Like most baseball fans I spent Wednesday night flip-flopping back and forth between the two playoff games, and I think I followed everything, but I'm still a little confused.
Why was Albert Pujols playing for the Red Sox? Why was John Kerry pitching for the Astros? What was that bulge in the middle of Pedro Martinez's back?
Wednesday was a bad day all around for the Bostons. Not only did they lose to the Yankees 3-1 to fall behind 2-0 in the American League Championship Series, but earlier in the day they'd learned that ace Curt Schilling will need surgery on his injured right ankle and may not be able to pitch again this year.
In the opener of the National League Championship Series in St. Louis, the Cardinals outslugged the Astros 10-7.
The Sox spent all year hoping that Schilling, acquired in a trade last offseason, would be the last piece to finally get them past the Yankees. He won 21 games to help them reach the playoffs again, but he hurt his ankle in September and appeared to aggravate the injury last week in a playoff game against the Angels.
Dr. Bill Morgan, the team physician, told the press Wednesday that the sheath that covers two tendons in Schilling's ankle is torn, which allows one of the tendons to rub across the bone, which is evidently not a lot of fun. The Sox say they're working on a custom brace to stabilize the tendon in the hope that Schilling can make his start in Game 5, should there be such a thing.
The right-hander lasted just three innings in Game 1. Obviously unable to push off the rubber to generate his normal velocity, he was shelled for six runs and the Red Sox lost 10-7. For those of you who follow trends, 10-7 is the new 8-3, the final score of three of the first eight games in the last round.
Game 2 fell to Martinez, once an unhittable ace for the Sox and now just a very good one, but one who has trouble with the Yankees. He was 1-2 against them this year with a very un-Pedro 5.47 earned-run average. Over the last three years, he's 4-4 against the Yankees with a 4.26 ERA. Against everybody else, he's 46-13 with a 2.62.
Last month after a loss to the Yankees he famously said, "I just have to tip my hat to them and call them my daddies," and he pitched into a tidal wave of "Who's your daddy" chants Wednesday. But he pitched well enough to win. Not at his sharpest, he gave up three runs in six innings, including two on a home run to John Olerud in the sixth inning that came after Boston manager Terry Francona should have realized Martinez was tiring.
Martinez gets a lot of abuse for being "only" a six-inning pitcher, which is silly, as though you wouldn't rather have six innings of Martinez than seven innings of almost anybody else most nights -- though not Wednesday night, when Yankees starter Jon Lieber was brilliant for seven.
Martinez is what he is, a small man whose mechanics begin to break down after about 100 pitches. He may not be much past the sixth, but he'll get you to the sixth almost every time. Eighteen A.L. pitchers made at least as many as Martinez's 33 starts this year. Only four of them pitched more innings. As Grady Little learned last year, the key with Martinez is knowing when to get him out of there.
Martinez's average start this year lasted 6.58 innings. The average start of Schilling, who is an absolute horse, lasted 7.08 innings. The difference is an out and a half per start. By getting two outs in relief Wednesday night, Mike Timlin, Alan Embree and Keith Foulke each bridged the gap between delicate flower Martinez and he-man Schilling, and then some.
The problem Wednesday was the Boston bats, which couldn't solve Lieber. Going into Game 2, the Red Sox were 62-6 when they held opponents to three runs or fewer. Lieber really did a number on them.
Now they have to win four out of five against the Yankees while only being able to count on their two aces taking the ball a combined one more time. It'll become a series if the Yankees can't manage to find a win against Bronson Arroyo and Tim Wakefield in the next two games. Kevin Brown, a great but aging pitcher with a sore back, takes the mound for New York in Game 3 Friday; Javier Vasquez, a prize acquisition who has been awful since midseason, starts Game 4.
The great thing about these Red Sox is their resiliency, and they're home for the next three games. But if there's a Game 5 it's Mike Mussina for the Yanks and either a busted-up Schilling or chuck-and-duck righty Derek Lowe for the Sox. Then back to the Bronx. Even in the unlikely event the Red Sox win the next two, they still face a steep hill.
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Cardinal bats smash truisms [PERMALINK]
As the Cardinals were scoring six runs to break a 4-4 tie Wednesday and take control of Game 1 against the Astros, who hit four home runs in the game, I was reminded of one of my favorite sports truisms: Defense wins championships.
For baseball purposes that usually means pitching, as opposed to fielding, but let's define defense as preventing the other team from scoring runs. The baseball version of the truism is that good pitching stops good hitting every time. And, as former pitcher Bob Veale once said, vice versa.
Veale was uttering sort of a Yogi Berra-ism, but I think he was being astute. Because the fact is that defense does win championships, except when it doesn't, which is often. Every time a great defensive team wins a championship -- Pistons, Buccaneers, Devils -- the defense-wins bromide gets dragged out.
But somehow when offense wins championships, we don't get the same philosophizing. The closest thing is "The best defense is a good offense," which is usually dismissed as Neanderthal thinking.
What defense does is win championships as long as there is sufficient offense. And yeah, vice versa, but never mind that now.
We saw this with the football Bucs, who had a great defense for years before they finally put together enough offense to win the Super Bowl. And we're seeing it in this year's playoffs. In the American League, the Red Sox and Yankees, the No. 1 and 2 offensive teams in the league, had little trouble with the Twins and Angels, the No. 1 and 2 defensive (in terms of runs allowed) teams in the league.
In the National League the Cardinals had the best offense and the best pitching, which explains why they won 105 games and are rolling through the playoffs. But does it seem to you they're winning with pitching? They didn't exactly stymie the Astros -- a middle-of-the-pack offensive team -- Wednesday night, Houston piling up seven runs on 10 hits, including two doubles and the four homers. They just beat them into submission with their bats. Shoot, even the pitchers hit: Woody Williams hit a long double Wednesday night.
That's what the Cardinals do. Beyond a certain level of competence, the pitching is gravy. Against the Dodgers in the division series, the Cardinals gave up 12 runs in four games. But they could have given up 23 and had the same result, a four-game win.
The Astros are hoping journeyman -- to put it kindly -- Pete Munro can quiet St. Louis enough in Game 2 to let them tie the series and go back to Houston, where they can hand the ball to Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, their two aces. The Cardinals send Matt Morris.
An even fonder hope for the Astros would be for a rainout Thursday, so they can have Clemens and Oswalt pitch Games 2 and 3, which in turn would mean they'd both get two starts if the series goes the distance. But alas the forecast calls for a wet afternoon and a dry evening in St. Louis, and anyway it takes a real gullywasher to rain out a postseason game.
The Astros just have to hope a cold front hits the Cardinals' bat rack.
Previous column: ALCS's wild start
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