Sunday, October 13, 2013

Take This To Your Grave: Max Scherzer, David Ortiz, and the Death of the Foregone Conclusion

Whenever the baseball rolls kind to one, it rolls cruel to another. In a moment, everything can change. As Detroit steamrolled toward a dominant victory and two game lead in the American League Championship Series, fate intervened. Despite allowing only one hit in the first fourteen innings of the series, a splinter in the Tigers' armor was found and exploited. In an instant, the tide moved in a sea change as a Boston legend perhaps sealed his legacy more than he ever had before tonight.

As Max Scherzer stood in the dugout following the home half of the seventh inning, he was ecstatic. One camera stayed focused on the should-be Cy Young winner. His expression said everything the Boston faithful began to feel. He had might as well been wearing pinstripes. It was like the old days for the Red Sox. Gone were the glory days of the last decade. Gone were the "idiots" and the foregone conclusion that their team was better than any it would come up against. This was the old pain again. Following the masterful one-hit combined gem Saturday night, seven innings of bludgeoning by the game's best hitter and all of his friends seemed to open old wounds that never really healed. Shane Victorino scoring from first wouldn't matter. It was 5-1. With six outs remaining in the game, thoughts turned to game three. The Tigers would send Justin Verlander to the mound. Then it would be Doug Fister. Then Sanchez again. With six outs remaining in game two, the Fenway Park schedule seemed to dim.

In the bottom of the eighth inning, Jose Veras replaced the dominant Scherzer. Following the first out, Will Middlebrooks doubled to left field. In a reluctant snare, the Fenway crowd jolted back to life. 

Detroit manager Jim Leyland brought in Drew Smyly to face Jacoby Ellsbury. He would walk. Two on, one out. 

Replacing Smyly would be the often erratic yet sometimes brilliant Al Alburquerque. He would retire the next batter on strikes, then allow Dustin Pedroia a weak ground ball to right field. The arm of Tigers' right fielder Torii Hunter would not be tested. Bases loaded, two out.

A fourth pitching change would bring in Joaquin Benoit. Typically dominant, the late-inning reliever was usually given ample time to warm up. Given the revolving door in the bullpen that inning, Benoit was forced to rush his preparation. A few warm up pitches, then it would be David Ortiz to bat. Ortiz is well known as one of the most clutch hitters in recent memory. His efforts in the 2004 ALCS were a catalyst to one of the greatest comebacks in the game's history. He would walk to the plate as the tying run in a game that felt so dominated from the outset that I had considered going to bed early. I told myself "after Ortiz bats I'll call it a night."

With two outs in the eighth, the game was over. Detroit was still on its way to a commanding series lead heading home only needed two wins in three games at Comerica Park. As the first pitch changeup left Benoit's hand, Detroit was well on their way to clinching a second consecutive trip to the World Series. Though we witnessed it in a brief fraction of a second, Scherzer had a dominant win locked up for the entire flight of the baseball toward home plate. Then David Ortiz made contact. As the pitch was returned high toward the right field wall, Benoit grimaced. Torrii Hunter raced toward the warning track. Not losing a step, he traced the ball and leaped. Missing his glove by mere inches, the ball careened into the mitt of Boston's bullpen catcher. The standing-room-only crowd exploded as it had nine years prior. Hunter's misplay of the ball and all-out effort forced him over the wall, landing upside down in the bullpen. The thirty-eight year old was visibly injured and would appear sore for the remainder of the night. Ortiz rounded first, then second, then third. He tapped home plate, kissed his hands, and pointed to the sky in the same manner he had so many times in the postseason. Moments earlier, Detroit was flexing some muscle. Instead, fate rolled another way. The game was tied, but it didn't feel that close.

It was in fact much like the old days again for Boston. Not the old days of Buckner, but of Damon and Veritek and Schilling. It was a moment ripped from the 2004 ALCS. Following the walkoff hit by Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the Tigers walked off the field knowing they had let the win slip through their laces. It was familiar to the scene nine years prior. They might as well have worn pinstripes.

What remains is a series. As we shift to Detroit, it is now a best-of-five. Even at a game apiece, Detroit and Boston must move on from this game, but in drastically different ways. Before the eighth inning, the consensus was that the Red Sox would have an impossible task ahead of them heading to Detroit. Now it as if the Tigers are the team looking up, hoping for the ball to break their way in the typical and unpredictable fashion that baseball ceaselessly delivers.

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