By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, October 20, 2007
Perhaps the greatest pleasure in October baseball is watching a long, knock-down, drag-out playoff series. Each team, grudgingly, accepts that its foe is too talented, tough and resilient to be knocked out quickly. You can almost hear both teams take a deep breath, gird themselves and say: "This one is going to the wire. Brace yourselves."
After enduring four lopsided postseason sweeps this month and another series that went only four games, we finally have just such a compelling confrontation as the Red Sox and Indians head to Game 6 in Fenway Park tonight. As if it weren't enough that the Red Sox must win back-to-back home games to reach the World Series, we actually have two teams that dislike each other. Oh, not like the Red Sox hate that team from New York. But a feud is festering, bless its heart.
In Game 4, Manny Ramirez broke the Rickey Henderson World Showboating Record after hitting a homer that merely cut Cleveland's lead to 7-3. For the rest of that game and the next, Indians fans booed his every move and mocked him when he got thrown out at the plate and didn't even try to slide. All of which bothered Manny so much that, in Game 5, he blasted one ball off the left field wall and another off the right field fence. On the second bomb, which missed being a homer by an inch, Manny wandered to first base so slowly, admiring his work, that he barely arrived at the bag in time to collect a 390-foot single.
Also, before Game 5, the Indians "accidentally" invited country singer Danielle Peck to sing the national anthem as well as "God Bless America" at the seventh-inning stretch. And who might she be? Why, Peck is the ex-girlfriend of that night's Boston starting pitcher, Josh Beckett, who was so Texas ticked at the coincidence that he only fanned 11 Indians, beat 'em 7-1 and, just for fun, chewed out Kenny Lofton as he ran out a fly ball and, thus, incited a bench-clearing discussion at the mound.
Add to this lovely brew the quandary that is tormenting all of New England. If the Red Sox actually reach a Game 7, should they roll the Dice-K again? After losing Game 3, Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Red Sox' $103 million man, sat beside his locker in full uniform for an hour after the game. Publicly, the Red Sox say that Matsuzaka simply cares so much and demands so much of himself after his years as Japan's preeminent pitcher that he was deeply upset.
In private, Boston should be asking Tim Wakefield how his shoulder feels and taking the pulse of lefty Jon Lester. Either might be a better choice than Matsuzaka who, for all his talent and bright future, seems exhausted, has pitched poorly in seven of his last 10 starts and is under almost inhuman scrutiny by a vast contingent of Japanese media.
However, of all the elements now in play in this series, perhaps the most fascinating to baseball addicts is the bizarre pattern that, since 1975, has dominated every postseason series in which a team returns home for Game 6, trailing three games to two. Conceivably, there is some large psychological weight attached to Game 6. The visitors sense that they don't want to face a Game 7 on enemy turf. On the other hand, home teams seem daunted in Game 6 by the prospect of back-to-back wins.
Sure, maybe this is all silly. But look at the numbers -- and remember the games themselves, because you've watched plenty of them -- and ask if we aren't watching some extra factors at work. Since 1975, the visiting team in Game 6 has led the series in 24 League Championship Series and World Series. On 13 occasions, the visiting team won Game 6 -- more than you'd expect. Eleven times, the home team has won both Games 6 and 7 -- again, more than simple probability would predict. However, one outcome almost never happens. Only once, in last season's NLCS, has the home team won Game 6 then failed to win Game 7.
Those in and around baseball are so familiar with this pattern, and remember all the famous sixth and seventh games that have conformed to it, that Game 7 between the Mets and Cardinals at Shea Stadium last October felt like a kind of weird lab experiment. Throughout the wet middle innings of a 1-1 game, a Mets victory seemed almost preordained.
Then, in the top of the ninth inning, Yadier Molina homered, the visiting Cards won, 3-1, and, finally, the pattern -- which had included the World Series of '78, '81, '82, '85, '86, '87, '91, '92, '01, '02 and '03 -- was broken.
So, presumably, the Indians actually have two chances to win the AL pennant this weekend at Fenway Park, if they need it. But they probably shouldn't count on it. Visiting teams that lose Game 6 have often been blown out in Game 7. And even Roger Clemens lost to the Cards in Game 7 of the '04 NLCS when he faced this hex.
Even if all this is hocus-pocus and psychobabble -- and World Series before '75 don't follow this pattern -- it's all good spice because it makes Game 6 seem even more vital.
And, as luck has it, few Game 6's set up better than this one. Cleveland's Fausto Carmona, the kid with the best power sinker in the game, better than Brandon Webb or Chien-Ming Wang, will face Boston's bloody-sock legend Curt Schilling in a rematch of Game 2. The contrast is perfect. The Indians send out a blooming 23-year-old star who's been inconsistent in October, brilliant against the Yankees in the division series, then knocked out after four innings by the patient Red Sox last Saturday.
The Red Sox counter with one of the most dominant big-game pitchers in history. Yet the Schilling we have seen in '01, '04 and '07 has been three different pitchers. In six postseason starts in '01, he went 4-0 for Arizona with a 1.12 ERA and 56 strikeouts against six walks in 48 1/3 innings. Three years later, Schilling pitched the Red Sox to their only world title since 1918, going 3-1 in the postseason, but this time with a distinctly mortal 3.57 ERA and that most famous of all red socks.
Now, on what may be the last major stage of his career, Schilling gives what he still has -- his head and heart. But from game-to-game he never knows on which nights his arm will decide to rebel and act its age -- 41, next month.
It's time to wind up the tension and start the debates. Will Indians slugger Travis Hafner break out of his slump? Should Boston Manager Terry Francona have taken Beckett out after six or seven innings on Thursday, rather than eight, so he'd be better able to pitch a couple of innings in relief in a Game 7 on two days' rest? What unknown hero will emerge? Last year, the Cards reached the World Series even though Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen had one RBI in 43 at-bats in the NLCS. How did they do it? Because three obscure Cardinals -- Molina, Scott Spiezio and So Taguchi -- had 14 RBI in their 43 at-bats.
What happens next, and who does it, we probably can't ever predict. Don't believe it? What do Manny Trillo, Marty Barrett, Jeffrey Leonard, Mike Devereaux, Adam Kennedy, Sterling Hitchcock, Eddie Perez, Benito Santiago, Jeff Suppan and Placido Polanco have in common? They were all LCS MVPs -- Suppan and Polanco just last year.
Let the craziness start. After almost three weeks of sweeps and anticlimaxes, finally, on Oct. 20, baseball's postseason may truly be ready to begin.