Monday, October 20, 2008

No Hollywood Ending

If Mystique and Aura are just dancers at a nightclub, as Curt Schilling once quipped, then perhaps History and Inevitability are just spoken word poets.

History doesn't repeat itself all by itself, and victory is never inevitable. It is not a given that once down 3-1, then 3-2, and then tied 3-3, the Sox will prevail. A Game 7 isn't decisive if it is already determined.

But it was an easy mistake to make, and many of us were eager to make it. The Rays were sloppy and spiritless in Game 6. Game 7 might have seemed like a coda, an epilogue. With a 1-0 lead in the 4th, I was guilty of the faulty induction; the future will resemble the past, and this will be enough. History and Inevitability take over, and carry the day.

But the agents in this drama are those not yet free agents, the players themselves, and their actions and their fates are coordinated not by forces named with capital letters, but by themselves and a manager too much concerned with the past.

Terry Francona made two terrible decisions in the decisive Game 7. First, down 2-1 with one out in the 6th, Tito sent Pedroia from first on a full count to Ortiz. Garza blew Ortiz away on a heater, and Pedroia was out by a yard. Instead of Youkilis batting with a runner on, inning over. Second, with the tying runs on base and 2 outs in the 7th, Francona let Varitek hit. He whiffed.

I imagine I am not alone in noticing the snafu, but as I am indignant, I will belabor the points. Firstly, Pedroia didn't wrack up 20 stolen bases in 21 attempts during the regular season by running in predictable counts. Secondly, I think the send-the-runner-on-the-full-count-with-fewer-than-2-outs is the single worst common strategic maneuver in the sport. I assure you, this is not simply hyperbole in the face of crushing, agonizing defeat, though that would be a reasonable assumption. Because second base is acquired on ball 4 regardless of whether the runner is off, the runner acquiring second on the 'steal' does not count as the play working. With nothing to gain, Ball 4 doesn't protect the runner, so there's no reason to go on that count as opposed to any other. But if there's a whiff, he risks being out- risk but zero gain. And if that base is so important, why not send him earlier in the count, when its less predictably fastball; because its better to run in non-fastball counts, but 3-2 is a fastball count, its a lower percentage steal to begin with. The play only 'works' if the ball is hit into the gap and the runner scores from first but wouldn't have scored without the head start, but this happens very infrequently, or if a double play ball is hit but the runner makes it to second. But in this matchup, Ortiz isn't likely to hit into a DP with the shift on, and Garza isn't a groundball pitcher. Instead, he predictably challenged Ortiz with a pitch he hasn't hit all year- the high heat. Huge risk, virtually no gain. The inning was over, instead of Youkilis batting with a man on. But Francona had to 'go by the book', you know, the one with many factual errors and unjustified opinions.

And for the 74th time, Francona didn't pinch hit for Varitek in the 7th inning of a postseason game. I speculated the other day that it was Theo's decision to carry 3 catchers so they could pinch hit for Tek as early as the 6th or 7th, and that way they could also PH for Cash in the 8th or 9th, but that Tito didn't like this move, and so continued to let Tek hit in the 7th. So naturally he came up with runners on the corners and 2 outs in the 7th, tying run on base, and whiffed badly. Casey may be the Mayor of the bench, but that's a small jurisdiction. As a further consequence, instead of a righty with power on the bench, there's an extra no-hit catcher; where's Willy mo Pena when you need him? Tek hit again in the 9th, and Lowrie had the honor of being the only usable right handed bat. His reward? Ending the season, matching Nomar in LA.

