(Editor's note: This is basically a huge, mashed-together combination of probably about three or four posts written as one huge essay, because I'm determined to keep Patriots content going over here even if I'm also writing for MVN. So in sum, this post combines my thoughts while watching both the Sox and Pats this weekend. I've realized only very recently just how long it is, so I added some subheds so that those of you who are Sox-only readers can skip the Pats stuff (basically everything from the "Randy Moss" subhed to the third and final subhed).
I'm also running off on a business trip this week and probably will not have much opportunity to post, so this heapin' helpin' o' rambles is most likely all you're getting this week, Dear Readers. Hopefully chopping it up into more reasonable chunks will make it more readable. If all else fails, print it out and take it in the can. I won't tell anybody.)
Sox clinch...and there is much rejoicing (Yayy.)
Saturday night, Jason Varitek finally stood up and said "Hell, no," to this "losing to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays with the chance to clinch a playoff spot on the line" crap the Sox had going up until the top of the ninth. Until that point, the game looked, as Francona characterized it today in a pregame interview, "losable." But with the score tied after the Captain's bomb, Al Reyes, officially the Red Sox Bitch of the Season at this point, let up a two-run shot to Julio Lugo. After that, Cinco Ocho finally got in the game after his mysterious failure to show up against New York and Toronto. Once the final out plopped into Coco's glove, Papelbon made a beeline for Jason Varitek, who we've already concluded is his personal buddy. Jonathan made him recoil in chagrin, while making me giggle, with the ferocity of his chest-plate pounding enthusiasm in Varitek's general vicinity.
Huit-Trois even made an appearance, the pitcher of record for the Sox on the night with the W.
The celebration last night was subdued. The Sox took the unprecedented step of barring media from the clubhouse for quite some time after the game, an idea I actually thought was a good one. I'm glad to see the somber expressions of interviewees Curt Schilling and Eric Gagne when talking about the postseason clinch. I'm glad to see them at least parroting the time-honored platitudes about how they still need to go out and get the division.
Curt Schilling's statements were the closest to matching my own feelings on the matter, when he was interviewed while pulling on his socks in front of his locker by Tina Cervasio.
"We're happy, obviously," he said. "But we've spent six months earning our way to the top of this division, and we want to win this division. So that's the focus over the next couple of days."
Curt, Theo, the Division, and Questions
Even at the height of Curt Schilling's hero status in Boston, he has never been a personally beloved figure the way Papi or even Manny have been. Even most other Sox fans I know will still preface praise of Schilling's feats on the field with a disclaimer about not liking him personally. As with my other All-Time Binky, Keith Foulke, I've been round and round the mulberry bush with people about why I don't think Curt Schilling is necessarily the completely obnoxious blowhard he's been made out to be. And this is a good example of one of the things that gets looked over, or taken for granted about Curt--the fact that his attitude is always 100% spot on from a fan's perspective. When it comes to matters on the field, despite whatever injuries have interfered with his efforts, Schilling has always had a take-no-prisoners, make-no-excuses approach to big games and big-time competition. Right now, I think his attitude is standing out more than ever from some of his newer, younger, cockier teammates. Just as he knew exactly the depth of what Sox fans were feeling in October of 2004, he appears to understand exactly what things have been like for the fan base this month.
In the past few weeks I've heard a lot being said about the role of Roger Clemens in stabilizing the Yankees as they've gone on this ridiculous run of theirs. I think Curt Schilling has the potential to be a similar leader for the Red Sox, but my sense is that's not necessarily happening. In fact, it feels like for the fan base and the clubhouse, Curt Schilling has largely become an afterthought. Right now, I'm not exactly sure what that means. It could also just be that NESN and SportsDesk haven't chosen to focus on him recently.
Meanwhile, though, we do have a playoff spot, and we head into the postseason with a boatload o' major league rookies and playoff greenhorns like Jonathan Papelbon and Dustin Pedroia, to say nothing of Okajima and Daisuke. Of the things about the Schilling quote above that I enjoy, what I enjoy most is the fact that he chose to say, "there's still a lot that needs to be answered." Because that is exactly true.
