Tagged: Playoffs

Legends of the Fall: Part III of IV

New York would hand the ball to Mike Mussina in Game 1. Mussina, a creature of habit, would need to find his rhythm after a long layoff between starts.

Mussina was almost a figure from central casting, born to be an ace. He combined a superior intellect with obscene talent. At the peak of his ability, he could befuddle or overpower a hitter with equal impunity.

Educated at Stanford University, Mussina graduated in 3 ½ years with a degree in Economics. He was drafted in the first round by the Baltimore Orioles, and flew through their minor league system, ultimately debuting in 1991.

Mussina announced his stardom in 1992, winning 18 games with a sparkling 2.54 earned run average.

He would continue to shine through the nineties, the O’s unquestioned ace. After a dry farm system failed to replenish an aging core, the Orioles franchise became a vacant shell.

Mussina would escape after the 2000 season, signing with the New York Yankees, where he felt most wanted.

The right-hander would agree to a six-season commitment, for the price of 88.5 million.

At the time, it was perceived the Yankees had negotiated a slight bargain.

Mike’s demure attitude was a questionable fit in the big city, but his talent easily suppressed any concern of chemistry.

Mussina didn’t forcefully unleash his arsenal. He was a composer, different grips for alternating instruments. When he was right, his curveballs broke and his fastballs blistered, each to the sixteenth inch of home plate.

But there were instances where Mussina would unravel, almost spontaneously. The slightest variable damaging a set routine could spell doom for his performance.

And this is precisely what the Yankees feared as Mussina prepared for Game One of the A.L.C.S., having not thrown a pitch since September 30th against the Twins.

Mussina had been hammered by Arizona after a similar situation arose in Game One of the 2001 World Series.

Against the Red Sox lineup, the Yankees’ artful ace would need to be at his best.

/

Boston countered with Tim Wakefield in Game One, a pitcher whose career course was the reverse of a thoroughbred such as Mike Mussina.

Wakefield’s career sagged in the low minors, as coaches told the corner infielder he simply didn’t have the talent to advance beyond the bushes.

Instead of submitting to this harsh reality, Wakefield refused to fold. For him to circumvent the circumstances blocking his dream, the Melbourne, Florida native would need to master a devastating slight of hand.

Wakefield placed his fate in the knuckleball. The pitch is deeply intertwined with chance, demanding a special competitor to exploit its intricacies. When thrown correctly, it kills the rotation on a baseball’s seams, allowing the ball to dance and dive erratically.

Knuckle ball pitchers are rare, a true dying breed. They perform with full knowledge that their delicate hold on the unknown could vanish in an instant. Pitchers such as Mike Mussina rely on equal parts cunning and ability, knuckleball specialists such as Tim Wakefield wind-up and deliver, leaving the rest to dead seams.

Which, of course, isn’t to discount Wakefield’s accountability, his role in allowing the pitch to fulfill an aimless course. His mechanics needed to be perfect, lest the pitch became a dead fish hanging over the plate, illusion nullified. Wakefield even snuck in an occasional 70 MPH fastball, just to keep the hitters honest.

He’d experienced triumph and heartache in his career, living a fantasy in ’92, arriving in the Major Leagues in the heat of a pennant race, turning savior with an 8-1 record, winning twice in the NLCS. Wakefield’s dream would evaporate, as he lost control of the fickle knuckleball, ending his tenure with the Pirates, his glory deemed a flash in the pan. After a full year out of the game, wasting away in the Pirate farm system, lost, the Red Sox took a chance on Wakefield, who once again, refused to quit on himself.

The roller coaster reached another apex in 1995, as Wakefield baffled the American League, conjuring a 2.95 ERA. A year prior, Tim appeared a vagabond in the making, instead, he became a Red Sox fixture. The organization would ride shotgun for the duration of a roller coaster career.

By 2003, after years of shifting between the rotation and bullpen, Wakefield became glued into the Red Sox rotation, a commodity again, reliable.

Tim Wakefield and his knuckleball would test reality once more in the ALCS.

/

Mike Mussina started sharp, despite the jagged fracture in his routine. He induced a 1-2-3 first inning from the top of the Red Sox lineup, a harmless Nomar Garciaparra fly out finishing the frame.

Wakefield equaled Mussina’s feat in the bottom of the first, and quickly, the innings started rolling by, spilling through the cracks of time.

In the fourth, David Ortiz shattered the serenity. With Manny Ramirez on first base after a leadoff single, Ortiz struck a two run home run off Mussina, reaching the third deck of a quieted Yankee Stadium.

