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Too Long a Layoff

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, October 25, 2007

BOSTON

So, baseball, how's that new "elongated" playoff format working out for you?

Commissioner Bud Selig and top executive Bob DuPuy need to do an immediate rethink on their well-intentioned brainchild -- one that turned out to be a Frankenstein in Game 1 of the World Series Wednesday night at Fenway Park. The game's top executives created extra days off in October to generate a more lucrative TV package and produce more prime time exposure, especially mid-week. Instead, they turned Game 1 into Must-Not-See-TV.

This calamitous contraption needs to die a sudden and private death as soon as possible. Because what happened to the Colorado Rockies was an embarrassment to the institution of the World Series and to the dignity of the game. It would be hard to imagine anything that could be further from "the best interests of the game" than this 13-1 mortification of the Rockies, a team that should have earned nothing but honor -- not a booby prize -- for its exploits over the past five weeks.

Perhaps, if the Rox had not had to endure an insane eight days off before Game 1, at least two days more than traditional scheduling would have produced, the Red Sox might have still bludgeoned them. Maybe Colorado's best pitcher, Jeff Francis, would have given up a home run on his second pitch and been battered for six extra-base hits. Maybe the Rockies' first relief pitcher, a promising 21-year-old rookie named Franklin Morales, would have endured seven earned runs in two-thirds of an inning. Finally, perhaps Springfield native Ryan Speier would have entered a 10-1 game in the fifth and, in a mockery of the sport's showcase event, issued three straight bases-loaded walks.

But you will never convince an enormous number of baseball fans, sensible folks who believe in common sense, that such convoluted logic holds any value. As Speier walked Julio Lugo, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia, none of them home run threats, each base on balls forcing home a run and eliciting countless of winces, three words hung in the air: Eight days off. Photos of the Rockies, playing catch in stocking caps after a four-inch snowfall last week in Denver, come immediately to mind.

Who honestly believes that it is just a coincidence that the Red Sox scored the most runs ever in Game 1 of a World Series and, purely by chance, did it against the team that had suffered the longest interruption in play since Dead Ball days?

"That's not the way we drew it up," said Rockies Manager Clint Hurdle, who took the high road on the controversy. "You can ask me about the layoff all Series long and I'm not going to be able to answer it. We're a no excuses ballclub."

As if to underline the rustiness theme, the first four Colorado hitters struck out against Boston's Josh Beckett, who fanned nine in seven innings. The Rockies looked like they needed a tennis racket to get a foul ball. Please remember, this Rox team was the hottest late-season club in the entire history of the sport, winning 21 of 22 games before this atrocity on a brisk, misty night.

Other teams have suffered fairly long delays before the Series because they won their League Championship Series in a sweep, then paid the accidental penalty of losing their sharp edge because they won too quickly. Last October, the Detroit Tigers, the best team in the game during the regular season, had to endure a six-day break between games. Then, in the Series, they never resembled themselves, losing the Series in five games to a St. Louis team that had only won 83 games during the season. Tiger pitchers fielded their position as if they were holding live hand-grenade practice.

At least that Tiger hiatus came about as part of the traditional postseason structure. That was just bad luck, not a self-inflicted wound. This time, it's different. Baseball is wallowing in cash after breaking its all-time attendance record -- again. The last thing the sport needs is a gimmick -- with only one game being played per night instead of two during parts of the LCS -- to contaminate its most famous event.

No one knows if this Series will surmount its first-night debacle. The Tigers never found their form. We can hope that this game will be forgotten quickly -- replaced by better played and more competitive contests. First-night routs have seldom meant much. Three times a team has won Game 1 by 10 runs, the '59 White Sox, '82 Brewers and '96 Braves. All lost the Series.

Though it may seem unlikely after this blowout, it's plausible that Game 2 may actually be its most important night. The best pitcher in this Series will almost certainly prove to be Beckett. However, the most important pitcher in this Series, whose performance may go furthest toward determining the ultimate winner, will probably be the elderly gentleman who will start Game 2 for Boston. Yes, Curt Schilling who, only a few years ago, was almost a duplicate of the imposing 6-foot-5, 222-pound Beckett in mound mastery and imperious demeanor.

If Schilling can summon himself once again and pitches as well as he did in Game 6 of the ALCS against Cleveland on Saturday, the Rockies may have as much chance for a comeback as a box of Rox. If he is vulnerable, then so are the Bosox.

For half of this season, Schilling railed against age, battled the frustration of no longer resembling the pitcher who fanned 300 men three times. "The frustrating part of it is gone," said Schilling, 41 in November. "I've accepted the fact that I'll go out [to the bullpen] and get loose and whatever it is, it is. And whatever I have [that night] has to work . . . Whereas I used to be able to exploit a hitter with one pitch exclusively, now I've got to be able to use multiple pitches in different spots."

In a perfect Red Sox world, Schilling would not start Game 2. Daisuke Matsuzaka, the $103-million man, or knuckleballer Tim Wakefield would. But Dice-K is in a two-month slump while Wakefield is injured and off the roster. So, it's Schilling's turn. Again. Even though he only won nine games this season and, at times, has lost a full 10 mph off the fastball of his prime. As if he hasn't done enough, given so often, including his bloody sock heroics in Boston's '04 Cosmic Quest.

"There's some wear and tear," said Boston Manager Terry Francona. "What he did in '04, everybody knew he would pay a price physically and he did. With the miles that have been put on his shoulder, he's not the guy that can pitch 96, 97 anymore. But he can still pitch very effectively, still navigate his way."

For years, nobody navigated October better than Schilling, not even the current white-hot Beckett. If Schilling can reclaim just some of that glory, the Red Sox may convince the Rox that they are perilously close to a horribly inopportune -- and artificially induced -- slump. If, however, Schilling goes to the Fenway bullpen and finds the cupboard bare, a very different type of World Series may break out. One that is so competitive that, on this bleak night for baseball, it is hard to imagine.

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