In ALCS drama, Red Sox seek encore

Boston, which finished season 40-15 after Aug. 7, needs another comeback


October 15, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

BOSTON - This isn't the first time this year the Boston Red Sox have felt their shoulders pinned against the mat by the heavyweight New York Yankees.

This isn't the first time they've heard Red Sox Nation gasp.

Trailing 2-0 in the American League Championship Series, and heading into Game 3 tonight at Fenway Park with mounting concerns, the Red Sox are in an all-too familiar position.

They are desperate, yet still determined, and they know it's about time somebody stuck a big fat mitt in some pretty-boy Yankee's face.

That's what happened July 24 - the day that changed Boston's season. That's when Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek took his catcher's mitt and stuck it right in Alex Rodriguez's face, igniting a benches-clearing brawl.

"That," said Red Sox first baseman Kevin Millar, "might have been the one day that kind of turned the team."

It all started on a gloomy Saturday morning. The Yankees had defeated the Red Sox, 8-7, the night before at Fenway, and the newspaper standings showed a Boston team with a 52-44 record trailing New York by 9 1/2 games in the AL East standings.

Overnight storms left a muddy mess on the field, and though the rains had cleared, the afternoon rematch against the Yankees seemed in doubt. Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said he had the usual concerns about the players' safety, if they had to play on a wet field.

But Millar, Varitek and the boys were adamant.

"We walked into the office and said, `We're not canceling this game,'" Millar said. "We walked in and told the ground crew and front office, `We're playing. Get the field ready. We don't care how long we're going to wait.'

"They did, and that turned into an amazing game."

Trailing 1-0 in the third inning, Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo drilled Rodriguez with a pitch on his left arm.

Of all the characters in the Fenway theater that day - from the king-like Derek Jeter to the jester-like Manny Ramirez to the diva-like Pedro Martinez - that moment could not have included a more central player to the rivalry.

The Red Sox nearly completed a trade for Rodriguez last December, one that would have sent Ramirez to the Texas Rangers, but the players union stepped in and killed it because Rodriguez was willing to compromise on his $252 million contract.

Then Aaron Boone, whose 11th-inning home run had defeated the Red Sox in Game 7 of last year's epic ALCS, went down with a knee injury in a pickup basketball game. All of a sudden it was the Yankees - not the Red Sox - who had completed a deal for Rodriguez.

Three months into this new chapter of his life, Rodriguez had barely made an impact against the Red Sox. And when Arroyo hit him in the arm, he picked that moment to take his stand.

Rodriguez began jawing at Arroyo, inching his way toward the mound as he slowly moved down the first-base line. Varitek sprung from his catcher position and immediately got between the two, repeatedly telling Rodriguez, "Go to first base!"

But Arroyo, who will start Game 3 tonight, wasn't backing down and Rodriguez kept yapping, so Varitek finally took both hands and reached for his neck.

The picture of that moment, with Rodriguez getting the taste of fine leather, still serves as the screensaver on one of two computers the Red Sox keep in their clubhouse to work with their video equipment.

Five players were ejected from that game, including Varitek and Rodriguez, each of whom drew a four-game suspension.

But the Red Sox took the lead with two runs later that inning, and after entering the ninth trailing 10-8, they came back again to win, 11-10, with three runs in the ninth, capped by Bill Mueller's two-run, walk-off homer against Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.

Seven days after the fight, the Red Sox traded franchise shortstop Nomar Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs, and starting on Aug. 7, Boston went 40-15 to finish the season.

So now, here they are in deep trouble again. They entered the ALCS with a supposed edge in starting pitching, but Curt Schilling has an injured ankle and Martinez has a growing complex about his ability to beat the Yankees. Yesterday, the Red Sox announced Derek Lowe will take Schilling's place in Game 5, and Schilling's availability for the rest of the postseason is doubtful.

Then there's the offense.

The Red Sox scored 949 runs this season, and no other team in baseball scored more than 900, but the supposedly inferior New York starters have made Boston's hitters look silly.

With one out in the seventh inning of Game 1, the Red Sox had yet to reach base against Mike Mussina. At the same point in Game 2, they had one hit against Jon Lieber.

Boston leadoff hitter Johnny Damon is 0-for-8 in the series with five strikeouts, while Mark Bellhorn and Kevin Millar are each 1-for-8, meaning they've done a poor job putting people on base for their two big sluggers, Ramirez and David Ortiz.

Beyond their impressive comeback in Game 1, when they trimmed an 8-0 lead to 8-7 after the sixth inning, the Red Sox haven't shown many reasons why Las Vegas oddsmakers listed them as favorites coming into the series.

There's an old saying about letting sleeping dogs lie, but Yankees manager Joe Torre said he has no regrets about the way Rodriguez handled himself on July 24.

Said Torre: "I don't look at these guys like sleeping dogs."

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