Right now Theo Epstein has a lot of question marks in front of him. Right now I think the heat is on him in a way that it really hasn't been in his career so far, 2005's Gorilla-Suit incident included.
I never wrote about this at the time; I guess I was saving it for a special occasion of some kind. But several weeks ago I heard Theo make his weekly radio appearance on the morning drive-time show I listen to on weekdays. The conversation turned to JD Drew and Jacoby Ellsbury, and it was suggested, in the form of a question, to Theo that the Red Sox ought to be considering playing Ellsbury over drew if Manny comes back healthy. I heard the whole conversation as it was happening live, and I thought the interviewer, former Boston Bruins goon Lindon Byers, actually phrased it in a way that invited explanation if it was a bad idea, not as a challenge meant to put Theo on the defensive.
This didn't seem to matter. "No. No. No." Theo sputtered. He threatened to end the interview right then and there, without any further statements from LB. "You don't know what you're talking about," he snapped. "Leave it to the people who built the best team in baseball. Leave it to the manager who's managed the best team in baseball to get it done."
I've never heard Theo lose his cool like that. I can sort of understand the reasons it aggravated him. "You fans only see things in streaks," he said. "What's happened recently. You don't look at a guy over his whole career."
And to a certain extent, it's true that Boston fans can have a "What have you done for me lately" attitude, and admittedly, at times it's to a fault.
But hearing Theo wax so defensive, losing his cool completely at an innocently intended question from an FM rock radio DJ, worried me quite a bit. It suggested it might not have been the first time such a question had been raised to him. It also suggested that it might be a subject matter those close to Theo have long since learned to avoid.
At times I've really fallen for Theo's brazen, blunt way of communicating, but in this case, I thought he came off sounding like nothing so much as a man in denial about certain things, things like what might be flawed or underdeveloped about the club he's built this year, about some of the questionable decisions he's made about players recently.
And for Theo's Red Sox, it is getting down to crunch time. All season long we've been saying, the proof is in the playoffs. The proof is in the division. Over the next month, we will find out what the upshot of this season is going to be, whether or not the anemic offense and lax pitching that has reared its ugly head from the "Mr. Hyde" version of this team or the relentless lineups and rock-solid studs on the mound we've come to enjoy from "Dr. Jekyll" will be what we get when all the chips are down.
I've seen the Red Sox make the playoffs in a year when the Wild Card warranted a full-on champagne blast in the clubhouse and mic time with Kevin Millar out on the field before an ecstatic Fenway audience; in a year when the sting of the previous year's pennant loss pushed a Sox juggernaut through exactly, gulp, the kind of late-season tear the MFY are currently enjoying; in a year when the sense was, after a ring ceremony to open that season, anything from that point was gravy. Every time it's been different, and this is no exception.
I've never been more uncertain about a playoff-bound Red Sox squad. I've never felt like I wouldn't be surprised if they completely collapsed in the DS, nor would I be surprised if something lit a fire under them and they ate the league for breakfast all the way back to the Promised Land. It all depends on which version of the Red Sox shows up on the field. That's the peculiar makeup of this year's team.
If it's Dr. Jekyll, of course, Theo will have been well within his rights to put LB--and by extension every fan or layman watching who's had the same question--in his place. But if Mr. Hyde shows up and things get ugly, it's just like Curt said. There's a lot to be answered.
Today, as the first day of the rest of the Red Sox season, was not encouraging. Tim Wakefield earned a completely uncharacteristic loss at the Trop, while his teammates, apparently having expected to coast behind him in a stadium where he traditionally dominates, mounted a rally that ultimately fell short.
I watched the Red Sox game up until the score of 3-0, Devil Rays, on my TiVo after having flipped over from the Patriots first quarter against the Buffalo Bills, which had gone distressingly indeed.
