I don’t write about sports on this blog. That’s basically been Rule #1, because I work in sports. It’s a combination of things: I like to showcase my other interests, I like to write about things that are a bit off the beaten path sometimes and I don’t like to favor teams or players as an aspiring sportscaster.
Tonight is an exception, because tonight is Game Five, a winner-take-all showdown, between the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles. The Yankees – and I believe this may be the first time I’ve acknowledged any biases here on the blog – are my team. They were my first love as an eight-year-old sports fan in 1998. I remember slamming my head into the floor in frustration when the Yankees fell behind 5-2 to the Padres in Game One of the 1998 World Series. I remember jumping for joy when Tino Martinez – one pitch after a 2-2 shoulda-been strike was deemed low – crushed a grand slam into the right-field seats, giving the Yanks a 9-5 lead just a few innings later en route to a dominant sweep. I remember watching Scott Brosius’ game-winning Game Three home run from the center of my parents’ bed. I remember holding my breath when Mike Piazza sent a fly ball deep into the Shea Stadium night at the end of the 2000 World Series – and then exhaling when Bernie Williams made the play in straightaway center field.
I stifled back tears when Luis Gonzalez blooped a single over the drawn-in infield to end New York’s dream in the epic 2001 Fall Classic. I slammed my finger into the red power button on my remote control as soon as Josh Beckett tagged out Jorge Posada to end the 2003 World Series and threw pillows into the back of my couch. I hid behind a seat in the rear of the morning school bus in 2004 the day after the greatest postseason collapse in history. I agonized in my freshman year common room as Cleveland knocked out the Yankees in the 2007 ALDS, to the delight of Red Sox fans across the dormitory. In 2009, I sprinted back to my suite at Syracuse University’s Watson Hall after starting the night in the Newhouse School’s edit suites, where I had watched Hideki Matsui take the Phillies’ Pedro Martinez deep in the ultimately-decisive Game Six of the World Series. And I jumped into an awkward three-man hug, shrieking with joy, when Mark Teixeira squeezed Robinson Cano’s throw from second base for the series’ final out. (This may be as good a time as any to apologize to the folks directly below us on the third floor. Hope you didn’t have anything hanging from the ceiling.)
The last two years, my love of the Yankees has dipped somewhat, since I’ve worked as a radio broadcaster for the Syracuse Chiefs, the Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals. I’ve become attached to individual players and seen the game of baseball in an entirely new light. And when you’re broadcasting baseball 144 times in a 152-day span – you don’t watch much of the game when you infrequently get time off.
But the Triple-A season has ended in early September in each of the past two seasons, in and each of the past two seasons, I’ve discovered that old habits die hard. I’ve gone home and re-discovered my pinstriped fanhood just in time for October, and here I am again, sitting on the couch, living and dying with every pitch.
So there’s just no chance in the world that I’m writing about anything else tonight…
It seems obvious right away that tonight is going to be miserably agonizing. C.C. Sabathia seems to have decided that nobody on Baltimore is getting on base tonight. That’s good. But Baltimore’s Jason Hammel appears to have come to a similar conclusion. That’s bad. And every curveball low and in looks like a meatball to the Yankees’ hitters.
In the fourth inning, Cano steps in with two outs and nobody on base. He takes a pitch so far out of the strike zone that it seemingly misses by a full dot on TBS’ PitchTrax – and it’s deemed a strike. Cano swings at the next pitch in that same spot, missing badly. He bites on yet another Hammel breaking ball down and in, nowhere near the strike zone, mustering slight contact to foul it away. He then stares at a fastball right down the middle of the zone.
It seems like this will be another feeble night for the Yankees’ bats, with nothing resembling a base runner through four innings. But then the light switch flips on in the fifth inning. Teixeira, having a quietly strong postseason, laces a sharp single to right field. Then, in a series where the unusual has been the norm, something completely bizarre happens. Teixeira, not held on at first base, decides to steal second – and much to the surprise of everyone watching, he does so easily. The last time Teixeira stole a base was on July 6 against Boston, in Game #82. We were still two weeks from The Dark Knight Rises at that point.
Raul Ibanez then strides to the plate – the same Raul Ibanez whom precisely zero Yankee fans seemed to want in the offseason. Had any random New York fan had the chance to replace Brian Cashman as the team’s general manager for a day, either Johnny Damon or Matsui would have been signed to fill the team’s left-handed designated-hitter void. Damon posted a .610 OPS with four home runs in 64 games with Cleveland this year before being released in early August. Matsui batted .147 in 34 games with Tampa Bay before being released in early August. Ibanez delivered a .761 OPS with 19 home runs in 130 games before launching two of the most dramatic postseason home runs in Yankees history a few nights ago. Advantage, Cashman.
Ibanez was moved up to the number five spot in tonight’s lineup, replacing Alex Rodriguez, who was hitless in 12 at-bats against right-handers in the first four games of this series. The pregame chatter focused on Rodriguez, who had said all the right things over the past two nights, after being pinch-hit for by Ibanez and Eric Chavez in back-to-back games. Tonight, Ibanez gives him a chance to say all the right things again. He knocks a ground ball into center field to score Teixeira and give the Yankees a 1-0 lead. The Yankees had been 1 for 28 in their past nine innings, and after two singles and a stolen base, I exhale for the first time in about 18 hours.