And don't forget that history and inevitability are no match for injustice; two atrocious calls contributed to the Sox' demise. Down 3-1 in the 8th, 2 outs, and the bases loaded, game on the line, Price threw a fastball about a foot outside. Drew checked his swing, but the home plate ump called him out! That's not even his call- there should have been an appeal to third. And in the 9th, Kotsay was called out looking on a pitch 4-6 inches outside. Its a shame to have the umps contribute so severely in the 8th and 9th innings of a game 7. Its infuriating, and may anger me more than losing 10-0. Of course, one may argue that the Sox had other chances, and should have rendered such umpirings irrelevant. But if it were a valid argument that one should have won by then to prevent umps tilting the outcome, baseball should just be 7 and 2/3 innings long.

Injustice is frustrating. A failure of ideals to manifest. The Sox pitcher met a similar problem; Lester was all too human. Giving up a hit to Baldelli in the 5th on an 0-2 count with a runner in scoring position is inexcusable. Terrible pitch selection; they went with the cutter in, and caught the plate, instead of dropping the curve in the dirt, which is how they whiffed him the next time around. No reason to throw a strike in that situation. Instead, Baldelli knocked in the eventual winning run. A similarly weak cutter was slammed by Aybar for the homer to make it 3-1.

Lester didn't catch the breaks. Longoria's RBI double in the 4th was an off-balance swing on a ball out of the zone, and Aybar's lead-off double in the 5th leading to the second run was similarly struck.

When the season has ended, its hard not to nit pick, to wonder what could have gone differently. But these are the breaks that emerge when History and analogies with the past aren't operative forces in the universe, when the simple narrative collapses into incoherent detail.

Ortiz was dreadful, and the Sox got virtually nothing out of their catcher and shortstop. Injury, old age and youth the culprits there. This is what can happen when it all comes down to game 7; the Game 2 loss looms ever larger. It's depressing and oppressive, the force of contingency and randomness. Its never an unimpeded march to glory, and the past cannot carry anything beyond the present. Loyalty to past efforts, the reliance on the habitual, all hindered the war effort. A history of comebacks can't do it for you; everything is in the hands of the players. And that, of course, is the fans' paradox: The universe of sport, and baseball in particular, is defined and governed by rules, creating the the feeling of control and the illusion of isolation from larger forces. Yet spectators, of course, can only watch, as heroes age, thoughtlessness is enacted, bad hops hop badly, and an expansion team with one slogan that's a false mathematical formula and another pilfered from a lame saturday night live skit triumphs.

Its quite humiliating, really.

- - -
I'll be back tomorrow with something with more perspective, my 'springer's final thought', if you will, and even if you won't. More preachy, less detail, more grand narrative. More big sweeping generalizations. I think I only had 1 or 2 in this post. Its the end of the year. That's not enough, by my count.


Rooster said...

I agree completely on the 2 bad calls. Those freaked me out. I don't think that's why they lost, but they were terrible and at a pivotal point in the game!

Also on Varitek, it does make you wonder what the heck we had 3 catchers on the roster for?

Not sure I agreed with Alex Cora starting at short either, but he did nothing to lose the game for us. And how did Casey get so far into Tito's doghouse?

Papi got all cought up in the hit and run situation. He should have taken it for ball four!

Soxlosophy said...

the two bad calls aren't the only reason why the sox lost, but in a close game, with few scoring opportunities, the manager's decisions are magnified in importance.

of course, with no production from dh, 1b, c, and ss, more pressure is put on the manager to make the right call.

Jere said...

That happened to Drew twice in that game. He ended the first inning on the same thing, only it looked like even less of a swing. We never got a replay since the inning ended and of course the most important thing in the next inning is getting all the ads and promos in. I hate when the home plate ump does that. If it's close, go to the appeal. People always say you can't take away the umps because it takes away the human element. Well excuse me, but the human element sucks ass. It only turns right to wrong. You want humans? All the players are human. Just get robot umps already.

Soxlosophy said...

good call, Jere. i have never thought the problem with baseball was a human shortage. plenty to go around.

youre' right- the tampa cheerleaders in the broadcast booth didn't even mention the home plate umps usurpation of power. i guess with craig sager's suits on the staff, they're in the habit of never referring to anything awkward.

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