Even in the Magic Kingdom, or any other Disney realm of make-believe or wizardry, it's hard to believe that a 20-year-old rookie named Francisco Rodriguez could win five games in one baseball postseason. Especially since, until these playoffs began, he'd never won a major league game in his brief career.
Of all the mighty improbabilities that baseball has produced since 1868, like a 56-game hitting streak and a 2,632-games played streak, where in the name of heaven would such a thing stand? After all, the Anaheim Angels only need 11 October wins to be world champions. For this wonderful young K-Rod person to win a majority of them would go beyond the preposterous into some place where words might lose their utility. And some of us wouldn't like that.
So, it didn't happen. In fact, Angels Manager Mike Scioscia pushed the envelope of impossibility to its breaking point Wednesday night in Game 4 of the World Series. He was duly punished -- not only did he lose a hugely important game, 4-3, to the Giants to tie this Series at two games apiece, but he also punctured the mesmerizing mystique of Rodriguez, a fabulous prospect and almost certain star, who was pushed one step too far.
Rodriguez pitched two innings in relief and his ERA for this Series is still 0.00. But he also was the losing pitcher. A hard line single to right field by J.T. Snow, a passed ball by catcher Bengie Molina on a low pitch and an equally hard-hit bullet of a game-winning base-hit up the middle by veteran David Bell did the job.
Somewhere, David's dad, Buddy Bell, must have thought he was in heaven. Despite all his all-star selections, and his years as a big league manager, Buddy never got to a World Series. These days, he says he can barely watch his son play, sitting in the most remote stadium seats or watching on TV. Now, his son David -- the third generation of stellar big-league Bells -- has tolled the loudest of anyone in his classy family.
"To get a run off him was important to us," said Bell, who is so tight-lipped and old-school that his interviews amount to little more than name, rank, and serial number. "It always helps to see a pitcher for the second time."
Message to Francisco: You're hot stuff, but we're figuring you out, kid.
Second-guessing is too ruthlessly easy to constitute dignified work. But here it comes. Rodriguez worked a 1-2-3 seventh inning in a 3-3 game and put down the heart of the Giants' order -- Jeff Kent, Barry Bonds and Benito Santiago -- on a strikeout, a ground ball and a pop fly. Nonetheless, he relied almost entirely on sliders -- a sign that his three innings of victorious work in Game 2 may have left him a bit arm weary. At times, his fastball was barely 85 mph.
K-Rod should not have come out to start the eighth inning. The Angels won more than 90 games without him this season. When did he become the linchpin of a world title, rather than an inspirational cog in a much larger machine.? "He's our ace in the hole," said the Angels' Tim Salmon after Rodriguez's Game 2 win. K-Rod may be the ace, but he shouldn't be the whole late-inning poker hand.
Bell's final game-winning hit came on a belt-high "hit-me" fastball on the outside corner. Rodriguez's delivery is deceptive. But the more the Giants see him, the more familiar he'll get.
Once again the momentum has palpably swung in this Series. The Giants had it first with their 4-3 win in Game 1, followed by their comeback for a 9-7 mid-game lead in Game 2 after they'd fallen behind 5-0 after just one inning.
But the Angels grabbed it back -- and seemed well on their way to dominating this Series -- when they roared back for an 11-10 win in that second game, then absolutely thumped the Giants in Game 3 here at seminally beautiful Pacific Bell Park. When the Angels took a 3-0 lead at the midpoint of this game, they seemed on the verge of a three-games-to-one lead.
However, the Giants scored three runs off John Lackey in the fifth in a rally started by the most unlikely hitter -- pitcher Kirk Rueter who hit a dribbler in front of the plate, then beat it out for a hit with surprising speed. In a park where 410-foot drives -- like an eighth-inning blast by Salmon -- die in gloves, a 40-foot "hit" started the Giants' comeback.
Sometimes baseball is not a game of inches, but of quarter inches. The next hitter, Kenny Lofton, bunted down the third base line. The ball trickled diabolically close to the line. For a split second, Troy Glaus, who had earlier hit a two-run homer, saw the ball go foul. He snatched at it to keep it foul. But in that microsecond, the ball twisted back and nicked the foul line by a fraction of an inch, just as he touched it. Fair ball. Base hit.
That, and losses by supposedly unbeatable rookies, are how Series sometimes change direction. More traditional hits completed the rally -- an RBI single by Rich Aurilia, a sacrifice fly by Kent and (after a third intentional walk to Bonds) an RBI single by Santiago.
Scioscia survived second-guessing in his Division Series against the Yankees and his team roared back to win in four games. That may happen again. The Angels manager had his rationale.
"Sometimes you get spoiled with Francisco," said Scioscia. "He's been incredible. But he can't get everybody out. That's not the life of a pitcher."
Until the eighth inning of this game, the Series had been operating under an almost total suspension of disbelief when the subject was Francisco Rodriguez. Now, he has been revealed as human.
The Series is all square and probably headed to seven games. But the one element of baseball magic that hung over these games -- and seriously favored the Angels -- has been removed. That matters.