I want to make it abundantly clear that, while I have a fairly active imagination, I’m not one of those nutters given to conspiracy theories…I repeat, I’m not a conspiracy theory guy. But the baseball played by the Cardinals in the early innings of last night’s World Series opener was so surpassingly strange, so surreal, that it brought eerie echoes to me of the curious doings in the 1919 Series. Yes, that one, the Black Sox one, the thrown one. I’m not actually suggesting the fix is in here of course, just that the self-destruction of the Cards was so utter and blatant that it almost resembled fixed baseball, they couldn’t have played much worse the first couple of innings if they’d tried to.
In the first inning of Game One in 1919, the Chicago conspirators (pitchers Cicotte and Williams, fielders Risberg, Gandil, Felsch, Weaver, Jackson and McMullin) were to give a sign to the gamblers that the fix was in. It could have been a fat, hanging pitch, a dropped flyball in the outfield, or a botched double-play, but those might have happened legitimately and naturally, Rothstein and his cabal of gamblers wanted something surer, more deliberate and discernible; the sign was to be Cicotte hitting Cincinnati’s lead-off hitter with a pitch in the first inning. Cicotte dutifully plunked Morrie Roth, the high-rollers laid their money down and the rest is history; black, life-ruining, soul-destroying history.
The Cardinal implosion was partly bad play, partly bad luck and started in the first inning. The Sox batters weren’t biting on Adam Wainwright’s sharp-breaking curve, or much of anything else, most of them let the first two pitches go by. Ellsbury walked, Victorino was retired and Pedroia singled just over the glove of a leaping Carpenter, who was playing at double-play depth, a first piece of baseball bad luck. Then Ortiz hit a slow roller between first and second, a sure double-play ball. Ortiz is about as fast as tar in January, so there was no need to hurry the play, Carpenter fielded it and flipped to Kozma covering the bag. The grinding Pedroia could be counted on to make a hard slide to break up the relay to first, but he’s not exactly Bronco Nagurski, he’s only a little guy. The ball arrived in time, but clanged off the tip of Kozma’s glove as the umpire signalled out and then seemed to signal safe, his arms held out, the ball laying conspicuously on the field. I think the umpire called Pedroia out because it was such a routine play, he just assumed that Kozma would make it, then tried to change his mind. The only trouble is you can’t call it both ways, the first call stands. Pedroia left without an argument, but out came Sgt. Rock (a.k.a. Sox manager Farrell) to plead with the umps to confer – everyone in the park and the millions in TV-land knew Pedroia was safe and so did the other umpires and probably even the Cardinals.
Damned if they didn’t have a pow-wow and unanimously correct the call, I’ve never seen a reversal on such a play, but at least they got it right. Cue Cards’ manager Mike Matheny and his furious argument, but he didn’t have a leg to stand on. Clearly the ball wasn’t dropped in the transfer from glove to hand, it never made it into Kozma’s glove and besides, if the shoe were on the other foot, Matheny would want it reversed just as badly. Anyway, it was quite bizarre and dramatic so early in the game and of course it had an immediate impact, you could feel what was coming. Instead of runners on first and third with two out, it was bases loaded and one out, with the Amish blacksmith Napoli coming to bat. Wainwright hung one and Napoli got almost all of it; not a grand-slam but close, a double off the wall deep enough to score even the lumbering Ortiz all the way from first, 3-0 Sox.
The way Lester was pitching for Boston, that might have been the ballgame (and in terms of needed runs, it pretty much was) but there was more, much more. Wainwright’s unfathomable misplay of Drew’s pop-up is what really got me to tingling, really started the echoes of 1919 jangling in me. Drew hit the pop straight up, it was going to land somewhere near the pitcher’s mound. Molina went out from behind the plate, Freese and Adams came in from the corners, but Wainwright waved them all off adamantly, then seemed to freeze and stood stock still, looking to Molina as the ball landed in front of the pitcher’s feet, maybe a yard in front of the mound. The shock was palpable, the announcers couldn’t believe it and neither could anybody else. The more replays I saw, the more incredulous I was, the more surreal it became. What had happened, what was he thinking? In slo-mo, Wainwright looked like a robot about to do something he’d done a million times before, but then his board just short-circuited, the batteries suddenly dead. All he had to do was stick out his glove and the ball might have landed in it by accident, that’s how close it was. I still don’t understand it, it was such an easy, routine play that blowing it in this way almost seemed like a deliberate decision, even though I know that couldn’t be. It’s far too early in the Series to call this flub Buckneresque, yet I had the same feeling of shock and disbelief after it, as in “what the…?”
