Thursday, October 31, 2013

Coronation at Fenway: The Stumbling of a Prodigy and the Culmination of a Comeback

Matt Carpenter swung free at Koji Uehara's last offering. In a way, the game was already over. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the Boston Red Sox led by five runs. Uehara had been nearly unhittable for the better part of the year. Perhaps in the back of Carpenter's mind, his at bat was merely delaying the inevitable. The eighty-one miles per hour slider was beyond his grasp. As the baseball halted within the glove of David Ross, it was all over. The St. Louis Cardinals, for all of their stellar young pitching and clutch hitting, had been felled by the better team.

At twenty-two years of age, Michael Wacha had been a postseason phenomenon. His effectiveness on the mound was a testament to the savvy and skill of the Cardinals' farm system. Wacha had been the catalyst in St. Louis's series victory over the upstart Pittsburgh Pirates. In the National League Championship Series, Wacha was named most valuable player for his efforts in quelling the big-spending Los Angeles Dodgers. Then, of course, there was game two of this World Series. Despite the home run he surrendered to David Ortiz, Wacha pitched like a veteran ace. The ball moved from Wacha to Carlos Martinez, to Trevor Rosenthal in the methodical manner that had utilized in several playoff wins this year. Pairing well with their solid pitching, the St. Louis bats had provided enough run support to defeat the true veteran John Lackey. In a swift breeze of coincidence, Lackey had once been a twenty-three year old rookie prodigy thrust into the game's biggest spotlight. In the 2002 World Series, he was called upon to win the seventh and deciding game. Lackey pitched five strong innings en route to a four to one victory for his Anaheim Angels.

For the Red Sox, Wednesday night had been a moment long in waiting. While the team had won two of the previous nine World Series titles, each had been clinched on the road. It had been ninety-five years since Boston witnessed their beloved Red Sox win the Series at home. In the final game of the 1918 Series, pitcher Babe Ruth was brought in as a defensive substitution for left fielder George Whiteman. He did not bat. But what Ruth had accomplished in games one and four, was hold the Chicago Cubs down and win to set up the Boston home field victory.

If there was a Ruthian presence in Boston during the 2013 World Series, it was David Ortiz. In twenty-five plate appearances, Ortiz would find himself on base nineteen times. For most better part of the playoffs, he had hit nearly everything thrown his way, which led the St. Louis braintrust to come to the conclusion of just avoiding the most dangerous man in the lineup. While the plan made sense due to a rather lackluster remainder of the Boston lineup, the move proved fatal to the Cardinals championship campaign. After intentionally walking Ortiz in the bottom of the third, Wacha plunked Johnny Gomes to load the bases. In stepped Shane Victorino. The "flyin' Hawaiian" was not new to game six heroics. Against the Tigers in the American League Championship Series, Victorino blasted a colossal grand slam late to send Boston to the World Series. Victorino returned Wacha's ninety-three miles per hour fastball back toward the famous Fenway 'green monster' in left. All the while consumed by the surrounding roar of all in attendance, the sound of the ball hitting the overwhelmingly high wall was heard clearly. Three runs would score. Wacha allowed his lungs to release a breath of discomfort. His eyes glazed away to the nowhere of his own mind, the young pitcher knew the fate now laid at his feet. The Cardinals never recovered.

As Uehara punched a final out of the game, of the series, of the season, he leaped into his catcher's arms. The dugout emptied and stormed the field. Each player was almost instantly wearing commemorative championship hats and t-shirts. The party had begun in Boston.

Along the visiting dugout, one man remained perched atop the steps leading to the field. Gazing in grief upon the celebration, manager Mike Matheny didn't move. Nine years prior, he had been removed from the lineup in the eventual deciding game of the 2004 World Series. At the end of the game, he was in the dugout as the Boston Red Sox celebrated in old Busch Stadium. Matheny had been in that very moment before, watching as once again David Ortiz and the Red Sox defeated his Cardinals.

When the 2012 regular season came to a close, the Boston Red Sox were in last place. Ortiz was viewed as washed-up and past his prime. In that time, maybe they were right. The season was rough for the superstar designated hitter and his teammates. In a decade of unparalleled success in the franchise's history, 2012 was thought to be the team's return to the cellar of infamy and woe. A year and a month later, Boston is on top of the baseball world once more.

The 2013 World Series was a vehicle for some of the most entertaining and puzzling baseball in many years. From the "Obstruction Game" to the following night's pick-off ending to the dazzling pitching performances every night. From the outset, what we were given was a World Series to be decided by the best team each league had to offer. Bookended by Boston blowouts, the series was otherwise a masterwork of compelling baseball. Never was there a showing of disrespect. In fact, there were moments when players on either side exchanged nods of high regard for one-another. If the World Series is meant to be the greatest game on earth being played on its grandest stage, then surely we were given theater worthy of the attention.

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