The Patriots: glisten, glitter, floss, boss, catch a beat running like Randy Moss
My esteemed MVN co-blogger Jaime had written in a game preview, "...fans should keep in mind that this is a division match, but seriously. This game won’t be close." I was in complete agreement as I settled in for an afternoon of TiVo-flipping between the two teams' games. Prior to kickoff and first pitch, I had decided the Red Sox would be my "primary" show since it was all but a foregone conclusion that the Patriots would kick Buffalo ass.
I stayed true to my word through the first quarter and a half or so of the Patriots game and first three innings of the Red Sox game, respectively, watching the Patriots somehow, incomprehensibly, wind up down 7-3 against the Bills, who stuffed them in the end zone to cap what should've been a touchdown drive with a field goal; ran Marshawn Lynch all over the Pats defense for a touchdown on their own; and recovered a Brady fumble in the red zone to stay in the lead.
Flipping back and forth, I also caught children petting rays in the tank they now have set up down at Tropicana, and the rays actually cozying up to the children like mammals at a petting zoo, letting the kids pet them on their weird, slimy little heads. I also caught the glacial first couple of innings as Wake struggled under the eerie blue-green light coming through the stretched skin of the dome above. So far, things were not going as I had hoped.
Forced right then to make a decision, I found myself seduced, on perhaps the earliest week of a football season ever with Boston still in the thick of a pennant race, by the Patriots over the Red Sox. I don't even want to say the word I'm thinking of when I consider the Patriots' schedule this season, so let's just say it has something to do with unopened bottles of champagne in Miami. At that point, having seen Tom Brady and Kevin Faulk, separated by a coach, screaming at one another on the sidelines after a miserable three-and-out and heard the outraged screams of Gillette Stadium as not one but two of Belichick's challenges were overruled, I decided the Patriots were having more of a crisis. After that, though I was behind enough to fast forward through not only commercials but the entire halftime show, I stuck to the Pats.
And, it turns out, was richly rewarded for doing so.
On the next possession after the Brady fumble, the Patriots offense officially decided to quit dicking around, scoring a touchdown to take the lead again in under three minutes, and restoring order to Gillette Stadium.
In the meantime, Buffalo players had been holding their own surprisingly well against a New England team that had them literally and figuratively outweighed. Following a vicious hit to the knees of Buffalo quarterback JP Lohsman--a clearly illegal hit, whether intentional or not, and the refs made the right roughing the passer call--the Bills had to call on the deer-in-the-headlights services of the extremely young, totally inexperienced Trent Edwards.
Despite the viciousness of his hit on Lohsman, one of the standout aspects of this game was watching Vince Wilfork "fly around", as they say. After dispatching with Lohsman, he welcomed Edwards to the NFL by barrelling after him like 350 pounds of his worst nightmare, keeping the pressure on all game (It occurred to me watching Wilfork chug along that I sincerely hope the big man also keeps the trash talk constant during the game. In my Imaginary Football World I've already assigned him the voice and speech pattern of "Terrible" Terry Tate).
It was also nice to see Asante Samuel and Junior Seau starting to stand out, back at work again this season. Seau has that gloating dance down to a science, and it seemed like every time Junior was dancing around after a play, Vrabel would pop up behind him, watch him dance for a little bit and then start fist-pumping and making gyrations of his own. Probably the most heartwarming little moments outside the actual plays of the game came from watching Mike Vrabel get pumped up watching Junior get pumped up whenever the Pats defense was on the field.
On the other side of the ball, the offense, and in particular the offensive line, were just as vicious and bloodthirsty, if not more so, than the defensive unit. Not long after Lohsman's departure the Bills were forced to cart out the meat wagon again for another injured player, this time linebacker Paul Posluszny. Lots of talk emanated from the CBS broadcast booth about how the undersized Bills defense needed to "swell up" against the run, and aside from the disturbing Freudian nature of that imagery, they failed continually to do it, and on the whole I was tired of hearing the phrase by the time the first half was over.