Mussina never recovered from the setback, completely relinquishing control of the game when Todd Walker nailed a mildly disputed home run off a fan near the foul pole right.  Manny Ramirez would add another dinger, barely over the outstretched glove of right fielder Juan Rivera, to give the Red Sox a four run lead. The offense set the stage for Wakefield, emerging as an early Series hero.

/

By post game, much of the media’s attention centered on a deserving Tim Wakefield, the key player in a comfortable 5-2 Red Sox win. The Yankees had a glimmer of hope in the seventh, driving Wakefield from the game with a couple of walks, but the Red Sox maligned bullpen, becoming a strength for manager Grady Little, quarantined the potential outbreak, limiting the Yankees to two runs.

The withering Yankee offensive attack increased the criticism surrounding their acquisition of Aaron Boone, who was contributing absolutely nothing in the playoffs. The Yankees surprised many baseball insiders by trading top pitching prospect Brandon Claussen to Cincinnati for the third baseman, essentially replacing popular clubhouse influence Robin Ventura.

The transaction just didn’t seem necessary. Sacrificing the highly regarded Claussen in exchange for a luxury item was considered foolhardy, a desperate attempt by the Yankees to do something, anything, to appease their panicking fan base as the Red Sox closed the gap.

Boone’s stock couldn’t be lower. He was flogged in the tabloids, anonymous scouts ridiculing his sloppy footwork and poor approach at the plate. He appeared overmatched, hopeless against elite pitching, a frivolous afterthought.

/

The Yankees had turned to Andy Pettitte before, and he’d delivered many times, failed some others. Pettitte was a mystery in the postseason. Sometimes he was a monster, sawing off helpless hitter’s bats with a darting cut fastball before breaking their will with an innate ability to escape highly combustible jams. But in other instances, Pettitte would appear unnerved by the atmosphere, choking the life out of his pitches, losing his location. Andy was usually consistent in the regular season, which is why the stark transformation in his productivity during the playoffs, all or nothing at all, was confounding.

The answer existed in Andy’s head. Perhaps overly prepared, Pettitte would take his work ethic to an obscene level during the playoffs, plotting every pitch of his outings before game time. This strategy elevated and suffocated his talent in equal measure.

Pettitte was brilliant in Game Two against the Twins.

Which Andy would show up against Derek Lowe and the Red Sox in the ALCS?

/

The Red Sox had the game, and perhaps the Series, within their grip.

It was nauseatingly obvious to any educated Yankee fan watching that the “bad” Andy Pettitte was indeed in the house for Game Two of the ALCS. Pettitte had absolutely nothing, the Red Sox rocking him all over the park, going for the kill.

He had narrowly escaped a disastrous first inning, wriggling out of a bases loaded situation. Now, in the second, he gave up three hits without recording an out, the last knock arriving off the bat of the offensively anemic Damien Jackson, driving in a run, giving Boston a 1-0 nothing lead.

And than the hand of momentum swerved, courtesy of Gabe Kapler. Looking for an outside fastball, the bane of his existence according to scouting reports, Gabe was jammed by a first pitch fastball inside, grounding into a double play which allowed the Yankees to escape the inning relatively unscathed.

What Gabe didn’t know, and what caused the obsessively prepared Pettitte to deviate from the scouting reports, was his certainty that Kapler would bunt in that situation. Andy was willing to oblige him.

Little’s call to eschew the bunt was another managerial decision met with derision within the Red Sox fan base.

Little had taken over as the Red Sox manager in 2002, guiding them to a second place season in the American League East, despite a paper-thin pitching staff beyond Derek Lowe and Pedro Martinez.

Little was lauded for his distinct ability to harness the emotions of nearly every one of the 25 players forming his roster. From a superstar in a slump to a role player questioning his importance to the team or game, Little was able to uplift negative morale and create positive clubhouse energy, tightening the strands of the strong bond which had come to define the Red Sox.

But, it was his in-game strategy that aroused alarm within the corridors of Red Sox Nation. Grady would make odd substitutions at inopportune times, such as his decision to pull Todd Walker an inning too early in Game Five of the ALDS against Oakland, setting the stage for Damien Jackson’s collision with Johnny Damon. Damon would not escape unscathed, suffering a concussion, an injury that kept the dynamic leadoff man out of the first two games of the ALCS.

Foregoing the bunt with Kapler only heightened the paranoia that Grady would inevitably make an irredeemable decision, one that could sink a season.

/

The Sox saw their slim Game Two advantage quickly go up in smoke, as Nick Johnson pounded an inviting Derek Lowe fastball over the right field fence, giving the Yankees a 2-1 lead.

/

New York would not relinquish their lead. Andy Pettitte calmed his nerves and proceeded to mow down the Red Sox, his confidence reinforced with each scoreless inning. It was his second consecutive win with the Yankees on the brink of 2-0 Series deficit. Here was the sublime Pettitte, combining precision, poise, and power.