Incredibly, this was not scored as an error, though it led to more trouble for the Cards right away. Another Kozma error, followed by a bleeder just out of an infielder’s range and another Pedroia single made it 4-0 Boston in the second inning and loaded the bases for Ortiz, here we go. Papi’s near grand-slam was eerie too, in several respects. It was almost a carbon-copy of the one he hit to tie Game Two of the LCS, though with a different result and in a far less crucial moment. Wainwright hung another one (he was not sharp) and Papi belted it to the same spot as he had against Detroit, toward the Sox bullpen in right field. This one wasn’t travelling quite as fast, which enabled Carlos Beltran to go back, time his leap and just nab the ball as it cleared the fence, a great catch saving three runs, a sac fly instead of a grand slam. It was the first great defensive play by the Cards, but even this worked against them. When Detroit’s Torii Hunter made such a headlong diving effort to catch Papi’s earlier slam, he carried right over the fence and startlingly disappeared, but miraculously enough was more or less unharmed, if a little sore. Not so Beltran, unfortunately. He made the catch but was not OK, obviously feeling pain in the ribs. He came out of the game and was taken to hospital with rib contusions, a damn shame. Beltran is one of the good guys, a player with as imposing a post-season hitting resume as almost anybody in history, yet this is his first World Series. He’s waited a long time and though I’m a lifetime Red Sox fan, I pray he can play some more, win or lose. He’s likely iffy for tonight’s game, but hopefully he’ll be cleared to play in St. Louis.
So how’s that for an eventful first two innings of a World Series? 5-0 for Boston before Wainwright could record six outs. After this, the game settled down and became a bit sluggish. Wainwright steadied and Lester was just brilliant for the Sox, at any sign of trouble he induced a double play, including the heady 1-2-3 one with the bases loaded – force play at the plate, nifty throw to first by Ross, inning over. The Cards kicked the ball around a little bit more, there was a throwing error by Freese which allowed Pedroia to reach base before Papi unloaded another one, this time well over the fence in right, he seems to have his stroke back. Sean Robinson misplayed a ball in the outfield as did Gomes for the Sox, though Robinson also made a really nice catch on a ball against the right field foul fence.
Surely the Cardinals are a much better team than they showed last night, they looked deadly and dangerous down the stretch and in their playoff games and it will be interesting to see if and how they recover from last night’s embarrassing gaffes. They have to try to put it behind them, but that’s maybe easier said than done; it’s only one game, but one game on the biggest stage baseball has. They could come out tonight nice and loose or they could still be reeling and tight, we’ll see. Nobody expected this from the Cardinals, they’ve become what the Giants and Dodgers were in the past, the flagship team of the National League, very astutely run. This team is noted for its clutch hitting, its deep, effective and mostly young pitching, the leadership and all-around excellence of Yadier Molina, its teamwork and commitment to preparation, details and execution of fundamentals. For whatever reasons, not much of this showed up last night, they just didn’t seem ready to play.
I felt the key to this Series would be the first two games, because the Cards were starting Wainwright and Michael Wacha, both have been imposing, almost menacingly good. Wacha has had no-hit stuff for about the last six weeks and Wainwright has been great, plus he’s a veteran. I felt if they pitched the way they have been, the Sox were in tough. Wainwright was not sharp last night, the Sox have a team-wide commitment to plate discipline and making life hard on pitchers. This puts a lot of pressure on Wacha to win tonight and he’s just a kid, though he’s been fabulous. The thing is though, the Sox have fared very well against good pitchers, and their own starting pitching is better than it’s given credit for. So far in the post-season, Boston has beaten David Price and Justin Verlander, while winning both of Max Scherzer’s starts against them. Christ, they nearly won that game where they were no-hit for 8 1/3 innings, losing 1-0 with the tying run on second base.
