This is the beautiful thing about playoff baseball. Words don't quite get it. Thursday night's playoff game between the Yankees and Angels wasn't necessarily a classic, not if you need your classic baseball games to dare perfection. No, this was a big, bold, beautiful, tense, ugly, quirky, odd baseball game. No one was quite sure if the game was made up of comebacks or blown leads, clutch hits or mistake pitches, brilliant timing or managerial blunders. No one was sure about anything except the umpires (who blew their requisite calls), the Angels rally monkey (back on the scoreboard to inspire) and the last inning, which left everyone breathless.
The job of journalists is to try their best to make sense of things. And so in the minutes after the Angels 7-6 victory over the Yankees -- a victory that sent this series back to New York with the Yankees still one victory away from clinching -- the questions were all about sensible things. Did the Angels feel like they could take two in New York? (Didn't know). Did the Yankees feel like there was more pressure on them now? (Didn't know). Did the momentum shift? (Didn't know).
And you could see that players really could not think of anything to say ... nothing that was going to top the beautiful tension of that ninth inning. The Angels led 4-0. The Yankees scored six runs in the seventh -- all of them after Angels starter John Lackey was involuntarily removed from the game kicking and screaming. The Angels improbably scored three in the bottom of the same inning to take the lead back.
Then it was the ninth, the Angels led by a run, and they sent their closer Brian Fuentes to the mound. There is a feeling around baseball that a closer should be like a Wild West gunslinger with a nasty reputation. The great ones mostly enter to the strains of heavy metal, and they throw hard, and they look tough, and they instill just the tiniest bit of doubt before they ever throw a pitch. Brian Fuentes does none of these things. He is 34, left-handed, does not throw hard. He led the American League in saves, but few of them were easy. Fuentes is a Fred Flintstone, put on a hard-hat, get-the-job-done-any-way-you-can sort of closer.
The Yankees' first three hitters in the inning were Johnny Damon, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez -- and yes, just those three hitters made a combined $65 million this year, more than six teams in the big leagues. Damon led off, and you already know that he is one of the trickier outs in baseball because of the crazy swings he will do. He's like a human infomercial -- he will chip, slice, dice, slap, tap, golf, you never know. He never knows. Plenty of the time it make him look foolish -- but he has more than 2,400 big league hits, and this time he turned on a fastball, absolutely scorched it, but right at Angels first baseman Kendry Morales. One out.
Teixeira popped out on one pitch -- a surprisingly meek at-bat for one of the game's best hitters. And then, it was A-Rod. On Saturday night, an eerily similar situation had come up in Yankee Stadium ... and that time Fuentes grooved a belt-high fastball, and A-Rod crunched it to right field for a game-tying home run. This time, Angels manager Mike Scioscia decided to intentionally walk Rodriguez with the bases empty, a fascinating move to put the tying run on base.*
* People have different feelings about the intentional walk. I dislike it a great deal. Certainly there are times when strategically it makes perfect sense -- like in the late innings when you have an open base, or when you would like to set up the double play, or when you want a force at home plate. But I really don't like walks like this, where a manager basically concedes: "I don't think we are good enough to get him out." Baseball -- all sports -- build around confidence and a sense of invincibility. As good as Alex Rodriguez is -- and he has been electrifying this postseason -- he does make outs more than 60 percent of the time and he gets an extra base hit about 11 percent of the time. I don't like a team giving in -- it seems to me the opposite of what teams claim to be about and it seems to me self-defeating.
But I readily concede that A-Rod is a great hitter who is overflowing with confidence, so I would not say that walking him was the wrong move. I just didn't like it.
The Yankees immediately replaced A-Rod with a pinch-runner -- the brilliantly fast Freddy Guzman. The feeling was that the only reason you would pull A-Rod in a one-run game is so that Guzman can steal second base and put himself in scoring position. Only, Guzman did not steal second. He never even hinted that stealing second was something that interested him. Instead, he took a conservative lead and watched Fuentes and Hideki Matsui battle for a six-pitch at-bat which ended with a walk.
First and second, and then Fuentes hit Robinson Cano with a pitch. And the bases were loaded, there were two outs, and there was this crazy tension in the stadium. Just a few moments earlier, the fans clapped together their inflatable thunder-stix, and it sounded like all the king's horses and all the king's men were descending on the stadium. Now, though, the clapping played a nervous beat, and Nick Swisher stepped to the plate.
Swisher, you probably know, was one of the big stars of the book "Moneyball" -- the player who Oakland GM Billy Beane loved so much he refused to see him play in college. He didn't want anyone to know just how badly he wanted to draft Swisher. "Swisher is noticeable, isn't he?" Beane was quoted asking his scouts, who assured him that Swisher was impossible to miss because he never shut up.
That hasn't changed. Swisher, off the field, is a force of nature, a non-stop talker who drives more or less everyone batty. Swisher, at the plate, is a non-stop worker who fouls off pitch after pitch, and worked pitchers for 97 walks this year -- most on the Yankees and second only to the Angels' Chone Figgins.
So they battled -- the hard-hat closer and the lunch-box hitter ... a chopper that was just inches foul ... another foul ... a change-up way outside ... another foul ... a high fastball ... an outside fastball. And then the count was 3-2, and the tension had hit its crescendo, and Fuentes simply threw the challenge pitch, his best fastball (91 mph) right down the heart of the plate. Swisher swung and hit a pop-up to shallow left. Angels shortstop Erick Aybar ranged back and caught it.
And there was nothing left. The game had drained the emotion out of everyone. What did it mean? It seems unlikely that the Angels can go to New York and take two ... especially with Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia scheduled to pitch. It seems unlikely that Angels' momentum will carry over ... it doesn't seem to really work that way in baseball. It seems unlikely that the Yankees, with all those talented and experienced players, will carry this loss with them for very long. It will probably be forgotten by the time their flight lands in New York.
What does it mean? Maybe that was the wrong question -- those answers will come soon enough. Maybe the right question was: Wasn't that fun?