New York would add insurance, and the game’s drama melted away until the eighth inning, when Jose Contreras brushed back David Ortiz.

The Red Sox would respond in the bottom of the eighth, as Bronson Arroyo intentionally nailed Alfonso Soriano, payback.

At once, as Soriano trained a venomous stare toward Arroyo, the focus flipped, to Game Three, and the intimidators toeing the mound, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez.

Would this isolated skirmish ignite something much worse?

As the two teams headed to Fenway Park, the question hung ominously, its answer destined for infamy.

/

Joe Torre hated ESPN. The way Torre figured it, ESPN gloried in controversy, reveling in the ugliness of bench clearing brawls, basking in base tabloid fodder. The network was relentless in a genuine pursuit to satisfy the lowest common denominator. ESPN’s tactics opposed Joe Torre’s morals. He was a supreme soother, able to handle the flammable combination of New York City and George Steinbrenner, not to mention the complicated emotional puzzle of 25man roster. He was reserved, detested raising his voice. ESPN, on the other hand, had become heavily invested in bluster. When the repetitive opinions of their analysts grew stale due to obvious overexposure, ESPN’s solution was to have them become caricatures, part of one grand sports spectacle, available 24 hours a day via basic cable. It was perfectly fine for ESPN to make a mockery of themselves, to extinguish their credibility, but when their philosophy, which morphed anchors into entertainers, trespassed between the white lines, they became an official enemy of Joe Torre, and by extension, the Yankees.

Torre had been infuriated by ESPN’s coverage of the Roger Clemens/ Mike Piazza rivalry, which spanned two agonizing years before it’s merciful finale in 2002. Before it was over, the feud had become a self-fulfilling prophecy, kept alive by the tabloids, spiraling completely out of control in the 2000 World Series, when Clemens, in a blind rage, hurled a splintered chunk of Piazza’s bat toward the Met catcher, turning Baseball’s crown jewel into a theater of the bizarre.  All the while, ESPN stoked the fire, endlessly hyping confrontations between Piazza and Clemens as if they were rival W.W.E. combatants.

It drove Torre beyond his boiling point. Why was the media constantly accentuating ugliness? Besides the brush backs and bean balls exchanged in the waning innings of Game 2, the Yankees and Red Sox had been on their best behavior, keeping their Series purely about baseball. Simply put, they hadn’t given allowed an opening for the circus to enter town.

But, much to Joe Torre’s dismay, that was all about to change. Pedro Martinez was about to give ESPN all the ammunition they needed.

/

Martinez was off. He was flipping up a wide array of breaking balls, refusing to challenge the Yankees with heat, removed from the perch of his peak.

It had been an odyssey, for Pedro Jaime Martinez. He was a walking juxtaposition, slender frame belied by a huge heart, diminutive height hiding incredible talent. He had lived with the burden of being Ramon’s little brother, his older sibling a star pitcher with the L.A. Dodgers. When he was signed into the Dodger organization, many players accused the front office of nepotism, belittling Pedro as a charity case, too small to ever make an impact in the Major Leagues. This doubt stung Pedro, forging his will, shaping a defiant personality.

After an outstanding Minor League career, Pedro joined his big brother at the Major League level, but still had a chorus of doubters discrediting his every achievement. Among the strongest voices against Pedro was Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda. He too, had believed that Martinez could never handle starting in the Major Leagues, and after trading him to Montreal for second baseman DeLino DeShields, practically predicated his demise.

Instead of floundering, Martinez ascended in Montreal. Some players never reach their potential. Others maximize it

Martinez transcended his.

He became an unstoppable force. At the height of his powers, Pedro could probably survive an entire season throwing nothing but fastballs and changeups, due to his mastery of deception. But Martinez possessed even more in his repertoire, an embarrassment of riches at his elongated fingertips.

Before he could leave the Expos as a free agent, Martinez was traded to the Red Sox for Tony Armas Jr. and Carl Pavano. Boston quickly signed Pedro to a seven-year contract. Red Sox fans, seeking a new pitching savior after the painful defection of Roger Clemens across the border to Toronto, would finally allow Martinez to bask in the respect and adulation he’d sought his entire career. He had mastered his craft within anonymity during his tenure with the Expos, a magnificent composer playing to an empty house.

Now he could shine in front of an audience, he could be loved.

