A Line Drive, a Tipped Ball And the Beginning of the End?
The slightest lucky break, the tiniest mistake in judgment, can crack the dam in October baseball and create a massive flood of runs. When equally balanced foes sense such an opening, the fortunate team uses the leverage to release the floodgates to victory. In the case of the Cleveland Indians, who beat Boston, 7-3, in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series on Thursday night, that minuscule yet enormous instant of truth came in the bottom of the fifth inning with the Indians ahead, 1-0.
With men on the corners and one out, Cleveland's Asdrubal Cabrera hit a fairly hard line drive back toward Boston pitcher Tim Wakefield. If such a ball had streaked at him in May or August, the 41-year-old vet might have remembered in a blink where his infielders were positioned and simply allowed the ball to pass him untouched. If he had, the drive would've skipped straight to Dustin Pedroia, standing near second base, for the easiest of double plays: step on the bag, flip to first.
On such infinitesimal moments, whole seasons sometimes can turn. It may not be fair, but it's certainly the nature of playoff baseball, in which every break resounds like a rifle shot in both dugouts.
Had Wakefield done nothing, the inning would have ended quietly. Instead, Cabrera's shot flicked off Wakefield's glove and rolled behind the mound for a run-scoring infield hit. One out later, Victor Martinez's RBI single knocked Wakefield out of the game and brought on reliever Manny Delcarmen -- a one-man Boston massacre. The first batter he faced, Jhonny Peralta, sliced a three-run homer barely over the right field wall by perhaps two feet, only a 360-foot drive, but devastating for a 6-0 lead. Before Delcarmen could retire the side, the Indians had amassed a seven-run inning for a 7-0 lead.
If the score had remained 1-0, perhaps Indians starter and winner Paul Byrd would have continued pitching effectively. We'll never know. What actually happened, however, is that the Red Sox began their next turn at-bat with a barrage of three consecutive home runs by the first three Red Sox hitters -- Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez.
In New England, where they obsess over their baseball all winter long, you will find thousands, perhaps millions, who will vow that, if Wakefield had escaped that fifth-inning jam with a mere 1-0 deficit, that those three heart-of-the-order explosions by Boston's power bats would have turned this game -- and perhaps this ALCS -- in the Red Sox' direction. Or maybe not.
What is certain, however, is that those three blasts looked almost ridiculously inadequate against the magnitude of Cleveland's lead. To make matters worse, Ramirez, after his breathtaking 451-foot tee shot over the center field fence, had one of his vain, oblivious Manny-being-Manny moments. With his team still losing by four and its season in jeopardy, Ramirez posed for several seconds at home plate with both arms over his head, just as he did in a now-well-known photograph of his walk-off homer in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Angels.
Earth to Manny: When you're still behind 7-3, forget the hot-dogging and just run around the bases. If the Indians needed further motivation to finish off this victory -- or this series, for that matter -- the ex-Indian Ramirez may have given it to them.
This crucial contest began with one of the most curious pitching matchups in many Octobers. "This may be the slowest-throwing right-handed matchup of all time in the postseason," the self-deprecating Byrd said of his showdown with Wakefield and his 65-mph knuckleballs.
The tradition of great Indian pitchers is not subtle. From "Rapid Robert" Feller, "Sudden Sam" McDowell and Herb Score through mammoth C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, the common Cleveland thread is intimidation and power. But on this night, Cleveland tapped Byrd, a veteran speed-changer who sometimes double pumps during his windup like an old-time '50s pitcher. Desperate for the slightest advantage? Absolutely. Effective? Yes, that too. It was Byrd who also won the Indians' clincher at Yankee Stadium last week.