Any Yankee fan who feels comfortable at this point, of course, is clinically insane. Not against a Baltimore team that bounced back time and time again this season from in-game and in-division deficits. It felt like the Orioles were boxing on a ring with a trampoline for footing. Thwack to the canvas went Showalter’s gang from game to game. Boing, they sprung up time and time again.
In the sixth inning, Nate McLouth stood in against Yankees ace C.C. Sabathia. For me, this was an extra-scary proposition, as McLouth has held an especially terrifying place in my heart since June 30. He came into that game batting .176 in 20 games with the Norfolk Tides, the Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate. June 30 began a four-game series for the Chiefs against Norfolk, and from that night forward, McLouth decided to make the International League his personal punching bag. He went 3 for 4 with a pair of doubles and two RBIs in that first game. After a day off, he drove in three runs the following night, ending the game with a walkoff, two-out, solo home run in the bottom of the ninth over a rusty right-field wall. He homered again and drove in two runs in a 4-3 Norfolk win in the series finale.
The Tides had to scratch their starting pitcher from three of the four games in the series. The first game started nearly an hour late because the team had some mechanical failure with their incoming flights from Columbus. Two of the four games were bullpen days. One of the games featured a pitcher, called up to compensate for a lack of available arms, making his first ever appearance above Single-A. The Chiefs had entered the series with 11 wins in their past 12 games.
Norfolk swept the four-game series by a combined five runs.
I blame Nate McLouth.
The Tides visited Syracuse again from July 20 to July 23. McLouth played in the final three games. He drove in at least one run in all of those games, including a home run in the series opener. Norfolk won two of the three games that McLouth played in.
So Nate McLouth is standing in against C.C. Sabathia in the left-handed batters’ box and I feel somewhat responsible. I was there when McLouth turned his career around, when a former All-Star who had seemingly forgotten how to hit became Nate The Great, Destroyer of Worlds. I was there with 6,030 fans at Harbor Park in Virginia when the Monstars held out a glowing baseball and McLouth got his hitting back.
And here’s McLouth in a 1-0 winner-take-all game in the Division Series, on the sport’s biggest stage, against C.C. Sabathia, one of the few aces remaining in baseball. And there’s a fly ball deep to right field, and of course it is. He’s done it again, he’s continued his transformation into Roy Hobbs, and all I can do is shake my head and laugh as…wait, that ball’s foul? That wasn’t a fair ball? Are you sure, umpires? Because on initial contact I’m absolutely positive that Nate McLouth had a solo home run to this game at one, and he apparently does not.
After what seems to be 100 replays, I still don’t know. I may never know. I can’t believe it’s possible that in the year 2012, with more cameras and better technology than Isaac Asimov could have dreamed of, we couldn’t know whether a ball down the line was fair or foul, but…I just don’t know.
The umpires keep the call the same, and Sabathia strikes out McLouth, who’s been the absolute best hitter for either side in this series, on the next pitch. It’s at that point where I feel rather confident that the Yankees are going to win this game. Because if Nate McLouth can’t get a hit, who can?
Ichiro Suzuki (am I the only one who uses his last name?) doubles in the sixth inning, and Curtis Granderson homers in the seventh. It’s 3-0 with Sabathia, tossing a one-hitter, on the mound, and I can practically taste the champagne from my living room.
And then the eighth inning happens.
There’s another Oriole outfielder who’s emerged from nowhere this season after tearing up Norfolk – Lew Ford. Ford was 11 for 33 against the Chiefs this season, with three doubles, two home runs and five RBIs in eight games. It seemed like whenever I wasn’t broadcasting McLouth’s heroics, I was talking about another base hit for Ford.
After a 5-1 Norfolk win in Syracuse on July 21, I went over to Ford, who’d gone 2 for 4 with a walk and a two-run home run, for a postgame interview. He looked utterly perplexed. “Me?”, he asked. “Why don’t you want to interview Joe (Mahoney)? He had four hits.” “You had a pretty good game, too”, I responded. With an aw-shucks shrug, he reluctantly agreed to join me on the video board.
And now here’s Ford, who’s aw-shucksed his way from multiple seasons with the Long Island Ducks to a prime spot in a winner-take-all game in the Bronx, with two runners on and one out in the eighth inning. And just as I realize that, oh, yeah, the Orioles don’t go down easily – there’s a ground-ball single into left field, pastadivingJeter. One Robert Andino infield single later, and the bases are loaded with one out in a 3-1 game. And look who’s coming to bat.
The Sultan of Baseball, once again.
But this time, there will be no fair/foul controversy. Sabathia dispatches of McLouth for another strikeout, before J.J. Hardy grounds out to shortstop. Crisis averted.
In the ninth inning, it’s all Sabathia. Adam Jones flies out. Chris Davis strikes out. Matt Wieters grounds out, right back to the big man. None of the three ever stand a chance.
25 miles southeast of a group of 47,000 screaming pinstriped fans amassed into one building, there’s a relaxed fist pump, a high-five with my dad and a smile wider than Mark Everitt’s first-inning strike zone. Yep. Still a Yankees fan.