The emotional dynamic between Red Sox fans and Pedro Martinez can be traced to Roger Clemens. Clemens had never delivered a Championship to Boston. He came agonizingly close in ’86. But, ultimately, Roger could never get it done in the playoffs, often folding against Red Sox nemesis Dave Stewart. It was as if the failure enveloping Red Sox history could taint the players continuing it, condemning them to endless heartache. But if any one player could kill the curse, it was Pedro. Red Sox fans needed Pedro to be better than Clemens, their reason to believe. Clemens became a villain, a metaphor for past failures. He wasn’t hated for leaving the city and franchise, or for forcing a trade to the hated Yankees from the languishing Blue Jays, no, this was mere collateral damage. Roger Clemens would always be hated in Boston for all his greatness hadn’t provided to the Red Sox. That was it, pure and simple.

This pitcher, Pedro Martinez, was different. This team, the 2003 Red Sox, was different.

They needed to believe this. They needed to hate Clemens.

Martinez’s statistical performance is an echo of his greatness, his footprint in time. The accumulation of ERA titles, his second place MVP finish, it’s all evidence, indicting one of the greatest pitching talents in baseball history.

But, silently or not, Red Sox fans would never forgive Pedro if he couldn’t guide the Red Sox to a championship.

They never forgave Clemens.

/

The breaking balls kept spinning flatly from Martinez’s hand, as the suddenly quiet Fenway crowd wondered what was wrong with their ace.

Undeniably, Martinez had tired in the late innings of Game Five against Oakland. Speculation ran rampant that the life had run out of Martinez’s arm, drained by another grueling season of carrying the hopes of an entire city.

Any fantasies that Game 3 would be a legendary pitching duel had dissolved. Roger Clemens was hit hard in the first inning, allowing two runs. And Pedro was lacking the requisite velocity necessary to dominate, forced to finesse his way through the Yankee lineup. He was stung by Karim Garcia in the second, allowing a two out RBI single to the waiver wire pick-up. Earlier in the season, the hardboiled outfielder had taken surly Raul Mondesi’s job, leading to the failed prodigy’s overdue dismissal from the club. Yankee fans adopted Garcia as a cult hero, for his hustle and intensity. He was once a top prospect, heralded, famous for being traded by the Diamondbacks for Luis Gonzalez. Despite his relative youth, aged 27 in 2003, Garcia was rapidly becoming a journeyman, bouncing around different cities, failing to unlock his disappearing potential.

He appeared to find his niche in Cleveland, rampaging in the second half of the 2002 season. But, at his first failing in 2003, he was sold by the club, their lack of faith obvious.

Karim had landed with a previous employer, the Yankees, who were desperate for depth in their thin outfield. But, instead of sitting on the bench, Garcia was thrown into a right field platoon, where Raul Mondesi’s sagging production and sloppy defense was becoming an eyesore.

After Mondesi’s welcomed departure, Garcia became an everyday player, surviving the trading deadline with his job in tact. Indeed, as cries of indignation rang out, condemning the Yankees for sticking with Garcia and replacing Robin Ventura, Karim quietly went about his business, hitting .305 as a fixture in the lineup.

Karim wasn’t exactly graceful, but he was tough, and could turn on anybody’s fastball. His nostrils flaring and eyes aflame, Garcia was a portrait of volatility at the plate. He had a sweet left-handed stroke, his lone smooth attribute, and when he smoked a Pedro Martinez fastball for a single, driving in the Yankees’ first run of Game Three, it was a clear sign that the Red Sox ace hadn’t bought his best stuff to the ballpark.

After a titanic Derek Jeter solo shot in the third, the game became tied at two. Clemens was settling in, while Pedro appeared increasingly uncomfortable, as the scene shifted to the top of the fourth.

/

Jorge Posada led off the fourth with a walk, another ill harbinger for Pedro Martinez. Martinez had owned Posada throughout the Yankees’ catcher career, frustrating him with an endless, mystifying array of breaking stuff. He verbally abused Posada from the Red Sox dugout, exhibiting his skills as a bench jockey, wounding Jorge’s fierce pride. Whenever the two faced off, the result invariably favored Martinez, as Posada would clench up and attempt to hit Pedro’s dancing curves to the moon, inevitably striking out meekly, vengeance thwarted, Wile E. Coyote to Pedro’s mocking Road Runner.

But, in the fourth inning of Game 3, Jorge took a different approach, waiting Martinez out, passing on his junk, and earning a walk.

The Yankees began smelling blood. If Martinez couldn’t typically torment Posada, something had to be amiss.

Succeeding Posada, First baseman Nick Johnson smacked an outside fastball off the base of the Green Monster in left, garnering a long single. Posada advanced to third, and the Yankees had a legitimate threat against a shaky Martinez.

