Baseball legend says that the greatest escape of Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez's life was from the island of Cuba in an open boat in December 1997. But legend may have to get an asterisk. In the history of postseason baseball, few pitching escapes have matched Hernandez's performance in the sixth inning here at Fenway Park on Friday when his heroics both defined an October series and dethroned a world champion. In Game 3 of the American League Division Series, it was El Duque, the quintessential Yankee of the last great pinstripe era, who threw the Red Sox overboard, back into the cold waters they know so well.
Once, Hernandez was a Bronx hero on four World Series teams from 1998 to 2001, a period in which he amassed a 9-2 postseason record. But time passed, his real age was debated -- his birthday is listed as Oct. 11, 1969, but it's widely accepted that he's closer to 40 -- and he drifted this season into the baseball limbo of being an aging .500 starter for the Chicago White Sox. As the season wore on, he faded. His last four starts of the regular season were so terrible -- 17 runs in 17 innings, including eight home runs -- that Chicago booted him from the rotation before any fielders could be impaled by liners.
Sent to the bullpen, Hernandez became so forgotten that he had to go to Chicago management and plead his case to be put on the postseason roster instead of 22-year-old Brandon McCarthy, the Latest Model 6-foot-7 right-hander.
With the White Sox leading Friday night, 4-3, in the sixth inning, the bases loaded and nobody out, Chicago Manager Ozzie Guillen had "a lot of pounding in my heart." But he also put Hernandez on the mound to face Boston captain Jason Varitek, Game 2 goat Tony Graffanino and Johnny Damon, the long-haired epitome of the 2004 Red Sox' band of odds-defying "idiots."
"I went to him because he's the only guy with [playoff] experience. I know this kid is going to show up with cold blood. Maybe somebody else would show up nervous or anxious," said Guillen, who calls everybody "kid." However, out of respect for Hernandez, Guillen corrected himself. "I don't know if he is a 'kid,' " said Guillen, who thereafter returned to Hernandez's nickname from Cuba, where he was simply El Duque and an island immortal before he defected.
Sometimes a season can be on the line even though it is only the sixth inning. Sometimes an entire ballpark can sense that, if there is to be a time for a comeback from a two-games-to-none deficit, then it must begin immediately. That time had arrived.
In the last two Octobers, the Red Sox have laid claim to magic. But that feeling of Boston destiny has been seeping away for months. This entire season, from the injuries to Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke to the absence of departed free agent Pedro Martinez, has created a mounting sense that a Red Sox ride toward a repeat was doomed.
Still, when a town has waited 86 years to remove a Curse, it doesn't hand over its crown lightly, even to a team like the White Sox, who had not won a postseason series since 1917 -- 88 years ago. So, for almost all of the Varitek, Graffanino and Damon at-bats -- 21 pitches in all -- the entire crowd of 35,496 in Fenway stood. Even those in the seats above the Green Monster, whose view could not possibly be obstructed, felt they had to rise. Perhaps they felt that remaining seated was unpatriotic by the standards of Red Sox Nation, which has had a suspiciously large population increase this season.
First, Varitek popped up foul. Suddenly, Graffanino, whose Bill Buckner Redux error on Wednesday led to three unearned runs and a White Sox win, was in the perfect position to atone. For 10 pitches, he battled the Cuban master of speed-changing temptations. A humble .268 career hitter, Graffanino was no match in bloodlines for a player known universally by a nickname. Hernandez hung a slider on his third pitch, but Graffanino fouled it back -- the Main Chance Wasted. Finally, he popped up.
"Graffanino had a great at-bat. He battled. I have to resort to my experience. I called for that last pitch [inside]," said Hernandez through an interpreter. "My catcher was surprised, but I thought that's the only way I could get him out."
When Damon ended the rally by striking out, the air went out of Fenway's lungs in one long audible gush. Hernandez then sped through the seventh and eighth innings.
"I would put this one with the rest of them, no different," said Hernandez, positioning this game among his Dukedom's other jewels.
Perhaps in Chicago this game will be seen as high drama. But in the Red Sox executive suites, the ending of this series -- give or take a game -- has been accepted as a dignified end to an exasperating season. In the Boston view, the Red Sox defended their title with dignity by winning 95 games, the same total as the $202 million Yanks, and returning to the playoffs.
"Winning last year was exhilarating and exhausting," said Boston President Larry Lucchino. "Celebrating in New England is a full-time job. The offseason seemed to run right into this season so quickly. Then, this year, everything was traumatic, intense, colorful."
But hardly encouraging. Foulke's bad knees limited him to only a handful of games after early July. Schilling returned but was sad to watch (5.69 ERA). Both risked their baseball futures last season, pushing beyond reasonable work loads and bearable injuries for the sake of reversing that miserable curse. Without them, the Red Sox crumbled. The price of their '04 world title truly came due in '05. A team ERA of 4.74 answers every sane question about a club's postseason prospects, none of them in the affirmative.
"I remember Birdie Tebbetts telling me long ago that a great team needs to have 'bookends' in its pitching rotation and in its batting order," Lucchino said. "Last year, Pedro and Curt were our bookends on the mound. David [Ortiz] and Manny [Ramirez] were our bookends in the lineup. Our hitting stayed great. But we lost one pitching bookend [Martinez] over the winter. Then, we lost the other bookend [Schilling]."
In this game, Ramirez homered twice and Ortiz once, as if to emphasize that the offensive bookends were still respectable. But the Boston pitching will probably send shivers, colder than a nor'easter, up New England spines next season. David Wells turned 712 in May. Okay, 42. Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who lost this game thanks to a two-run sixth-inning homer by Paul Konerko, will be 40 next season. As for the rest, who's special?
In just two years new Red Sox pitching should develop. But for now? All those bandwagon-jumping members of the Nation, those whose paraphernalia seems entirely too new, can jump back off if they choose.
When this sweep ended, Schilling walked bleakly to the Boston clubhouse without ever making a postseason pitch. Now he throws 91 mph, not 97, and never walks quite right. Better that he, and his bloody red sock, be remembered as they were last October. Seldom has so fine a player paid such a gallant price for a flag that must now be lowered, but will never be forgotten.