Turnaround Red Sox set for World Series showdown with Cardinals
Detroit manager Jim Leyland was in a bind last night. Should he stick with his presumptive Cy Young Award starter, Max Scherzer, at 110 pitches one out into the seventh inning against the Red Sox, or entrust his leaky bullpen to get eight outs while holding a one-run lead? That Leyland had no good options at the moment of crisis in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series tells you this: the better team won.
Leyland's bullpen coughed it up again, with Shane Victorino of Boston belting a grand slam off Jose Veras to send the Red Sox to the World Series against St. Louis. Leyland yanked Scherzer because, after a questionable ball four to Xander Bogaerts, the next hitter was the left-handed Jacoby Ellsbury, and Leyland wanted to play the matchup game.
Boston manager John Farrell had the deeper, more versatile team, and he kept making the right decisions in utilizing his roster, including the use of Bogaerts, a budding star who has earned a starting job in the World Series. Leyland had no bullpen, no team speed, poor baserunning, below-average defense and, with Miguel Cabrera hurt and Prince Fielder looking dreadful at the plate, less power than how it appeared on the lineup card.
From 93 losses last year to the pennant this season, Boston has staged one of the all-time great turnaround campaigns. It was a triumph of the architecture of general manager Ben Cherington and the Boston brass -- and it wasn't just the great Dodgers Bailout Trade of 14 months ago. They hired Farrell, the anti-Bobby Valentine, and gave him veteran additions who thrived in the Boston fishbowl and, more importantly, around one another. Fittingly, the winning rally began with a double by one of those hard-edged newcomers, Jonny Gomes, whom Farrell played against a right-hander, and was capped with the slam by another baseball rat, Victorino.
Keep your eye on the Boston dugout during a game; it is filled with players on the top step, watching the game for clues, talking baseball with the guy next to him. It is a team that eats, sleeps and breathes baseball.
Earlier in the season, Farrell told me he made sure his pitchers knew he wanted them in the dugout on days they were not pitching -- not watching the game on a clubhouse TV. He never used the words "chicken and beer," but he didn't have to. "We don't want any satellite groups around here," he said.
The Red Sox became one unit quickly -- in Spring Training. Sure, talent is the top priority when importing players, and the team did so at every turn, especially when it came to hitters who grind out at-bats. But in Boston, because of the figurative fishbowl, the cramped quarters of Fenway Park and the toxic dumps that were last season and September 2011, the team needed talented players who also brought character and swagger to make this renovation work quickly.
Something else is at work here, too: The city fell in love again with its baseball team. The reviled unit of 2012 was 34-47 at Fenway. The Red Sox' home sellout streak officially ended at 820 games in their first home series of this season, but before long, Fenway was once again filled to capacity on a nightly basis. This team, including the postseason, is 57-29 at Fenway and owns home-field advantage for the World Series. Boston strong, indeed.
And so we get a rare World Series with two teams with solid bona fides. It is only the fourth World Series in the past 33 years in which both teams won at least 97 games. The others are 1998 (Yankees-Padres), 1999 (Yankees-Braves) and the suddenly very familiar 2004 series (Red Sox-Cardinals).
Boston and St. Louis tied for the most wins in the majors (97), which means for only the fourth time in the past 23 years, a team with the most regular-season wins will have negotiated the postseason tournament to become world champion (2009 Yankees, 2007 Red Sox, 1998 Yankees).
Make no mistake: There was nothing fluky about this Boston team. The American League is sending its best team to the World Series. Leyland can attest to that.
2. Pick up the pace
Some time this winter, representatives from the Players Association and MLB need a summit meeting about pace of play -- an honest-to-goodness discussion about how to improve the pace of the game and not just the usual whining without anything actually being done about it. The average time of game in the ALCS was 3 hours and 38 minutes. Remember, two of the games finished 1-0.
It took the Red Sox and Tigers an average of 218 minutes to throw 287 pitches per game. The series included only 37 runs, or one run every 35 minutes. Eighty-four percent of the 1,310 pitches were not put in play.
Look, everybody loves close, tense games. No complaints there. It's not that we need more runs. It's that we need less dead time. It's the long moments of nothingness in between the ball being put into play -- or even just pitched -- that is a drag on the game. Boston's ALCS Game 6 starter, Clay Buchholz, has become the poster pitcher for what happens when people who run the game -- executives, umpires and the players association -- pay no heed to actual rules in place about delivering pitches in a timely manner. In the second inning, with nobody on base, Buchholz was taking between 18 and 26 seconds to deliver his pitches. Pitchers by rule are supposed to take only 12 seconds once they receive the baseball back from the catcher. Nobody said anything.
The first inning on Saturday night took 34 minutes, though no runs were scored and only five of 43 pitches were put into play. Baseball games are getting longer, but it's not because of the action. It's the inaction that is growing. A video recently surfaced on the web of a 1982 game between the Red Sox and Brewers. The most striking aspect of what was a wild ninth inning was how much quicker was the pace of play -- even with the game on the line late. Batters didn't dawdle. Pitchers delivered the ball in a timely manner. Catchers didn't visit the mound every other batter. It can be done again, but only if it becomes a priority for all parties.
3. Be smart: Ditch the dumbest play in baseball
Why does baseball still allow baserunners storming full speed down the basepath to take a free shot at a stationary catcher at home plate? It's nonsense. I wrote when the season began that baseball should ban runners from crashing into catchers -- that we don't need more injuries to act on what should be an obvious and unnecessary risk.
We almost saw another major injury in ALCS Game 5 when David Ross of Boston plowed into Detroit catcher Alex Avila. Both players have a history of concussions; Avila looked woozy and dazed and eventually left the game with a twisted left knee. If Avila truly did suffer another concussion -- he somehow avoided landing on his head when his helmet flew off and he was thrown backward -- we might be having a national debate about the dumbest play in baseball. Instead, with only a chirp here or there in the media, we get nothing from Major League Baseball or the Players Association about the safety of players.
What is the argument in favor of putting players at risk? That such behavior is "part of the game?" That's not an argument. It's an unevolved position based on inertia and lack of thought. Sharpening spikes to harm fielders, not wearing a batting helmet, no padding on the outfield walls, throwing the baseball at the runner to put him out ... they were all "part of the game" at some point. We lost those "traditions" because we knew the game would not just go on without them but would also be improved. It's the same way with letting runners plow over catchers.
The answer is simple: Adopt the NCAA rule, which effectively bans collisions by mandating that a runner has to make an attempt to score, not to attempt to separate the baseball from the catcher -- and "contact above the waist that was initiated by the runner" is not considered an attempt to score.
It will happen one day. It has to happen because it makes too much sense. The only question is how many more catchers have to get hurt before baseball acts.