I fully expect Wacha to be good tonight, if past form means anything. It’s a little more difficult now though, there’s so much riding on him. The World Series is a grander stage, Fenway Park is a tough place to pitch, plus he’s facing a line-up with a guy like Ortiz hitting in place of some spaghetti-bat pitcher, not exactly what Wacha is used to. He’ll need this teammates to be a lot sharper in the field and they do seem to have some issues in the outfield and on the left side of the infield. I don’t make predictions because baseball is so unpredictable and I can make an ass of myself in so many other ways, but if the Cards win tonight, we have a Series on our hands. If they lose, and especially if they play badly again, this could be over in a hurry, a sweep wouldn’t surprise me if Boston goes up 2-0. But it’s far too early for that, there’s so much baseball to be played.
The Red Sox are clearly a good team, they won 97 games and the tough American League East, are well-stocked with experienced, canny veterans and a few younger players who seem to know what they’re doing too. Their team chemistry seems very good and they don’t need any help in winning games, yet this post-season, teams keep handing them wins, gift-wrapped. The Tampa Bay Rays were on a serious roll as a spoiler late in the season, winning crucial game after game on the road. They seemed poised as a dark-horse to upset somebody, I actually thought they might beat the Sox in the opening round, they looked that good. But, they kicked the ball around and didn’t pitch very well in the first two games in Fenway, it was too much to overcome.
Detroit gifted Boston wins in the second and sixth games of the ALCS. It wasn’t just the two grand-slams the bullpen coughed up, though those were bad enough. Their defense fell apart in the ninth inning of Game Two, plus they made some bad fielding and base-running gaffes in Game Six. As Boston showed last night, you can’t keep giving them extra outs and opportunities or they’ll just kill you, make you pay every time.
I wasn’t serious about the whole 1919 tanking business, it was mostly just a feeling, the shock of such dramatic and unexpected bad play and bad luck. Plus I’m a bit obsessive about baseball history, it resounds pretty heavily for me sometimes, especially at this time of year. There’s another fanciful notion, or maybe a feeling I have, that I’m a little more serious about though. I’m beginning to think that not only did the Sox reverse the curse in 2004, but that they now seem to be almost blessed or charmed in World Series play. Last night’s win was their ninth straight in Series play; they swept the Cards in 2004 and the Rockies in 2007, with many of the games being laughers. It could all end as soon as tonight, but they seem to find an extra gear once they reach the World Series, often after squeaking through the earlier rounds. A very good Cardinals team played very badly against them in 2004, and then there was last night. I’m beginning to wonder if the worm has turned, if the baseball gods are looking to avenge the Cards for what they did to the Sox in 1946 and 1967.
I’m about the only one locally or among my baseball friends who’s cheering for the Red Sox, it’s not a popular position. A lot of this has to do with the Farrell/Blue Jays “dream job” affair and I confess I didn’t like it either, or the way they threw Terry Francona under the bus after the 2011 collapse, as if the man who led them to two championships after 85 years in the desert was suddenly a chump. Their success this year didn’t entirely displease me, yet I wasn’t gushing over it either, I held them at arm’s length like a wary, jilted lover. I can’t help it though, I’ve been wired to be a Sox fan since 1975 and this doesn’t just go away, not in October. I’ve seen them lose so often, so preposterously and disastrously that it’s created an unquenchable thirst in me to see them win it all. They’ll never win enough championships to satisfy me and I suspect it’s so with a lot of their followers, we’re fanatics.
Enjoy the Series and may the Cards make it a good one, starting tonight. And a once-only, feeble and lonely cheer in the wilderness, to be no doubt shouted down – Go Sox!!
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