Hideki Matsui hit next, a big inning becoming delectably possible for the Yankees. The leftfielder, known as “Godzilla”, a mega star in Japan following his exploits with the Yomuri Giants, arrived in New York carrying the expectations of an entire country. After a slow start, Matsui tapping a brigade of harmless ground balls to second base, the New York newspapers began dubbing him “Ground-Zilla”, a flop in the making. But, after the necessary adjustments were applied to his swing, Matsui began to shine, but not as the prolific power hitter advertised. Instead, he became a steady, dependable threat, fundamentally sound, a true weapon in RBI situations. Hideki could elevate his game in correlation with the moment. On Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, playing in the pinstripes for the first time, Matsui slugged a Grand Slam against Joe Mays, a storybook debut. Here was another great Baseball contradiction, a rock star persona melded with workman style.

Matsui would measure to the moment, once again, jolting a listless Martinez fastball down the right field line for a double, staggering Fenway, and setting the Yankees up with two runners in scoring position and nobody out.

And now, Pedro, bereft of his stuff, unable to befuddle the Yankees, snapped. He probably felt insulted, racked in such a monumental start, embarrassed in front of the fans that worshipped him.

Karim Garcia dug his spikes deep into the batter’s box.

And than he was unhinged, hit in the back of his spine by a Martinez fastball. The intent was obvious. Garcia had been swinging a hot stick, Alfonso Soriano was ice cold and on-deck, a base was open.

The Yankees dugout nearly spilled onto the field, enraged. Don Zimmer, the Yankees’ ancient bench coach, whose promising playing career was ruined by a fastball to the head, rose to the top step, berating Martinez for his recklessness.

Karim Garcia was momentarily stunned, before flying into an understandable, wild and wide-eyed rage.

He was awarded first base, but not before he and Martinez had a hearty exchange of expletives.

Violence was in the air at Fenway Park.

ESPN executives probably needed to hide their drool.

/

Martinez’s plan was calculated, and effective. Lost All Star Alfonso Soriano continued his tailspin, grounding into a room service double play. The Yankees added another run to their ledger, but forfeited a precious chance to blow the game wide open.

It should have been that simple, but Karim Garcia decided to honor the ancient baseball code of guilt by association. He executed a vicious takeout slide on Sox second baseman Todd Walker, nearly sending the prone infielder into left field. As he trotted off the field, he mumbled to Martinez, just loud enough for the two of them to hear, that the slide was for him.

The quarrel should have been settled. Garcia had been hit intentionally, his livelihood threatened. He responded by assaulting Walker, Martinez’s penance.

Enrique Wilson, inserted into the lineup at third base because of inexplicable ability to hit Martinez, popped out to Walker, ending the inning.

The top of the fourth was over, but Martinez had lit a powder keg, with one vile pitch.

/

Manny Ramirez took his craft of hitting to heart, working tirelessly to maintain a flawless swing. His powerful, right-handed cut was distinctly fluid, disconnected from his otherwise aloof personality. The Washington Heights product was born with the gift to hit, drafted by Cleveland Indians, rising through their system, terrorizing minor league pitchers.

Manny could be surly off the field, his motives could be impossible to read, a riddle wrapped inside 140 RBI’s. But in the batter’s box, he was brilliant. He would set his opponent up for failure, purposely appearing pathetic on pitches he would maul later in an at-bat, or game.

With the Red Sox, Manny alternated between happy, gloomy, goofy, and sullen. He would ask to be traded before pledging his loyalty, his emotions constantly swerving.

But his swing would always remain the same, justification for Manny being Manny.

/

It was Manny leading off the Red Sox fourth, positive that Clemens would exact a quick retribution.

/

It wasn’t that bad of a pitch really, when one considers how close Manny stood to home plate. It was a fastball, tailing inside, designed to jam Ramirez, but Clemens missed his location, the pitch sailing out of the strike zone around the letters of Manny’s Red Sox uniform.

And than, Ramirez lost it. He pointed at Clemens with his bat, demanding that he be ejected from the game.

The benches cleared, as the Red Sox desperately attempted to keep the bat wielding Ramirez away from Clemens, as the Big Texan shouted in his direction, unafraid.

As the players tussled on the field, a number of them separating potential fights, sanity began to drip through the cracks of conflict.

Derek Jeter had stepped in front of Clemens, nudging him away from the scrum. David Ortiz had, likewise, successfully protected Ramirez from himself.

It appeared a conflagration had been avoided. Confusion reigned, but would soon dissolve. The game would resume.

And than, Don Zimmer went after Pedro Martinez.

/

The mere sight of it, Pedro Martinez grabbing a hard charging, 72-year-old Don Zimmer by his starkly white, bald dome, shoveling him to the ground, bought on such a sense of abject incredulity that adjectives, stunning for instance, fail to do the scene even remote justice.

