Another Tropicana nightmare for the Red Sox

Another Tropicana nightmare for the Red Sox
October 8, 2013, 12:45 pm
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I don’t know. Maybe it’s just something about that stadium. If you can even call it a stadium. Either way, you might also call it a fun house meets a mini-golf course meets an elementary school jungle gym. Or, if you’re the Boston Red Sox, you can call it a reoccurring postseason house of horror.
 
It’s where they fell short in Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS — a series in which the Sox were favored despite the absence of home field advantage. It’s where they were officially ushered into the hell of chicken, beer and painkillers in 2011 (albeit from a distance) on an Evan Longoria home run that wasn’t all that different from the three-run job he hit on Monday night. It’s where, again on Monday, Jose Lobaton, a lifetime .228 hitter with only nine home runs in 564 career plate appearances, jacked a game-winning blast over the right-centerfield fence — into a fittingly bizarre 10,000 gallon sting ray tank on the other side — off a pitcher who hadn’t allowed a homerun since June and whom I swear is no less than 50 percent extra-terrestrial.
 
It’s Tropicana Field. Where the Sox will find themselves again tonight, with a chance to either step up like they have at essentially every turn this season and transform last night’s frustrating 5-4 loss into an instant, distant memory . . . or, lose for the second straight day and fly back to Boston for Thursday’s Game 5 with the pressure of an entire season (actually, two or three seasons) weighing heavy on their beards. With the pesky Rays, who live to be left for dead, ready to send the Nerd Slayer back out to the mound and scrap like hell to do what they always seem to do: Survive.
 
But back to last night. Even before Lobaton’s unlikely heroics, the entire ninth inning — and really, the whole night — was about as normal as a Vegas road trip with Hunter S. Thompson. Not that you particularly care to relive it, but . . .
 
It started with Rays closer Fernando Rodney on the mound, the Sox down 4-3, and Will Middlebrooks (who’d drawn only three walks in 89 September at-bats) walking on five pitches. Jacoby Ellsbury was next, and Rodney quickly fell behind 2-0. So . . . Ellsbury was obviously going to take a pitch.
 
Of course, he didn’t. Instead he swung at the next offering and somehow blooped single down the left field line. It was the kind of BS base hit that we’ve seen turn many a baseball playoff game (see: Jeter x 100) over the years. On a normal night, it probably would have.
 
Next, Shane Victorino bunted Ellsbury and Xander Bogaerts (who’d pinch run for Middlebrooks) over to second and third, respectively. So . . . with one out, first base open, Dustin Pedroia at the plate and pinch hitter Mike Carp on deck, the Rays were obviously going to intentionally walk Pedroia.
 
Of course, they didn’t. Instead, they pitched to him and Pedroia grounded out to shortstop, scored Boegarts and tied the game at 4. That brought Carp to the dish with two outs and the go-ahead run at second. Ball 1. Ball 2. Ellsbury steals third. Ball 3. So . . . facing a 3-0 count, with Mike Napoli on deck, you figure Carp might take a pitch.
 
Of course, he didn’t. Carp fouled off a 3-0 fastball and then — in another move that went against expectation and everything we’ve come to know and love about Chris Elliot’s illegitimate son — he kept the bat on his shoulders for strikes two and three.
 
And it was on to the bottom of the ninth.
 
Koji Uehara took the mound, ready to bring everyone and everything back to Earth because that’s what Koji Uehara does. Not even Tropicana’s freaky voodoo could mess with that. In five appearances at the stadium this season, Uehara had pitched 5.2 innings, faced 19 batters, allowed one hit, one walk and zero runs while striking out seven.
 
First up, was acclaimed God Bless America singer Julianna Zobrist’s husband Ben, and he quickly grounded out to first. One pitch. One out. Koji being Koji. Next up was Longoria, and in just about any other potential walk-off scenario, his mere presence would have left Sox fans squirming, as if they had that entire tank of sting rays feeding inside their underwear. But then again . . . Koji.
 
The first pitch to Longoria was — gasp! — a ball, and in retrospect, maybe this was a sign. Like when Donnie missed his strike right before dropping dead in the Big Lebowski, maybe this one little glimpse of imperfection should have tipped us off that something wasn’t right. On the other hand, on the next pitch, Longoria flew out to center. Three pitches. Two outs. Koji being Koji.
 
