October 24, 2007

SORRY, STEVE:

Big Papi mojo: The 2004 ALCS, Game 5, bottom of the 14th (An excerpt from Feeding the Monster by Seth Mnookin)

In the bottom of the 14th, Yankees pitcher Esteban Loaiza came out for his fourth inning of work. A bust during the regular season, Loaiza had been unhittable in this game, with a devastating sinker falling off one side of the plate and a wicked cut fastball collapsing on the other. His last three innings of work may have been the best pitched innings of the series thus far. Since entering the game in the 11th with runners on first and second and one out, he’d allowed just one walk. Now, Loaiza struck out Mark Bellhorn to begin the inning, and a pair of walks sandwiched around another strikeout put Johnny Damon on second base and Manny Ramirez on first with two outs. David Ortiz was due up at the plate. A base hit would likely win the game.

As Ortiz walked to the plate, he spit into his batting gloves and then smashed his hands together. As he dug into the batter’s box, he tried to drown out the serenading cries of “PAPI, PAPI,” to ignore the adulatory signs that freckled the Fenway stands. “You want to shut everything down,” he later told Globe’s Chris Snow. “After you shut down all the noise and everything around you, that’s when your concentration comes. That’s when you focus on what you want to do.”

Ortiz is often described as a hitting genius, as if his talent is purely God given. He’s more comfortable than many Latin players talking with and teasing reporters, but English is not his first language, and he often plays the part of the friendly jokester. But Ortiz works on his hitting as much as anyone in baseball. While his teammates are in the field, Ortiz often retreats to the Red Sox’s clubhouse to study his previous at-bats against that night’s pitcher. Ortiz had been preparing for Loaiza ever since he’d taken the mound. “I wasn’t trying to go too crazy with him,” Ortiz said later. Because of Loaiza’s pitches’ late movement, Ortiz said, he “just wanted to stay on the ball longer.”

Loaiza’s first pitch looked hittable, and Ortiz took a monstrous cut, but at the last moment the ball dove down and away, and Ortiz missed. Strike one. A ball and a foul made it 1-2. The Yankees were one strike away from sending the game, which had already taken longer than any postseason game in baseball history, into the 15th inning. The fourth pitch was outside but not by enough for Ortiz to take, and he punched it foul. He hit the next pitch deep enough to be a home run, but it hooked foul into the right field stands. Loaiza followed with another ball, bringing the count even, to 2-2. Ortiz stepped out of the batter’s box.

As Ortiz and Loaiza battled, Fenway was in a complete frenzy. A group of young men just behind home plate had been pounding on the dividing wall that separated the field from the stands since the eighth inning. Down the third base line, ESPN’s Peter Gammons stood, poised by the entrance to the field, as he waited for the game to end so he could run out and collect a few quick on-camera quotes. He’d been standing there for a couple of hours already, ever since the bottom of the eighth, when the Yankees looked as if they were about to put away the game, and the series. Gammons, who’d seen the Red Sox beat the Cincinnati Reds in extra innings in the Sixth Game of the 1975 World Series, couldn’t seem to erase the grin from his face. “Unbelievable,” he occasionally murmured, shaking his head.

Ortiz knew a walk would load the bases, and with Doug Mientkiewicz on deck, he also knew the Yankees would much prefer to pitch to the light-hitting defensive specialist than to the man whose postseason highlight reel seemed to grow with each passing day. At this point, the difference between men on first and second and men on every base was negligible: with two outs, the lead runner would be off on contact in either case, and a base hit would likely win the game regardless of whether Damon was on second or third. Even with two strikes, Ortiz knew Loaiza wasn’t going to give him anything on the fat part of the plate, and the way Loaiza was pitching, he could keep on painting the corners forever. Ortiz dug in, determined to foul off as many pitches as it took until there was one he could handle.

And so Ortiz fouled off the seventh pitch of the at bat, and then the eighth and the ninth. As he stepped out of the batter’s box again, he examined his bat before seizing it by the barrel and smacking it, handle first, into the ground to make sure one of Loaiza’s cutters hadn’t splintered it. Satisfied, he tucked it under his arm, spat into his gloves once more, smacked his hands together again, and settled back in to hit. And on the tenth pitch of David Ortiz’s seventh plate appearance of the night, Loaiza threw a cut fastball in on his hands. Ortiz, no longer swinging for the fences, fisted the ball over Derek Jeter’s head, where it fell in front of center fielder Bernie Williams. On national television, commentator Joe Buck exclaimed, “Damon coming to the plate, he can keep on running to New York. Game 6, tomorrow night!” As Loaiza walked dejectedly off the mound he spit out his gum and took a swat at it with his glove. This had been the best he’d pitched all year, and still Ortiz had beaten him.

It was Ortiz’s second walk-off hit of the series and his third of the postseason; no other player in history had hit more than two in his entire career. Afterwards, Theo Epstein said, “It might be the greatest game ever played. I’d like to hear other nominations…. That might have been one of the greatest at-bats to end the greatest game ever played.” Pedro Martinez, who’d made headlines in September after referring to the Yankees as “my daddy” after a tough loss to New York, said simply, “The Yankees need to think about who’s their Big Papi.”


We who live twixt "Athens and Sparta" have the good fortune to have two excellent recent chronicles of our respective teams that explain the rise of the one (largely because of Theo Epstein & Bill James) and the demise of the other (thanks to the loss of Gene Michael):

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 24, 2007 11:32 AM
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