Game 26: May 1, 2006
Yankees (13-11), 3
Red Sox (15-11), 7
L: Aaron Small (0-1)
W: Mike Timlin (3-0)
With all the hype around the returns of Johnny Damon and Doug Mirabelli, the real story of the evening eluded attention. Incendiary closer Jonathan Papelbon locked horns with fireballer Kyle Farnsworth in an MLB 2K6 duel. The Red Sox won 4-2 by virtue of Papelbon’s pair of homers in the visitor’s half of the ninth. As the virtual game took place in Yankee Stadium, the rookie closer brought himself in to shut down the Yankees in the bottom of the final inning for the win. The last time I saw something as odd was when Paul Pierce was doing a promotion at the Burlington Mall Electronics Boutique a few years ago. Playing oneself in a video game must be the ultimate ego trip.
Seemingly in a panicked state, the Red Sox traded Josh Bard, Cla Meredith, and either cash or a player to be named later to San Diego for backup catcher Mirabelli. As details emerged, Theo Epstein had been in contact with the Padres as early as a week ago to retrieve the erstwhile backstop.
Mirabelli hopped on a plane from San Francisco to Logan Airport, where a police detail awaited him. He dressed into his home whites in the state police utility vehicle that swerved into the player’s parking lot just in time to return to his role as Tim Wakefield’s battery mate. As much as I appreciate Mirabelli for all that he has done and probably will do for the team, San Diego played the heartstrings of the Red Sox while tampering with their purse strings for this sweetheart deal.
Furthermore, it was reported that the Yankees also attempted to finagle Mirabelli from the Padres. In no other division would there be such a tussle over a backup catcher.
So, given the strained relations between the two titans of the AL East, it should come as no surprise that former Red Sox center fielder Damon had scorn heaped upon him like no other. At least Roger Clemens had those intervening years with the Blue Jays. With Damon, there was no buffer. For all that he did for the Red Sox from 2002 to 2005, Damon received minimal positive acknowledgment in his first at bat and was lustily mocked throughout the game. Damon did tip his helmet when he led off the first.
Fans were tremendously creative with their demonstrations against Damon. One had a sign upon which Damon, with his formerly bedraggled locks, looked a bit like Charles Manson. Instead of the swastika, there was the “interlocking NY” logo. Bleacher fans slung fake money onto the warning track. The fitful wind toyed with the replica bills just as it did the fly balls that dared exit the field.
The teams entered the opening game neck and neck in the standings. The even matching of the clubs played out on the field as the score was tied for two late innings.
The Red Sox took an early lead in the first inning. Kevin Youkilis walked on four straight balls from Chien-Ming Wang; the first baseman advanced to second on Mark Loretta’s ground out to second. With the shift on, David Ortiz took a pitch to the opposite field to drive in Youkilis. This would not be the last we would hear from the Red Sox designated hitter.
Wang seemed to have a Contrerian moment; he walked the next two batters to load the bases. The young pitcher was bailed out by Miguel Cairo’s fielding of a Mike Lowell hit, which he deftly relayed to home for the second out of the inning. Bubba Crosby dove for a last second nab of Wily Mo Peña’s liner to right and Wang would live to see another four innings of work.
Despite his defensive prowess, Crosby hobbled his team’s chances in the third inning with an ill-advised theft attempt with Damon at the dish. Mirabelli gunned Crosby out at second base. Wakefield showcased remarkably spaz-free running with his fielding of Damon’s grounder for the third and final out of that inning as the knuckleballer managed to tag the Yankee center fielder in a scurry down the first base line.
But New York would wrest away the lead in the fourth inning. Derek Jeter led off with a single and Wakefield walked the next two batters to load the bases. Singles by Hideki Matsui and Robinson Cano would generate three runs. It appeared Loretta could have knocked down Cano’s grounder up the middle, but the Red Sox second baseman would redeem himself multiple times by the end of the game.
Alex Cora ably demonstrated the art of the drag bunt to lead off the fifth. Youkilis arced a hit into right field but Loretta’s bunt attempt resulted in Cora being forced out at third. Ortiz again wore out the left field, this time to load the bases. Manny Ramirez mirrored Ortiz’s opposite field strategy to drive in Youkilis. Trot Nixon’s ground ball would plate Loretta to even the run tally.
Defensive gems kept Boston in the game. Loretta aborted a possible Jason Giambi leadoff base hit in the sixth, nimbly nabbing a liner while playing deep in the shift. In the eighth, the home team turned a superb double play. Giambi grounded to Loretta who niftily tossed to Youkilis. For some reason, perhaps to deke the infielders, Jeter overshot second base. Cora immediately noted Jeter’s misplay and blocked second base from the shortstop’s attempted return.
The Yankees bullpen unraveled in the bottom of the eighth. Aaron Small began the inning promisingly enough by inducing Mirabelli to ground out to second. He then walked Cora on four consecutive balls. Willie Harris, reprising the role of Dave Roberts, pinch ran for Cora. After two pickoffs, Small nailed Youkilis in the elbow, prompting Joe Torre to call on Tanyon Sturtze for relief.
Worcester’s own Sturtze didn’t provide the needed ministration; Loretta delivered a ground ball single to center field. Ironically enough, it was a grounder that Cano could have knocked down, just like the hit Loretta permitted in the fourth.
Very few men could overpower the stiff breeze in last night, and Ortiz proved he was one of them. Mike Myers was brought in the eighth for the express purpose of getting Ortiz out. The sidearm lefty fell behind in the count 2-0, throwing gingerly to the paradigm of designated hitters. Ortiz let the third pitch cross the plate for the strike. If hitters do set up pitchers, this situation certainly felt like a frame job. Myers hurled another ball while Ortiz placidly observed his quarry. Big Papi fouled off one pitch before recalibrating and jacking the sixth pitch into the Red Sox bullpen. Papelbon, who would come into the ninth inning and pitch yet another scoreless inning, caught the ball and gave a fortunate fan a souvenir.
I have tickets to tonight’s game, but I wonder if it will be played. Even if it isn’t, memories of last night will suffice until the next series in the middle of this month. The only pity is that Wakefield did not pick up the win despite going seven innings with a line of four hits, three earned runs, three walks, and two strikeouts. And some may say it was because of Wakefield’s confidence in Mirabelli behind the plate, or that the Yankees always fall prey to the flittering knuckleball, or even because of the emphatic gusts of the night. But getting run support, albeit late, is the primary reason Wakefield had a chance to chalk up his second win of the season.