The man who traded Red Sox icon Nomar Garciaparra--or, in the local dialect, just plain Nomah--is free to safely walk the streets of Boston again. All it took for general manager Theo Epstein to show his face in public was the greatest late-season run in franchise history, a 17-game stretch in which the Red Sox played so ridiculously well that after a Fenway Park security guard threw a textbook flying tackle on a field intruder last
Friday night, Boston manager Terry Francona deadpanned, "I guess all facets of our game are strong right now."
"You have to understand," Epstein says, "we were taking a lot of heat in the days after the trade. It was very unpopular. I was getting accosted on the street. So I stayed in, and then I joined the team in Tampa, just to get out of town."
The Red Sox are now the hottest property in baseball--Nomah, no less. With a 16--1 burst through Friday, Boston remade itself into a pitching-and-defense juggernaut, seized control of the American League wild-card race, picked up eight games on the shaky first-place New York Yankees (page 46) in the AL East and outdid itself in producing melodramatic script material. At week's end New York, despite possessing a 21/2-game division lead, seemed to be in first place chasing Boston. The teams have six games remaining against each other: three at Yankee Stadium the weekend of Sept. 17--19 and three the following weekend at Fenway.
September 12, 2004
The author John Cheever once said, "All literary men are Red Sox fans. To be a Yankees fan in a literate society is to endanger your life." Of course, Cheever died in 1982 at the age of 70, meaning that the final Red Sox world championship in his lifetime--and the last there is--came when he was six. Boston's quixotic quest for a title is precisely its appeal to the literary-minded. Had the drought begun a tad earlier, Aeschylus would have been a Sox fan, too. Imagine: Youkilis Unbound.
So it was that author and Sox devotee Stephen King threw out the first pitch last Saturday (the toss was, appropriately, an absolute horror) before a game against the Texas Rangers during which parts of a Farrelly brothers movie were being shot. The flick involves a guy's love for his girl and the Red Sox, not necessarily in that order.
As for the real Red Sox, you can't make this stuff up. On July 31 Boston was third in the league in batting (.280) and pitching (4.12 ERA) but was 41--40 over its previous 81 games, the equivalent of half a season. Reason: The Sox also led the league in unearned runs allowed. Garciaparra, hobbled by a sore right Achilles tendon, played a poor shortstop when he happened to be in the lineup. (He missed 63 of the Sox' first 101 games.) He also never seemed to have recovered from his angst over his conditional trade to the Chicago White Sox last winter, a swap that evaporated once the Red Sox could not finalize a deal with Texas for shortstop Alex Rodriguez.
On July 24 Red Sox front-office officials met with Garciaparra, who is eligible for free agency after this season, to see if his future in Boston could be salvaged. According to a team source the shortstop did not address the specifics of his situation but mostly complained about the Boston media.
Ownership, convinced that Garciaparra would not return to Boston, gave the green light to Epstein to trade him. Just before the July 31 trade deadline Epstein sent Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs in a complicated four-team deal. The Sox wound up with shortstop Orlando Cabrera and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz--both Gold Glovers--and swift outfielder Dave Roberts. Mientkiewicz's arrival allowed Francona to get Kevin Millar off first base and into rightfield or into the batting order at DH, minimizing the harm he could do with his glove.
"The defense went from a glaring weakness to a strength," Epstein says. "And the only compromise was [losing] a little bit of offense--and we think we have plenty of that. We're still leading the league in runs."
Says righthander Curt Schilling, "What happened to us is so obvious. We're a better team. It's so far beyond night and day, it's not even funny. And it's not just cutting down on unearned runs and errors. Plays that weren't made before that [became] hits are outs now. Ground balls that weren't turned are double plays now. Earlier in the year we were getting 27 outs a night and giving the other team 31. That's stopped.
"When plays get made, you throw fewer pitches, and when you throw fewer pitches, you go deeper into games, and when you go deeper into games, you don't need to ask so much of your bullpen. It's pretty simple."
The Red Sox went 8--7 immediately after the trade, extending their three-month malaise to 49--47 and their distance from the Yankees to 101/2 games. Starting on Aug. 16, however, Boston came within a brilliant three-hitter by the Toronto Blue Jays' Ted Lilly of ripping off 17 wins in a row. Only five previous Red Sox teams ever went 16--1, and none of them did so this deep into a season.
"The difference is defense," Rangers manager Buck Showalter said on Saturday. "It's refreshing to see someone recognize that, especially a team with an offensive history like Boston, and [especially] the way people get caught up in numbers. You take a guy like Cabrera. If he hits .250, with all the runs he saves, it's like he hits .270. Baseball is about run production and run reduction, and they're taking care of both."
Since the trade the Red Sox have cut their rate of unearned runs allowed by more than two thirds. Starter Derek Lowe, a ground-ball specialist, has benefited the most from the trade. Lowe had been so bad that the Red Sox tried to trade him in July. But at week's end Lowe was 4--1 since the Garciaparra trade. "When you have the defense behind you, you become aggressive and go right after [hitters]," Lowe says. "That's what I've been doing. That keeps your pitch count down and keeps you in games."
