Sunday, October 11, 2009

One Pitch Away

(Boston Globe photo)

In 1995, author Mike Sowell penned "One Pitch Away," a book on the dramatic 1986 postseason, considered by many non-Red Sox fans to be the best October of all time. We know that the Red Sox were one pitch away from winning their first World Series since 1918 and couldn't do it. But before that, Boston had to beat the then-California Angels in the ALCS.

Up 3-1 in the series, the Angels led 5-2 in the top of the ninth in Game 5 in Anaheim. Don Baylor hit a two-run homer, and after Rich Gedman was hit with two outs, Donnie Moore was summoned to close it out. Moore was one pitch away from sending the Angels to their first World Series when Dave Henderson launched a 2-2 pitch over the left-center wall, giving Boston a 6-5 lead.

The Angels would lose in 11 innings. The Red Sox won the next two in Boston, and left the Angels in the dust.

Twenty-two years and 364 days after Henderson's iconic long ball off Moore, the Angels finally had their revenge. Leading 6-4, Jonathan Papelbon and the Red Sox were one pitch away from extending their ALDS against Los Angeles when Erick Aybar laced a two-out, two-strike single to center, beginning a three-run rally that culminated with Vladimir Guerrero driving in the tying and go-ahead runs. Brian Fuentes then finished the game and the series.

The Red Sox were ahead all day. Even as the game tightened to 5-4 in the eighth, I was still thinking ahead to a potential Game 4 Monday night. With Jon Lester going against Joe Saunders, and the Fenway crowd in a tizzy, I liked their chances. Then in Game 5, with a fully-rested Josh Beckett, anything could happen.

But it never got that far. Not even close. The fourth time this decade wasn't to be a charm. The Angels were motivated, played smart, and wanted to win more. They rendered the Red Sox offense impotent by consistently getting ahead in counts and forcing them to work from behind. Lester, Beckett and Clay Buchholz weren't the problem. John Lackey, Jered Weaver and a fine bullpen were. Arte Moreno, Tony Reagins, Mike Scioscia and the Angels are a terrific organization that I'll be rooting for them from here on out.

The Angels were just better this time. It's that simple.

Papelbon, who was an adventure all year but always seemed to pull through when he got into trouble (just three blown saves in '09), couldn't close the door as he'd done so many times in the playoffs. I've made a big deal about Papelbon and his future with the club, but there will be questions in the wake of this disaster about whether he's worth a long-term commitment. All I know is that his splitter is gone and the Angels won Sunday because they preyed on his fastball, the only pitch he throws with confidence. I also know Daniel Bard was outstanding today, and he looks ready to be a closer in the Majors.

The long winter seems especially long this year, with the Yankees looking like an unstoppable force and a true threat to win the World Series (even Alex Rodriguez is hitting). Re-signing Jason Bay must be the team's top priority. Alex Gonzalez has a $6 million option for next year that I'd like to see picked up, allowing Jed Lowrie to be an understudy. Casey Kotchman will hopefully be dealt for a quality bullpen arm. Veteran stalwarts Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek will both mull retirement or look to return to Boston with diminished roles. Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito are likely to flee via free agency, as will Rocco Baldelli. Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett will be entering their walk years.

Those questions will be dealt with in the coming weeks. Reflecting on this season, I see a team with tons of potential that never really put the pieces together. The Achilles' heel of this franchise for so many years was the bullpen, and Theo Epstein finally created an elite unit, only to see inconsistencies in offense and injured/ineffective starting pitching thwart a potentially dominating club. The 2009 Red Sox might go down as the most frustrating in recent team history because of that. The Yankees were better, having spent $423 million on new players and opening a majestic new stadium where they must have had an 81-0 record. The Angels were better, spurred on by an early-season tragedy and so many playoff failures dating back to 2002. But the Red Sox could have been better than both. That they weren't is a painful reality.

But there's plenty of reason to be grateful.

I'm grateful Epstein took a chance on Victor Martinez, knowing he was the missing link both in terms of the offense and the clubhouse. I'm grateful David Ortiz overcame a horrendous first two months to be one of the best hitters in baseball over the last four. I'm grateful Jacoby Ellsbury is quickly becoming the most exciting player in franchise history with blazing speed on the basepaths and in the field. I'm grateful J.D. Drew stayed healthy and proved to all thoughtful observers that he's an immensely talented hitter and an incredibly underrated outfielder. I'm grateful the organization heeded my call to showcase Bard as the next great young reliever in this game.

I'm grateful my favorite team is owned by people who care first and foremost about putting the best possible product on the field, knowing everything from fan appreciation to national recognition will trickle down from that. I'm grateful Red Sox fans from coast to coast overpopulate visiting stadiums to the point of mania. I'm grateful my favorite team is closing out a decade with seven 90-win seasons, six playoff appearances, two World Series titles, the respect of an entire industry and memories that will never escape me. I'm grateful for the foundation that means the next decade could be even better.

After losing to the Rays last year I wrote in TNH that when your favorite team loses, no matter what the circumstance or team history, it always hurts. Right now, losing this game today and having the season end hurts. But I can't lose sight of the things I'm grateful for, that we should all be grateful for.

I'll continue to update here throughout the playoffs, including LCS previews later this week.


minuteman said...

A thoughtful balanced posting, Jake. I am so used to reading Cam's rants after the wings or Wolverines lose that your even handed approach was a surprise...

Jake O'Donnell said...

Thanks, Pat. I guess I'm becoming more timid in my advanced age. Plus I don't think anyone wants to hear Boston fans complaining after the decade we've enjoyed.