How could that happen?

How could Don Zimmer risk serious injury just for one punch at Pedro Martinez?

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Legends of the Fall: Part II of IV

Spring bowed to summer before summer submitted to autumn, and the most marvelous postseason in Baseball history postseason began.

In the American League, the 101 win Yankees, champions of the American League East, were matched with the determined Minnesota Twins, a team consumed with reaching the World Series after falling to Anaheim in the Championship Series a year prior.

In the other Divisional Series match up, Billy Beane, the brilliant architect of the low budget Oakland A’s, sought postseason vindication against the Boston Red Sox and their hotshot General manager Theo Epstein. Epstein had used Oakland’s intricate system of player evaluation to alter the culture of the Red Sox. It was an exceedingly interesting proposition, a “Moneyball” operating with the benefit of a bottomless budget. The Red Sox’s front nine had all the earmarks of a Beane team: high on base percentage, below average defense, virtually nonexistent team speed.

The A’s had reached the postseason expressively on the strength of their starting pitching. Their big three, Zito, Hudson, and Mulder, were the backbone of a team that sometimes struggled on offense. Keith Foulke, the A’s closer, dominated to the tune of a 2.08 earned run average and 43 saves.

It was a difficult series to forecast. While the Yankees were picked unanimously to handle the Twins, the A’s and Red Sox appeared far more evenly matched. The Red Sox had the definite advantage on offense, but their bullpen, and pitching behind Pedro Martinez, was an imminent concern.

/

By the time it was over, and the preordained American League Championship Series was in place, baseball fans were left whip lashed by what had been an October’s worth of memories in one round.

In the National League, the Chicago Cubs stunned perpetual over dog Atlanta, while the Florida Marlins shocked the defending National League Champion San Francisco Giants, defeating them in four games.

The most anticlimactic of the Divisional Classics was the Yankees-Twins four game tilt. The Twins put a jolt into New York by swiping Game One of the Series with the flawless execution of basic fundamentals, attacking Bernie Williams’ diminishing range and tattered arm. It was all too reminiscent for Yankee fans: a young and hungry team prowling on the Yankees’ weaknesses, following the Angels’ blueprint.

But, just as they had exhibited in the immediate absence of Jeter, these Yankees would display great resiliency. After getting completely locked down by reliever turned ace Johan Santana in Game One, the Yankees found themselves at the mercy of Brad Radke in Game 2. Luckily for them, Andy Pettitte was equally impeccable, up to the task of staring down the dour Twins right-hander.

The Yankees would ride Pettitte into the late innings, finally solving Radke in the seventh, extending their precarious one run lead into a comfortable cushion. The biggest blow came from slumping Jason Giambi, a big-ticket free agent imported from Oakland in the winter of 2001, who had begun to symbolize the Yankees’ sudden postseason stagnancy in the era after Tino Martinez.  Giambi ripped a two run RBI single off of LaTroy Hawkins to break the game open.

After the gut wrenching Game 2 victory, a loose Yankee team disassembled the Twins in the Metrodome with a calm, professional touch, triumphantly blasting Santana in the decisive Game Four.

The Yankees had conquered the Divisional Round. Their next opponent was yet to be decided.

/

The Oakland A’s hate the bunt, because most of the time, bunting entails the willful relinquishment of an out, poison within their strict OBP driven philosophy.

To the A’s, a bunt is seen as an unwarranted risk, which may not even offer a significant award.

However, in the 12th inning of Game One, in the ALDS, A’s catcher Ramon Hernandez saw a situation where the potential payoff was well worth any down payment on chance.

Bases loaded. Two out. Derek Lowe on the mound. Crowd at the Coliseum going crazy.

Infield back.

And Hernandez squared, soon enough that he could have ruined the element of surprise.

But the mere idea of Hernandez, a catcher, bunting with two outs and the bases loaded was so unimaginable, that even though Ramon exposed his intentions, the Red Sox had no chance to recognize the twist of fate.

Somewhere, Billy Beane must have flashed an ironic grin.

The A’s took Game One, on what would be their smartest play of the Series.

/

The Red Sox appeared in a daze during Game Two, zombies in the blinding California sunlight.

The hangover adversely affected Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball, which fluttered hittable for the duration of his truncated outing.

As Barry Zito suffocated the Red Sox with ease, it became apparent that Boston would fall behind 2-0 in the best of five Series.

If they were to have any chance, the Sox would need the Series to turn upside down at Fenway Park.

/

Something had to befall the Oakland A’s in the sixth inning of Game Three, a force of irrationality completely out of their control. For the odds are impossible that a team of their caliber could so thoroughly screw up a key facet of the game not once, but twice.

Base running.

It can win, or lose games.