Cabrera, with his quick hands and footwork, has been critical to the leather upgrade. Last Thursday, for instance, with the Red Sox holding a one-run ninth-inning lead on the Anaheim Angels--their closest pursuer for the wild card--Cabrera picked a mean short-hop throw from catcher Jason Varitek and tagged out Troy Glaus on a steal attempt. Boston held on for a 4--3 win. "Early in the season," Schilling says, "that ball's in centerfield, the runner goes to third, he scores on a sacrifice fly and we lose in extra innings."
Says Cabrera, who came over from the Montreal Expos, "A lot of these [American League] teams don't know me. But by the third game of a series, I can see when the batter hits a ground ball, he doesn't even bother running hard. He knows he's out."
Cabrera is no Garciaparra with the stick--in 33 games with Boston through Sunday he was hitting .281, with three homers and 16 RBIs--but his glovework and energy have made him popular in the field and in the eccentric Boston clubhouse. The team is packed with wild-haired free spirits such as leftfielder Manny Ramirez, ace righty Pedro Martinez, centerfielder Johnny Damon and Lowe, producing a reputation for being too flippant.
Says Cabrera, "Man, these guys are crazy. If I ever manage, I'll tell the G.M., 'Get me 25 guys just like this.' It's fun, like a family."
In his first at bat with Boston, Cabrera ripped a home run--only seven other Red Sox players had done so--then suffered intense pounding by teammates on his helmet as he returned from the dugout. "I learned that's why you have to get your helmet off here," he said. "After I won a game [on Aug. 17, in the ninth inning against Toronto] with a hit, the first thing I did was throw my helmet away."
He has fit right in. For instance, in Friday's 2--0 win over the Rangers, Cabrera completed his race from first to third with only one shoe after his stylish red-white-and-black number flew off while he was rounding second. The next day, after grounding out during an 8--6 loss to Texas, he flipped his batting gloves into the stands in mock surrender.
In contrast, Garciaparra was a more solemn presence whose health problems and cold war with the front office resonated in the clubhouse. According to two team sources, Garciaparra told Francona he was unable to play on July 1 in New York. Garciaparra watched the thriller, which the Yankees won 5--4 in 13 innings, stone-faced while almost never leaving the bench. But as the game extended into extra innings and New York shortstop Derek Jeter dived face-first into the stands to catch a 12th-inning pop-up, Garciaparra volunteered that he could give Francona an at bat in the 13th. Francona declined.
"Put it this way," one of the sources says. "The difference between the two teams was obvious that night."
Says one teammate, "It just wasn't going to happen for him here anymore. He had such bad feelings toward the team that he thought his phone was bugged."
Says Schilling of Garciaparra, "His situation never affected me. But he clearly had some serious dislike for the front office after the [aborted] trade. It was very obvious he wasn't coming back and didn't want to be back [after this season]. So what are you going to do, just play out the string? Plus, at the [end of July] he said he was going to need time off. So now you don't know how much he's going to be in there. You may get Nomar only 30 times the rest of the way. And is that a healthy Nomar or is it a hobbled Nomar?"
This season's prize acquisition, the 37year-old Schilling (18--6 at week's end), has been exactly as advertised: a Cy Young candidate with an appetite for big games. As Schilling drove to Fenway on Aug. 31, for instance, for the first game of a showdown series with Anaheim, he had goose bumps on his arms. He survived to go 72/3 innings and limit the Angels to three runs that night in Boston's 10--7 win. He capped the 9--1 home stand on Sunday with another dominating performance: In a 6--5 victory over Texas, Schilling went 81/3 innings and held the Rangers to three runs on five hits.
"The reason I came here," says Schilling, who approved a trade last November from the Arizona Diamondbacks to Boston, "was to be on the mound here in September and, hopefully, October. It's set up that way now. If this team had won [the World Series] last year, I would not have been here."
Meanwhile the 32-year-old Martinez (15--5, 3.55 ERA at week's end) remains the soul of the staff. He mesmerized the Rangers on Friday, allowing just four hits over seven innings. Though he generally throws in the low 90s--a drop from four years ago, when he was in the mid-to-high 90s--Martinez relies on pinpoint control of all his pitches and can summon extra zip on the fastball in big spots. He already has surpassed his wins and innings totals from last year. "Right now I'm in good shape," he said after Friday's performance. "I feel at the tippy-top part of my game."
Says Mientkiewicz, "What's more surprising than how we've played the last three weeks is how this team played .500 ball for three months before that. With the starting pitchers this team has and the offense, that's hard to imagine."
Not in 100 years have the Red Sox come from behind after Aug. 15 to win a pennant race against the Yankees. Now, as if straight from a Hollywood script, the possibility was right in front of them, even as a seven-game trip to Oakland and Seattle loomed. Says Lowe, "It's all about getting hot at the right time."
Boston, with its legions of fans, including the literati, has forgiven the team for its three-month somnambulism and the G.M. for shipping the franchise shortstop out of town. Indeed, one young boy showed up at Fenway on Saturday with a Red Sox jersey that, like his team, was altered on the fly. The name on the back--nomah--was crossed out with black marker. Above it was a handwritten replacement: CABRERAH.
"Ground balls are double plays now," says Schilling. "Earlier, we were getting 27 outs a night AND GIVING UP 31. That's stopped."