My first live game action of the season comes almost at the end of May, which is a pretty bad sign in and of itself, and comes out of the zoo that is Yankees/Red Sox at the Stadium. I was prepared for the worst. Arriving mere minutes before first pitch, I didn't bother with a scorecard, and went directly to mine and Brother J's seats up in the extreme leftfield side of the loge level.
[By the way, where does this "loge level" thing come from? I've heard of mezzanines, 1st and 2nd decks, all sorts of stuff, but Yankee Stadium is the only place I can think of with a "loge."]
The game started off badly, with Robinson Cano making an error on an easy grounder from Johnny Damon, practically before the Bleacher creatures had finished their roll call. Randy Johnson went on to walk the bases loaded before inducing a Kevin Millar flyout that would end the inning.
In the bottom of the first, things were pretty typical of a Yanks/Tim Wakefield matchup. The buys were getting nowhere. Wakefield retired the side in order in the first, allowed a couple of baserunners in the second (walk to A-Rod, single by Posada) but got out of it, and escaped two man on jams in the third and fourth. Through four innings, the Big Unit was matching Wakefield's zeros, but looked like a less dominant pitcher. He wasn't finding the strike zone, and when the Sox swung, they were putting good wood on the ball. The new pitch scoreboard (which tells the crowd the hurler's pitch count, as well as the velocity and type of most pitches) had the Unit's fastball in the 94-97 range, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was some puffery going on. It really didn't look like Johnson was hitting the high 90's. Also, he was throwing LOTS of sliders.
In the fifth, Johnson was actually looking better than he had in previous innings when things went wrong. After a leadoff single to Renteria, Johnson retired both David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, and looked good doing so. He was at two strikes on Jason Varitek, with the crowd standing and clapping for the strikeout, when Varitek launched one to center, 2-0 Red Sox.
However, the Yanks came back the very next inning, with Derek Jeter stretching an extra base hit into a triple, to lead off the inning. After Tony Womack grounded out to score Jeter, the Yanks loaded the bases, with Sheffield walking, A-Rod getting hit by a pitch, and Tino Martinez drawing a walk. This definitely felt like the inning to "get" Wakefield. Still, Wakefield was bailed out when Jorge Posada got under a ball for a harmless fly to right.
Starting the sixth on such a letdown, and with Randy Johnson up over 90 pitches at the beginning of the inning...let's say things didn't look good. With one out, Jay Payton doubled, followed by a single to Hideki Matsui. Payton didn't score out of respect for Matsui's arm, and justifiably so: Matsui threw an absolute rocket to the plate.
[I'm going to interrupt for a small note on outfield defense. I don't know the numbers on this, but it's strange the way you notice Matsui's defensive superiority to Bernie Williams, at this stage in the game. Yankee fans tensed up on just about every fly ball to center, even though Matsui handled most of them as routine chances. After one of these, I turned to Brother J and told him "We've been conditioned to expect bad things" by Bernie Williams' deteriorating play in center over the years. Matsui isn't going to make anyone forget Paul Blair, but he's a damn sight closer to average than Bernabe.
In left, Tony Womack's arm is a different kind of problem than Bernie's. Womack throws weakly, but on a line, compared to the Bernie Williams lollypop throw special. Still, you could see the Yankees infielders straying out further than usual to catch relays from Womack, and Renteria's double to Womack in the third, things were kind of ridiculous, with Jeter out in mid left field for the cutoff, and Cano looking more worried about an inaccurate throw by Tony than about trying to nail the runner at second.
Thanks for sticking with me on this. It'll fit in in a second.]
So with men on first and third, and one out, Johnny Damon singles to plate Jay Payton, and extend the Red Sox lead, 3-1. It's now obvious that Johnson has nothing. Once upon a time, you couldn't pay a lefty batter to dig in there the way that Damon did against Johnson. Is Randy hurt? Maybe--it seemed to me at times that Johnson's left leg (that's the one where he still has cartilage in his knee) was dragging, particularly when he went to cover home as Payton scored. On the other hand, I look at the recent success of Javier Vazquez, and I wonder if Stottlemyre isn't somehow involved in this.
Anyway, things were getting worse. Renteria ropes another single out to left. Womack's charging, and the Red Sox have already decided to send runners on Womack's arm. Womack's throw is a Vince Coleman special, a low-line ten-hopper. I don't know if this made any difference to Bellhorn, but Alex Rodriguez then pulls one of the most convincing decoys that I've ever seen, to the point where I almost missed the play at the plate, thinking that the ball had been cut off. The ball then took a couple more bounces past Rodriguez, to meet Jorge Posada rather perfectly at the plate.
The jam's not over yet, however. Two on and two out, and David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez coming up. Tanyon Sturtze is feverishly warming in the pen, but he isn't coming in to face Ortiz. Ortiz hits a hard grounder up the middle, on which Cano makes a spectacular play to knock it down. That should have been enough to save the run, but with Ramirez on deck, Damon decides to go running home. Fortunately, that crazyy long hair of his must create drag and slow Johnny down at times like these. Cano recovered the ball, and made a strong throw to the plate to end the Boston rally.
With those two plays at the plate, I've never seen such a clearly defined turning point to a game. Bernie Williams walked against a still-shaky Wakefield, and Cano followed up on his top of the inning heroics by blasting a flat knuckler out to right center. Jeter then chased Wakefield with a single, bringing in Alan Embree to face Womack. Just Embree can't stop Womack from getting on, and Francona doesn't pull Embree with Sheffield, Matsui, and A-Rod coming up. Big Mistake.
Sheff puts one in the upper deck. Yanks up, 6-3.
After Tanyon Sturtze pitches a scoreless seventh, Torre starts to manage a little. Sturtze takes the mound to start the eighth, but that's just to make Francona substitute Trot Nixon for Jay Payton. Once Francona makes the switch, Buddy Groom comes on to retire Nixon and Johnny Damon, sandwiched around a single to Bellhorn. Tom Gordon is then brought on to strike out Edgar Renteria.
A scoreless bottom of the eighth later, we're conditioned to expect the opening strings of "Enter Sandman" as Mariano Rivera comes out for the save. In what has become a controversial move, Gordon stayed in to face David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, with mixed results--he struck out Ortiz but walked the Pride of Washington Heights. Now Rivera was brought in, to face Jason Varitek--a guy who belted him for a game-tying homer in the second game of the season-- and Kevin Millar and Bill Mueller--both guys who have hit Rivera pretty hard in the past.
Rivera handled it pretty well, striking out Varitek and Mueller, with a rope single by the Fried Chicken Man in between. Still, questions persisted about why Torre held Rivera out at the beginning of the ninth. Torre has proclaimed that he wanted to give Rivera the night off, after he pitched in the last two games of the Tigers series (since the Yanks didn't play on Thrusday, that would mean Torre's worried about Rivera pitching three times over the course of four days [UPDATE: as mentioned by commenter Cliff below, there was no off-day on Thursday...I stand before you a humbled conspiracy theorist]) on the other hand, Rivera claims that no one told him he had the night off, and that not getting the call in the ninth was a surprise.
Wrapping up, Friday night at the stadium was the weakest that theYanks/Sox rivalry felt in a long time. Even though the Yanks won, and cheers of "Boston Sucks!" rang out on the ramps heading out of the Stadium, the Boston fans in attendance weren't deflated, or fighting drunk. A good number of them carried little smiles. I remember those smiles, because they were the same ones I used to carry whenever the Yanks lost a regular season tilt with the Sox.
Those smiles say "but we've got your number." At least for a moment in May, this rivalry is a shell of what it once was.