Games 1-4: Dustin Pedroia recapitulates phylogeny
Dustin Pedroia smashed the fastball right back into CC Sabathia’s face.
Much is made of the size of both men, who occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. CC is listed at 6’ 7” and, charitably, at 290 pounds. He’s not only towering in stature but thick, carrying around a paunch low-slung on his midsection like a kangaroo. Dustin, as we know, is undersized.
Sabathia started Dustin off in the first inning of Game 1 with straight heat, feeding him fastball after fastball just to see what Pedroia would be able to do with the pitch. Dustin finally answered by getting his bat around on a heater, sending a screaming liner straight back toward Sabathia’s head. Though CC would safely glove the returning missile, the point was across: CC fed Dustin fastballs, and Dustin took his bat and brushed him back.
The Sox, as represented by Pedroia, would come out swinging in this series, and through the first 19 innings looked as though they meant to continue piloting the steamroller they’d fired up against the Angels on a straight course for the awaiting NL pennant winner.
But somewhere in the midst of game 2, something odd happened. The bullpen uncharacteristically broke down. Well, uncharacteristically except for Eric Gagne, whom everyone in Boston agreed the next day had been the official Least Valuable Player of the night, since he put the two men on that started the Indians’ 7-run rally in the 11th.
Pedroia would also embody the fate of the Red Sox as the pennant series went on, and delivered two more losses for the Sox. They were down 3-1 in the series going in to Game 5; he was 3 for 17, and had spent the ALDS in a two-fer slump as well.
As the Sox surged to take the last three games, Pedroia began mashing the ball, finishing with a series average of .345 and a 5-RBI effort in Game 7. Pedroia’s entire season, in fact, was an encapsulation of this concept—from struggles in April to red hot in June and beyond, on the way to Rookie of the Year. Tough breaks, followed by breaking out.
Josh Beckett and ALCS Game 5
If Pedroia embodied the performance of the Red Sox as a team on the field against Cleveland, Josh Beckett embodies what the Red Sox have become as a franchise over the last few years. First, he’s the ace of a pitching staff that has become the heart of the Red Sox, a departure from the legacy of mashing the ball and praying for rain. Second, his story arc as an individual over the last two years mirrors that of the team at large: last year’s struggles paved the way for this year’s dominance.
Little by little this year, Josh has also come to embody the somewhat oxymoronic looseness / professionalism that Theo and the Trio have also tried to cultivate in their prospects. His at times over-the-top misbehavior has been a source of consistent fascination for Red Sox Nation (admittedly more in some corners, like this blog, than others), especially when it’s amplified by a broadcast media repeatedly victimized by his penchant for live-TV f-bombs. And yet Josh has no time for things like beard-growing, head-shaving, or any of the rest of the public tapdance for personal attention that many of the 2004 Idiots embraced.
Granted, he’ll still indulge in the odd post-strikeout fist-pump, but even that has begun to wane as Josh has matured. That kind of bombast was all but absent through much of the postseason, when he played as a man possessed, but in an entranced, almost expressionless way.
In other words, Josh may say “fuck” a lot, but he is not fucking around.The circumstances of Game 5 were heady ones. The previous games in Cleveland had worn away at Red Sox players and fans, who struggled with the cognitive dissonance of sensing the Sox might lose—and that maybe it was just meant to be. Part of me eye-rollingly wondered if the Curse might be brought back to life for old time’s sake, should the Sox go down in defeat, while also bemusedly wondering what new storyline the Indians would be saddled with as they continued their search for the Promised Land.
Other times, the sour implications of what was beginning to seem like an inevitability out in Cleveland would sometimes hit with a jolt. How could the team that had withstood the slings and arrows of September to finish division champs and crushed the Angels slip so gently into off-season oblivion?
Josh, having attained full-blown force of nature status by the time the Sox found themselves with their backs against the wall in Cleveland that Thursday night in October, was also going up against the fact that now, strangely, there were more than a few familiar themes of intergenerational heartbreak-slash-quest for healing coming alive -- but in a towel-waving frenzy at the Jake, rather than a hushed and tense Fenway. After a few nights of uncharacteristic Sox blunders and the awakening of the Cleveland offense, not only had Cleveland taken the upper hand in the series, but its home ballpark had become an all-singing, all-dancing revue starring an ecstatic Kenny Lofton.
What Beckett would have to say to the grinning Indians—Lofton specifically—and their towel-waving fans, was a very Beckett thing to say: Wipe those goofy looks off your f’in faces.
This moment also must have been one of monumental personal importance for a kid raised in the cradle of American power pitchers, with all the pressure of being known as “Phenom” at age 16. Here was “Kid Heat’s” second lifetime appearance in the October spotlight, all coming down to this; what did he have to say for himself?
Into this breach, out onto this grand stage of emotion and expectation, Josh Beckett stepped, when he took the mound for Game 5.
You have to watch it from the beginning. To say I re-watch this game often would be a total understatement. I can cue certain innings depending on my mood (and of course know the game by heart now, chapter and verse), but the best way to get the full effect of it is to watch from the beginning. Only then can you get an appreciation for the gradual silence that fell over the place, as Beckett continued his ruthless and brilliant work.
I rewind that moment in inning 4 when Varitek first put down one dirty, scabbed, taped-up index finger and waggled it toward his left thigh to indicate “inside”, and then replaced it with two fingers for the deuce. Josh followed those instructions with enough precision and late-breaking filth to bring tears to your eyes. I can’t get enough of watching that, the order from behind the plate, and then the eye-popping response from the mound.
Bill Simmons, in his Oct. 23 column on the Sox’s pennant win, wrote of this game, Baseball is the only sport where a single person can shut up 55,000 people for an extended period of time and eventually break their will. This was one of those times.
Beckett didn’t just dominate with the ball—he let fly at the Indians with his mouth, too, at one point nearing a full-blown altercation with Lofton over Lofton’s assumption that strike one had been ball four in the fifth inning. He claimed that field as his territory both verbally and physically, and the rest of the team seemed to see this and suddenly remember who they were, stamping their tickets back to Boston with a 7-1 final score.
In 2004, the ALCS turnaround was sparked by the work of a handful of teammates—Kevin Millar, Dave Roberts, Bill Mueller, and David Ortiz. In 2007, the Red Sox rally began with one individual. And all I have wanted to do, as fall has turned to winter, and winter back to spring again, is watch Josh Beckett pitch Game 5. I steal every moment possible to sit down with my DVDs and watch. It’s my break and my sanity-keeper, seeing Josh break off those beautiful curveballs and unleash a fastball that the only possible description for is “demon-possessed.” I can’t get enough of watching him perform.
Tomorrow: JD Drew and the Unlikeliest Grand Slam Ever; Coco and the catches that won the Pennant