But I wasn't tired of watching the Patriots awake like a sleeping giant and start kicking ass like they were supposed to all along. I think Wes Welker is going to be my favorite receiver by Week 8, despite the fact that we have several other marquee names at the position. He's just such a slipperly little bastard, remeniscent in some ways of David Patten, who was always my favorite during the first two Super Bowl years. Some of the underneath, threading-the-needle routes he and Brady executed for positive gains were things of intricate, extravagant beauty.
But as long as we're singling out players, let's talk a little Randy Moss. Now, of course, we have all known intellectually that Randy Moss is capable of being one of the best receivers in the league, possibly one of the best all-time. I also heard Bill Romanowksi on the radio this week, and when asked for his opinion on Moss I think ol' Romo hit the nail on the head by saying that Moss needs to be inspired properly in order to reach his potential, and he hasn't been inspired properly since he played for Minnesota.
That is, until now.
Whatever it is, let's keep it coming. In week 1 I said something about Moss having hands of flypaper, and that image occurred to me again during this game with a little over a minute left to go in the first half when he snatched a touchdown throw from Brady behind his back in midair, while being amply covered by Jabari Greer. The ball was, I reiterate, behind his back, just skimming past Greer, and at the last possible instant Moss's hands darted back around as his torso twisted, drawn to the ball, and when those hands clamped shut around it, it was as if the ball was stuck there with glue. Probably the most classic single moment of this game, however, (and it was a game filled with lovely moments for the Patriots) was Moss going deep in the tricky shadows of Gillette's south end as the fourth quarter opened.
I can only describe the beginnings of this play using a baseball analogy. The way Tom Brady threw this deep pass, every bit a thing of gorgeousness as the catch that lay at the other end, was akin to the way a good baseball pitcher can throw you any one of his pitches with the same deceptive motion, whether a 95-mph fastball or a 79-mph 12-6 curve. At first I had the intended receiver much closer to Brady than where the ball ended up--and so did the cameraman for CBS, who hurriedly panned to follow the ball a second late. And so did the Gillette Stadium crowd, half of whom were probably blinded by the toxic combination of late afternoon sun and beer, and who rose hurriedly to their feet a few moments after the play unfolded as if startled out of a routine. I know I personally had settled in for a long, meticulous drive after Brady opened things with some short passes in the flat to Kevin Faulk. I don't think I even realized that that had become the Patriots style until the moment they broke the pattern with that bomb to Moss.
The last time we saw any pass-catch-touchdown combination this pretty had to be during the 2004-2005 postseason. Once again, Moss was fairly well covered (again, by Greer, the poor bastid) and the ball came screaming down like a heat-seeking missile, into the gluey trap of those hands, completely over the head of Greer, who fell flat on his face as Moss strode comfortably on those long legs of his into the end zone.
Uh...yeah, wasn't there also a baseball game on?
Back to the Sox, back to reality...
So I guess for all I've excoriated the Sox for their lack of game-facedness over the last week or so, while the Pats were on I was guilty of the very same thinking: eh, the Sox are in the playoffs anyway. Of course, just who the fuck do the Buffalo Bills think they are in this first quarter also factored into it, but even after that situation was resolved, I was just plain hooked on the Pats this afternoon.
By the time I returned to the Sox game Mike Timlin was presiding over a 5-4 deficit. The score would remain that way as the final, down there in the echoey baseball Limbo that is the Trop in the gloomy late season, a world that suddenly seemed foreign after having basked in the brilliant autumn sunshine of Foxboro for several solid hours.
The previous evening as an iced-down J.R. Papelbon was interviewed by Tina Cervasio in the clubhouse, he also made what I thought was a good statement (finally). He put it like this: "We want to win this division, and take that into the postseason. But for right now?"
He raised a glass of something just out of frame. "Cheers, Boston." He smiled.
Now how am I gonna stay mad at him after that?