Now, in stepped Lobaton. A character so random and unknown that I’m still unable to spell his name without triple-checking the box score. The first pitch was swinging strike, and then, as fast as your brain could ask “Hey, who do the Sox have coming up in the 10th?” it happened:
 
Pitch, smack, splash.
 
Lobaton being Lobaton.
 
A classic, crazy-yet-somehow-entirely-predictable Tropicana twist at Boston’s personal postseason house of pain.
 
Looking back, this was obviously a game that the Sox could have won. Up 3-0 in the fifth inning, with the ALCS in sight and Clay Buchholz’s 1.74 ERA on the mound, it’s a game they should have won. And, as usual, the morning after is open season for second-guessing and lamenting over what could have been.
 
You can start with Buchholz leaving that pitch on a platter for Longoria — the one guy in that lineup (well, aside from hard-hitting Jose Lobaton) against whom you just can’t make that mistake. You can wonder if Buchholz might have been in a better position to battle Longoria if he hadn’t thrown 20 extra pitches the inning before, after a Zobrist routine pop up resulted in a bogus cat walk do-over. You can wonder what the hell got into Dustin Pedroia in the bottom of the eighth, when he made two wildly uncharacteristic mental errors — 1) not covering first base on Desmond Jennings’ bunt single and 2) carelessly throwing himself at Yuniel Escobar’s groundball up the middle and breaking up a potential inning ending double play — that had a heavy hand in producing Tampa’s fourth run.
 
Then there’s the John Farrell category: You can wonder if he should have pinch run for David Ortiz in the top of the eighth, especially when — naturally — Ortiz’s spot eventually came back up with the game on the line in the ninth. You can wonder how much worse that decision would have looked had second base umpire Mike Winters not so flagrantly blown the call on Quintin Berry’s subsequent stolen base attempt that he’s since been offered a lifetime contract by the NBA. You can wonder why, after pulling Ortiz and going all in on bringing that run home, Farrell then left both Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Stephen Drew in to predictably fall flat on their face against lefty Jake McGee.
 
But honestly, while all that talk is good for killing time between now and tonight’s first pitch, at this point, it’s pretty useless. After all, this is baseball. It’s playoff baseball. It’s two teams with a history of playing nonsensical and borderline insane games, in a stadium that breeds nonsense and insanity. And anyway, if you thought last night was crazy, just wait until tonight. This thing’s going to be nuttier than the spawn of drunken lovefest between Gary Busey and Amanda Bynes.
 
You know Joe Maddon’s going to pull out all the stops. America’s oldest hipster will play this game like it’s his favorite Boz Scaggs album and be bop the hell out of his lineup card. Jeremy Hellickson might be the starter, but his leash will be shorter than the ghost of Nelson de la Rosa. If he struggles, you’ll see Matt Moore, Chris Archer (he’s the one who scares me the most) and every pitcher on the roster not named David Price. In general, Rays fans might be a joke, but they’ll suck it up for one more night and spit cowbell-induced fire for nine innings or however long it takes. This Tampa team has nothing left to lose, and history’s shown that that’s when they’re most dangerous.
 
And while very recent history, and all the maybes from last night, might leave you to question whether the Sox can deliver a Game 4 death blow, take a step back and remember what we have here. Who this team is. What they represent. All the crap they’ve faced and overcome since Day 1. Moving forward, are you really worried about Dustin Pedroia’s mindset or Koji’s ability to slam the door? After six months of obsessing over the wonders of John Farrell, you really believe that his decision-making currently stands as a major hurdle between the Sox and the ALCS? That’s not to say that he’ll be perfect, I’m just saying that outside of Bobby Valentine, the perfect manager doesn’t exist. This isn’t on the manager. This is on the team. The players.
 
And that’s good news for Boston, because they are the better team.
 
This is still their series to lose. Even if tonight doesn’t turn out well. Even if they fly into Boston early tomorrow morning with yet another painful memory from that painful excuse for a stadium. They’ve earned the right to bring it back here for Game 5 on Thursday. They’ve earned complete faith in their ability to take care of business back home at Fenway.
 
Let’s just hope they don’t need it.
 
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