1. Finally a World Series that I actually want to watch
So it’s Rockies vs. Red Sox. It’s nice to have the first truly compelling World Series matchup in, well, in a long, long time. I mean, does it get any better? It’s the best squad money and human ingenuity can devise, versus God’s own team.
For so many years now, the World Series has seen an seemingly unstoppable AL juggernaut take on some random, mediocre NL team which happened to rise to the top of an inferior league. Oh sure, once in a while the NL team gets a few breaks and manages to win the World Series, but we all understand this to have been just luck, and there is never really much doubt which team was actually the better squad.
Certainly, there have been a few compelling finishes, especially the 2001 matchup between the Yankees and the Diamondbacks when Luis Gonzalez managed to beat superpowered playoff ninja Mariano Rivera with a walkoff, jam-shot, bloop single in the bottom of the ninth inning of game seven. But as Derek Jeter said later, if the Yankees and the D-Backs replayed that inning 100 times, the Yankees would have won 99 of them.
The problem is that the National League has just been so weak for so many years. Even when an NL champ like the 2004 St. Louis Cardinals has won a major-league best 105 games, you knew in the back of your mind that they did it playing against the weakest division in baseball, and that the Red Sox had proven that they were actually the best team in baseball by winning 98 games in the AL East and beating the Yankees.
But now, for the first time in recent, or even not-so-recent, memory, we have a World Series matchup where we are not really sure who has the better chance to win. Sure, on paper the Red Sox seem to have better players, but the Rockies have some serious mojo going with their current streak. I don’t care what anyone says, if you win 21 out of 22 games, and those games were all baseball games, you are one of the best teams ever.
And this most recent streak actually has the effect of blinding us to just how good this team really is. After a lousy 10-16 April, the Rockies had the best record in the National League the rest of the way. They led the national league in virtually all hitting categories. The tallied the highest team fielding percentage in the history of baseball. And maybe most impressive of all, despite pitching half their games at Coors field, they posted the best ERA in the National League since the All-Star break.
Not to mention that the Rockies crushed the Red Sox in a head-to-head showdown at Fenway back in June, outscoring them 20-5 in a three-game series.
But the Red Sox have some mojo of their own, having just come back from a 3-1 deficit in dominating fashion (7-1, 12-2, and 11-2), and en route battering two of the best pitchers in the American League – C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona – to the tune of 23 runs in 16 1/3 innings pitched. Not to mention that the Sox have two of the greatest hitters in the history of playoffs in David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, whether you chose to go by stats or just by watching with your own two eyes.
It’s sure going to be fun watching those two hit in Coors Field. And it’s going to be a blast finding out what miracles God is going to pull out of his sleeve next on behalf of His Chosen Men In Purple.
2. All is well with the Universe: JD Drew and Julio Lugo have remembered that they suck
It was nice to see J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo returning to their normal selves after a cosmos-rattling game in which Drew hit a clutch, two-out grand slam and Lugo had a timely two run double.
This time, Drew came up in an almost identical situation, once again finding himself at bat with the bases loaded in the first inning, and happily, grounded into an inning-ending double play. Likewise, Lugo made an inexcusable error on an easy pop-up, giving the Indians a golden chance to tie up the game in the 7th.
But in any case, these are good omens for Red Sox fans. After a momentary collision with a parallel universe in which Drew and Lugo actually do helpful things in crucial situations, the universe is all back to normal now and the Sox can go back to being the team which compiled the best record in baseball, despite Drew posting a VORP of 15.1 (less than 2 points higher than Jacoby Ellsbury’s 13.6 in more than 400 additional at-bats), and Lugo actually posting a negative VORP of -1.3.
3. By my count, he still had another 162 pitches left
Fans of Daisuke Matsuzaka have to be really encouraged by his performance after a lackluster outing in game 3. Although his final line of 5 innings pitched doesn’t look that great, with the entire Boston pitching staff available to go with the exception of an injured Tim Wakefield, there was no reason to keep him in longer than 5.
