply put, Josh Beckett -- to use the example at hand -- on three days' rest isn't Josh Beckett. He's a guy in Beckett's uniform who doesn't pitch as well. Especially with a game in hand, McKeon should take his chances with the struggling Willis, who has pitched well in relief in the World Series, and have a rested Beckett available if Game 7 becomes necessary.
Knowing this Series -- and we're starting to know this Series -- Game 7 is going to be necessary.
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The Zelasko watch [PERMALINK]
Fox studio host Jeanne Zelasko was uncharacteristically low-key with her introductory prose poem on the Game 5 broadcast, but she still managed, by my count, eight clichés.
First, what I thought she'd say: "Last night the Rocket added another page to his legacy but he was gone by the time Alex Gonzalez swung -- and so was the ball. Tonight on Fox, it's back to the drawing board, all even, two games apiece. But the Yankees aren't worried. They know all's well that ends Wells [shot of Game 5 starter David Wells]. And the Marlins will ante up with Brad Penny. Saturday we go back to the Bronx and the House That Ruth Built, but tonight, the heat is on in South Florida."
Here are the actual honeyed words of the master: "The playoffs is a time for heroes and the time is now. Welcome to Game 5 of the World Series, the 100th anniversary of the Fall Classic. It is Marlins 101: Don't dwell on the good or bad, just keep turning the page. Well, how's this for a plot twist. The Marlins' storybook postseason has added a new chapter. Over and over this October, they have stared history right in the face. Did you really expect them to back down now? Suddenly everyone's on even terms and everything has changed. The first one to two wins is the world champ."
Why are TV people always talking about underdogs not "backing down"? How does a baseball team back down, anyway? Were the Marlins not going to want to tangle under the basket with the Yankees' big rebounders or something? Would they be afraid to run up the middle on their hard-hitting front seven? You go up and swing the bat, and if the other team's better, they'll probably score more runs than you. What's to back down from?
Anyway, how will she open Game 6? I wish I had another day to mull this over, but here's my guess: "The Yanks had the Wells they wished for, but it was the Marlins whose dreams came true in Game 5. David Wells had spasms in his back, and now we're back, back in the Bronx, back in the House That Ruth Built. And it's the Yankees whose backs are against the wall. But Andy Pettitte knows all about pitching under pressure. He'll take the ball and try to force a Game 7. And the Marlins? The Marlins are nine innings from the promised land, one win from writing a perfect ending to their storybook October."
The Game 7 opening? I don't even want to think about it.
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NFL Week 8 picks [PERMALINK]
My ignorance is bliss strategy paid off handsomely as I went a solid 10-4 in NFL Week 7 picks, the Chiefs keeping me in double figures for the second straight week with a game-saving tackle on the 1-yard line.
The strategy is simple: The less I pay attention to the NFL, the better I do in picking each week's winners. Through the end of September, when I was bored by baseball's playoff races and had lots of time to devote to poring over football minutiae, I went 32-28, a .533 winning percentage. Since the baseball postseason began and diverted my attention from the NFL, I'm 30-12, a .714 percentage.
If the pattern holds, I'll do pretty well this week, then revert to my stinktastic form in Week 9, with the World Series in the past.
But here's the best part of the IIB approach: I'm on a three-week winning streak with my What the Heck Pick of the week, in which I take an underdog with a shrug of the shoulders similar to the one implied by the fast food chain whose advertising slogan is "(Implied: What the heck) You Gotta Eat," and which is showing its own brand of ignorance by refraining from sponsoring my What the Heck Pick of the week to the tune of seven figures.
I picked the winless Bears over the Raiders in Week 5 -- this was before it was crystal clear to everyone how bad the Raiders really are -- the winless Jets over the Bills in Week 6 and the winless Chargers over the Browns in Week 7. There are unfortunately no more winless teams, so I may have to put a little thought into this week's What the Heck Pick, and you know what that means: I'm doomed.
By the way, in case ignorance isn't for you, last month I mentioned a new site called Football Outsiders in a column about the dearth of football blogs. I called it "excellent if sometimes impenetrable to us liberal arts majors." The site uses a database of every single NFL play to analyze teams and players based on game situation. In other words, it takes into account the fact that an 8-yard gain on first-and-10 is not the same as an 8-yard gain on third-and-12. As the database grows and the calculations continue, the site keeps getting better, and head outsider Aaron Schatz -- a liberal arts type who also writes the long-running Lycos 50 -- has been working hard to make it more mathophobe-friendly.