Mistakes on the bases hurt. Outs are stolen, a ransom for stupidity. For a team obsessed with extorting every single out of any given game, the A’s pay little heed to base running, perhaps because of its inherently intangible value. Base running could never be measured by a metric.

But it can kill a team.

And it might have killed the A’s 2003 season.

Sixth inning. Eric Byrnes goes for broke, rounding third base with the tying run, colliding with Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, jarring the ball from his grasp. It was a great, physical baseball play, before Byrnes decided to forego touching home plate. It was truly incredible. Here was Byrnes, achingly close to providing the A’s a valuable run, and he gave it away, declined the invitation. Instead, his ankle slightly injured in the collision, Byrnes shoved Varitek, and began limping back to the A’s dugout.

He would eventually get there, but not before he was tagged out.

Same inning, and here was Miguel Tejada, rounding second base, comfortably on his way toward third, where his progress was obviously impeded by Bill Mueller. It was a definite case of obstruction.

Indignant, Tejada slowed down to a jog around third base, before finally walking toward home plate, believing that the run would be automatically awarded to the A’s.

He was tagged out a good thirty feet before getting there.

Ken Macha, A’s manager, separated his raging shortstop from the umpires, before obliging them with a five-minute rebuttal regarding the rules of obstruction.

According to the umps, because Tejada markedly slowed down before being interfered with by Mueller, the extra base awarded was in fact third, and that he proceeded to home, a dead duck, at his own risk.

And so it went for Oakland in Game three. Two precious runs left on the scoreboard. Players losing composure; manages giving dissertations.

And all the while, they were still right in the game.

/

It was the bottom of the 11th, the game tied at 1. The two runs carelessly thrown away by the A’s loom large, a shadow shrouding their every action in extra innings.

Rich Harden had taken over on the mound, a young flamethrower.

With one out, and Doug Mirabelli, the backup catcher singled to right. Trot Nixon pinch hit for Gabe Kapler.

From the dugout, Manny Ramirez pointed toward the centerfield fence, predicting a walk off Nixon homer.

Logically, of course, Nixon hit a line drive rope into the centerfield seats, allowing Boston to circle the wagons at least another day.

/

Game Four was another infuriating affair for the A’s; who seemed to be inventing new ways to lose in the postseason.

They had control of the game, despite Tim Hudson’s sudden departure in the first inning. Sidelined by a strained oblique, Hudson left stopping the Red Sox to ancient knuckle ball specialist Steve Sparks, who performed admirably in carrying the game to the A’s bullpen.

Oakland had squandered opportunities against John Burkett, but it seemed a reprieve was at hand, thanks to Jermaine Dye, who slugged a three run home run in the fifth to give Oakland a 4-2 lead.

Flash forward to the eighth, the score 4-3. Keith Foulke was on the mound for Oakland, attempting to close down the Red Sox’s season.

Oakland was six outs away.

/

David Ortiz had struggled mightily all Series long, beaten by fastballs in his kitchen. Naturally, with runners on first and third and two out, Foulke attempted to pound the slugger with inside heat. As Ortiz fouled off pitches, searching for one he could handle, A’s fans, impossible as it may have been for them to admit, were probably waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And it did, as Ortiz set off pandemonium, stroking a double well beyond the reach of Dye in right field, giving the Red Sox a 5-4 advantage.

That would finish Oakland in Game Four. Scott Williamson, revitalized by postseason pressure, shut the door on the A’s, and advanced the Series to Game Five.

The fallibility displayed by the A’s paled in comparison with the grittiness shown by the Sox, who stood one win away from proving that this team, and this season, could be different.

It would be Barry Zito dueling with Pedro Martinez, for the right to play for a Pennant.

/

Manny Ramirez lingered within the first base line, admiring the biggest home run of his career. It had been a hanging curveball, fat and juicy, and he obliterated it.

It was a three run shot, a nail in the coffin. The A’s now trailed the Red Sox and Pedro Martinez 4-1, in the sixth inning.

Martinez didn’t appear at the pinnacle of his powers, but could still induce outs strictly on guile and intelligence. And now, with a three run lead, he could freely tantalize and tease the fading A’s, exposing their weaknesses.

But, as suddenly as their season had seemingly evaporated, Oakland finally exhibited some fight, getting one run back in bottom half of the sixth.

/

The bottom of the ninth descended over the Oakland Coliseum. The A’s were down to their final three outs, facing a one run deficit against newly anointed Red Sox closer Scott Williamson. Williamson had replaced B.K. Kim as closer earlier in the Series, after the Korean sidewinder couldn’t seal the deal in Game One, compounding his fate by giving Red Sox fans the finger during on field introductions at Fenway for Game 3.

