By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 6, 2007
CLEVELAND, Oct. 5 -- On a normal October night, stroking a two-out, full-count, bases-loaded single to end a playoff game -- precisely what Travis Hafner did here Friday night -- would be more than enough to become the can't-miss highlight of the day, the thrill of a baseball career. For this city, it is all that mattered, because that one stroke delivered an enthralling 2-1, 11-inning victory for the Cleveland Indians over the New York Yankees.
Perhaps most important for the Indians, it did not involve insects.
We'll get to that. But first, there was so much else to take in, so much more that contributed to the Indians' stunning two-games-to-none lead. Beautiful games pitched by 35-year-old Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte and 23-year-old Indians right-hander Fausto Carmona, who combined to pitch 15 1/3 innings, allowing a single run. Cleveland's futility with runners in scoring position, 16 straight at-bats without a hit before Hafner came through. Not to mention the mounting scrutiny on Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts and now is hitless in his last 18 postseason at-bats, four for his last 47, cementing his reputation as a giant in the regular season, a waif in the playoffs.
Yet years from now, when parents tell their kids they were present here Friday night, all of that will be secondary to . . . the bugs. "A million of them," Yankees reliever Joba Chamberlain said.
Which is just a fraction of the number of discussions they touched off in the Bronx -- and well beyond -- Friday night. The scene initially seemed normal. In the bottom of the seventh, Chamberlain relieved Pettitte -- who held the Indians scoreless for his 6 1/3 innings -- with a typically dominant performance, pitching out of a one-out, two-on jam to protect a fragile 1-0 lead.
But in the top of the eighth, the Yankees received a clue that all was not well. With two outs, first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz repeatedly stepped out of the batter's box. The Yankees, to that point, had all of two hits -- one of them Melky Cabrera's solo homer off Carmona in the third. But the true swatting had begun, and artistry was replaced by absurdity.
"I've never seen anything like it before," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "It was like someone let them go."
By the time the Yankees took the field for the bottom of the eighth, they were everywhere. "It was like blankets of stuff out there," New York Manager Joe Torre said, and the ensuing scene was straight out of summer camp. Before Chamberlain threw a pitch in the eighth, head athletic trainer Gene Monahan arrived on the mound with insect repellent, and Chamberlain spread his arms and turned his back, a 12-year-old seeking help from a counselor.
Chamberlain, though, clearly wasn't comfortable.
"I don't know what you tell him," Jeter said. "The bug spray wasn't working."
The entire Yankees infield flailed at the air. But as Chamberlain said, "My job is to pitch." So he did. He just wasn't himself.
In a big league career that has spanned all of two months, Chamberlain has become something of the Yankees' savior, the bridge to closer Mariano Rivera. He appeared in 19 games this season, and his control was so sharp -- outside of his major league debut, in which he walked two men -- that he walked just four batters in 22 subsequent innings.
So with the swarm around his head -- and the entire infield swinging at the spaces in front of their faces -- Chamberlain unleashed four straight balls to Cleveland leadoff hitter Grady Sizemore. The Indians had a chance. The buzzing continued.
"They bugged me," Chamberlain said, "but you've got to deal with it."
The bugs, apparently, were midges, an annoying relative of the mosquito, according to an entomologist consulted by the Associated Press. Though the umpiring crew was also affected, crew chief Bruce Froemming said he never considered delaying the game.
"It was just a little irritation," Froemming told a pool reporter.
It was worse for Chamberlain. Several Yankee players said the epicenter of the swarm was at the mound, and Chamberlain dealt with the insects on his neck and face. From there, he unleashed a wild pitch -- just the second of his career -- to get Sizemore to second. A sacrifice bunt moved him to third, and after Hafner blistered a liner directly to Mientkiewicz for the second out, Chamberlain looked ready to extract himself from both the inning and the bizarre situation.
But with a 1-0 count on Victor Martinez, Chamberlain let loose with a slider. "I just pulled it," he said, and it eluded catcher Jorge Posada, getting to the backstop. Sizemore scampered home.
The Indians had hits in each of the first seven innings, but did not score. They got their first run in the eighth without a hit. Perhaps the RBI goes to the midges?
"There wasn't any talk about it, really, on our side," Cleveland Manager Eric Wedge said.
With the game tied, it was up to the Indians to put behind so many missed opportunities. Reliever Rafael Perez threw two perfect innings in relief of the dominant Carmona, whom Hafner described as "unbelievable." Still, by the time the 11th rolled around, Cleveland had put a runner in scoring position with less than two outs seven times and scored just once.
"That's a game last year we would have lost," Hafner said. "But this year's different."
The winning rally started when New York reliever Luis Vizcaino walked Kenny Lofton. Franklin Gutierrez singled him to second, and Casey Blake bunted them both up. That led to an intentional walk of Sizemore, loading the bases for Asdrubal Cabrera.
When Cabrera popped up, the sense among the throng was that another chance would go by. Hafner had failed with men to drive in three previous times. But he worked the count full, then served a pitch to right.
Up by two games, the Indians cared not about a few bugs. Down by two, the Yankees headed home to New York, their season reduced to the trailer for an absurd horror movie.
"What can you do?" Jeter asked. The only acceptable answer: win Sunday, pests or no pests.