The Pro Football Project, by the authors of the annual book "Pro Football Prospectus," also applies the sabermetrics-style thinking so common now in baseball to the gridiron. Its analysis isn't quite as granular as that of Football Outsiders, but it's still fascinating.
If you're looking for something beyond "He has more yards so he must be better," try those two sites. Am I missing any others? I want to know for your benefit. I'm sticking with ignorance.
Week 8 picks, with winners in all caps:
St. Louis (4-2) at PITTSBURGH (2-4): The Rams are back, and it's the defense that's doing it. I remain skeptical.
SEATTLE (5-1) at Cincinnati (2-4): Two in a row for the Bengals? Nah.
Dallas (5-1) at TAMPA BAY (3-3): Well this is certainly a more interesting matchup than anyone thought it would be eight weeks ago, isn't it? I'm giving the stumbling champs one more chance.
Cleveland (3-4) at NEW ENGLAND (5-2): Predicting the Browns' starting quarterback is more challenging than picking the winner. On the other hand, it affords the chance to be wrong twice, so: Tim Couch.
TENNESSEE (5-2) at Jacksonville (1-5): This is an awfully good candidate for a What the Heck Pick, but I'm going with the Titans and saving my little trademark bug for later.
Carolina (5-1) at NEW ORLEANS (3-4): The Panthers are banged up. Yessir, a little knowledge has snuck into my brain somehow, leading to a dangerous pick of the Saints.
Denver (5-2) at BALTIMORE (3-3): Oh, shoot, I also know that the Broncos are starting third-string quarterback Danny Kanell because of injuries to Jake Plummer and Steve Beuerlein. Of course, the Ravens start a third-string quarterback every week, but he's my homeboy, a sturdy Golden Bear. So I'm picking the Ravens over the Broncos, not to mention over Stanford.
DETROIT (1-5) at Chicago (1-5): The good news about this game is that unless you live in Detroit or Chicago, you can safely pretend it doesn't exist.
N.Y. GIANTS (2-4) at Minnesota (6-0): What the Heck Pick of the week. Am I allowed to take the Giants, who I predicted would win the NFC East, as my What the Heck Pick? Since I invented What the Heck Picks and no one cares about them except me, I'm going to say yes.
SAN FRANCISCO (3-4) at Arizona (1-5): The 49ers, who I don't think are very good, are crying out for a letdown after beating the Bucs, but I think letting down against the Cardinals is such an obvious thing to guard against that the Niners will actually guard against it. If you read that last sentence enough times, it will make sense.
N.Y. JETS (2-4) at Philadelphia (3-3): Hey, the Jets have won two in a row, and quarterback Chad Pennington is supposed to play, but not start. Meanwhile, Donovan McNabb might sit because of his sore thumb and lousy play. When two teams going in opposite directions meet, it seems like the team headed south always wins, but I'll take the Jets anyway.
Houston (2-4) at INDIANAPOLIS (5-1): Edgerrin James returns.
BUFFALO (4-3) at Kansas City (7-0): Speaking of returns, how about that Dante Hall? (See what I did there?) The Chiefs have been the best team in the AFC and the Bills have been inscrutable, but I'm going with the visitors here because I think Kansas City has been flirting with that first loss long enough. It's time.
MIAMI (4-2) at San Diego (1-5): Chargers star LaDainian Tomlinson declared himself unoffended by former teammate Junior Seau's comment that the way to stop Tomlinson, who is black, was to feed him too much fried chicken and watermelon. It seems the two are friends, and those two foods happen to be a favorite of them both. Whatever. I'm tired of these dumb little causes célèbres over racist slips of the tongue, but you know what? I'm tired of the racist slips of the tongue too. Note to the population of this country: Would you think for a second before opening your mouth? Thank you. The Dolphins will crush the Chargers.
Season record: 62-40
Last week: 10-4
What the Heck Picks: 3-4, and on a stunning three-game streak!
Unpaid endorsements of other Web sites: 2
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