If you are Terry Francona and you have the option of effectively shortening the game to those 5 innings by pitching Okajima and Papelbon for the last 4, you’d be crazy not to go to the bullpen early (although I have to say, I was aghast when Francona sent Okajima out to start a third inning after he barely escaped the 7th – there is no universe in which that was a good idea).
Most encouraging about Matsuzaka’s performance was that a guy whose only two real weaknesses this past year were walks and home runs, did not allow a single walk or home run to one of the best offenses in the game with its back to the wall. Not to mention that Matsuzaka did not allow a baserunner for the first 3 innings, and he only made 88 pitches in the five frames he threw.
The word is that Matsuzaka spent pretty much every waking minute since his previous start studying videotape, working on mechanics, and pondering how he could do better if there was a game seven. But then again, in this stereotyped world we live in, could we possibly expect any less than absolute hardcore-ness from an inscrutible Japanese like Matsuzaka? After all, Japanese people never panic, get tired, or die.
But the real point is, Matsuzaka showed that he can and will make adjustments, and that bodes well for continued improvement as he continues a major league career which is only just beginning.
4. Wherein I eat a small piece of crow
Okay, even though it is far too late now, I am totally going to go back on my original pick and just admit that Dustin Pedroia is your AL Rookie of the year. In a previous post, I tried to argue that Matsuzaka was more valuable to the Red Sox, but I think it is clear to all after this last series that the little man is worth more a lot more to the Red Sox right now than Dice-K.
Pedroia is the spark-plug which keeps the massive semi that is the Red Sox offense humming. With his combo of miniscule strike zone and his surprising power, he both gets on base and drives in runs from the leadoff spot, and is a crucial bridge to the heart of the lineup across the wasteland that is the bottom of the Red Sox order.
On a night when David Ortiz somehow went 0-5 (is this God already starting to worry about his beloved Rockies?), Pedroia stepped in with a 3-5, 5 RBI performance which preserved tomorrow for the Red Sox.
Plus you gotta love that All-Star caliber bat flip he did on his back-breaking 2-run home run in the bottom of the 7th.
5. In defense of Joel Skinner
Everyone is ripping Indians third base coach Joel Skinner for putting the breaks on Kenny Lofton as he rounded third on a single to leftfield by Gutierrez in the seventh inning. The presumption is that Lofton would have scored easily and Skinner cost the Indians a crucial chance to tie the game up and shift momentum. The AP article just flat out says “Joel Skinner mistakenly held up speedy Kenny Lofton as he rounded the bag.”
But I have to go against the crowd on this one and defend Skinner a bit. Do I think Lofton would have scored? Yes, probably. But Skinner had a split second to make that decision. If you watch the replay, Skinner was waving Lofton home until the exact moment the ball hit the wall and rocketed off it into shallow left field, right at Manny Ramirez.
Now the call looked bad in hindsight because Manny was just lazily jogging in, assuming Lofton would score, and would have had no chance to throw him out. But Skinner wasn’t watching Manny – he was watching the ball. And any number of outfielders not named Manuel Ramirez would have been charging in at full speed, and would have had a very good chance to throw out Lofton when that ball came at them.
But most importantly of all, there was only one out. With Lofton at third, he whould have been able to score easily on a fly ball. If anyone deserves blame for the Indians not scoring that inning, it is Casey Blake, who swung at Hideki Okajima’s very next pitch and foolishly tried to pull a breaking ball that was down and away, grounding into an inning-ending double play.
5 1/2. The first of many?
The Indians fell just short this time around, and showed some inexperience, especially in getting blown out in these last three games, two of them under the hot lights of the pressure-cooker that is Fenway Park. But they have a bright future, and they will get their shots at revenge. Both of these teams, which tied for the best record in baseball this season with 96 wins each, will be returning almost entirely intact next year, and have most of their core players locked up for 2 years or even more.
Baseball is a fickle game, and there are never guarantees, but I think it’s a fairly safe bet that these two squads will be in the thick of it for several years to come.
I for one am looking forward to watching the likes of Grady Sizemore, Dustin Pedroia, Fausto Carmona, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Francisco Gutierrez, Rafael Bentencourt, and Josh Beckett, as they continue to battle it out for the AL crown in the coming seasons.