No, Kim never would be Mariano Rivera.

The game had become a classic. There had been a harrowing collision between Johnny Damon and Damien Jackson, centerfielder and second baseman, while the two pursued a dying quail off the bat of Jermaine Dye in the bottom of the seventh. Their heads literally rattled off each other, leaving Damon unconscious, carted off the field.

Dye had been thrown out at second base after a daring attempt to profit from the mayhem.

All told, the score remained 4-2 into the eighth, where the Red Sox remained idle, and the A’s continued creeping closer, notching another run.

Now, it came down to Williamson.

Scott Hatteberg led off the Oakland A’s ninth.

/

In Michael Lewis’ masterpiece “Moneyball”, an entire chapter was dedicated to journeyman catcher Scott Hatteberg, converted to first base by the A’s forward thinking front office for the 2002 season.

Hatteberg was an on base machine, his approach to hitting complex. He treated each trip to the plate as a gift, refusing to allow the pitcher dictate his strategy. Scott was a pest without speed, fouling off an endless stream two strike offerings, earning his way on base.

Despite his lesser talent, he was a hitter truly in the mold of Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu, players who made patience an art form.

He was the perfect hitter for this situation. Leading off the ninth inning in a decisive playoff game, his team trailing by a run, Hatteberg wouldn’t bend to the pressure.

He bled a walk from Williamson.

Jose Guillen, a prodigiously talented, yet notoriously impatient hacker was next. Many in baseball circles expressed shock at Billy Beane’s acquisition of Guillen, sacrificing top prospect Aaron Harang for his services. Jose was the antithesis of all that Beane valued in a player. Talent didn’t equal production, and for all his promise, Guillen had only just burst on the scene with the Reds in the first half of 2003. The legitimacy of his ascension was readily questioned.

Would Guillen have the patience, would he allow himself to succeed in this situation?

He drew a walk from Williamson, who was removed without recording an out.

It wasn’t his game anymore.

/

From the bullpen strode Derek Lowe. Lowe, physically, was the complete package. He was a horse, capable of logging enough innings to carry a staff. His sinker was filthy, its sharp break confounding the American League in 2002. Lowe reaped the benefits, securing 21 wins.

The expectations were raised for 2003, and Lowe was a different pitcher. He’d seem to lose focus during games, almost bored by his brilliant stuff.

And he’d pay for it. Backed by the Red Sox offense, Lowe still won 17 games, but saw his ERA balloon to 4.47.

Many believed Lowe was far more focused when thrust into a save situation, without room for error.

In Game Five, he’d have no choice.

/

Lowe got it done. Ramon Hernandez would bunt again, but this time it was Ken Macha’s call, giving up an out to advance the runners to second and third.

It was a by the book move.

His next decision wasn’t.

Macha would pinch hit for established star Jermaine Dye, sending up hot hitting Adam Melhuse in place of the wounded right fielder. Dye had battled his body all season long, fighting through the pain imparted by a glacially healing leg shattered by a foul ball in the 2001 playoffs. The lingering malady had sapped his power and nearly ruined his career.

He painfully wrenched out a meager .172 average in 2003, while appearing in 65 games.

However, Dye had made his living in situations such as these, and had shown a flash of his prior form with what could have been a decisive three run homer in Game 4.

Adam Melhuse was having a scorching postseason, but injury or not, he was not Jermaine Dye.

Just as Scott Hatteberg’s poise isn’t interchangeable, neither was Dye’s big game experience.

A’s fans are still wondering what could have been, had Dye been rightfully given his opportunity to play hero.

Instead, Melhuse struck out looking, overmatched by both Derek Lowe, and the moment.

After a walk to Chris Singleton, Lowe finished it, catching Terrance Long looking with the bases loaded, and ending Oakland’s season.

The A’s had fallen tortuously in the playoffs once again. The defeat offered zero consolation. There were no moral victories.

In their shattered clubhouse, Billy Beane lost it, railing about the payroll disparity separating the two teams.

But on the field, they had been so close.

So close…

/

As the Red Sox raucously celebrated that night, ready to challenge the New York Yankees, ready to spit in the face of history, one lingering, exhausting thought couldn’t have been far from their minds.

They had survived.

/

Cowboy up.

The rallying cry became a symbol, for the pride and perseverance that lifted the Red Sox through an arduous regular season, and from the abyss against Oakland.

It was an old rodeo term, an ode to fortitude, dedicated to those who could climb back on the saddle after being thrown off.

Encased within the phrase was the reason why these Red Sox felt impervious to ghosts of their franchise’s past.

They were different.

/

Now they would receive the ultimate test, a Yankee team that had regained its postseason swagger.