Meaningful baseball is back in Boston

Meaningful baseball is back in Boston
July 30, 2013, 10:45 am
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For the past few months, we’ve waited for a game to come along and put all of this in perspective. Basically, a game that erases any doubts that this Red Sox season and impending pennant race are real. A game where phrases like “small sample size” and excuses like “Ehh, it’s still early” no longer apply, and one that leaves the Sox with no choice but to stand up, roll up their sleeves, put the women and children to bed and start looking for dinner.

If that game wasn’t last night, I don’t know what we’re waiting for.

It’s been four years since Boston’s had a taste of playoff baseball (a fact that’s almost as unfortunate as my use of “taste”). It’s been two years since there’s been something to be excited about even this late in the season (unless you count clubhouse mutinies and one-time only specials on brick sales). But last night at Fenway, whether you were in the stands or stuck at home, the energy was unmistakable; baseball — real, meaningful baseball — is back. And even in defeat, or maybe because of defeat, there’s a different air surrounding the Sox this morning. Whether it’s the view from second place or the fast-approaching trade deadline, the urgency that we’ve spent months denying has officially arrived.

As has the recently absent, albeit very familiar mental torture that comes with living and dying with late-season baseball. The second-guessing. The what-ifs. All the things that could’ve happened but didn’t, that shouldn’t have happened but did. Above all else, the knowledge that, in the end, all that matters and all that anyone will ever remember is the final score.

Take last night’s eighth inning. A classic case of baseball reeking absolute havoc on your brain.

After all, the Sox would have and should have tied the game if not for a lazy and bogus call by umpire Jerry Meals. Then again, Means would have never been put in that position if not for Daniel Nava’s pathetic base-running on Stephen Drew’s double. But Nava would have never been in that position if not for John Farrell’s questionable decision to pinch-run Nava over Jose Iglesias after Ryan Lavarnway doubled off Joel Peralta. Neither Farrell nor Lavarnway would have been in their positions if not for a half hour rain delay that ultimately knocked untouchable David Price out of action. Untouchable David Price would’ve never been in that position if not for a rain out last Thursday. Hell, the Sox never would have been in position to tie the game in the eighth if rookie Brandon Snyder had registered one of the cheapest home runs in Major League history two innings before.

(Hold on. Just need a second to clean my the remnants of my brain off the keyboard.)

The Sox came up short in the eighth, but made another run in the ninth. Jacoby Ellsbury led off with a single, and that was followed by the frustration of Shane Victorino failing to bunt him over, followed by the realization that Victorino’s failure didn’t matter (Ellsbury stole second anyway). Dustin Pedroia (now 0 for his last 15) hit a routine grounder to shortstop (and damn near beat it out) for the second out of the inning, David Ortiz was granted his AL-leading 15th intentional walk of the season, was pinch run for (finally!) Iglesias, and the stage was set for Mike Napoli and the latest in what has become a season of walk-off heroics for the Sox.

He struck out.

And Sox fans went to sleep angry.

But today brings new life, and the beginning of what we’ve been waiting for all along. The fact that that anger even existed marks start of something special; the death of the small sample size and the “eh, it’s still early” excuse. The long awaited return of meaningful late-season baseball, even if, to be honest, the wait wasn’t all that long, and we’re still not all that late into the season. Regardless, the switch has flipped and the living and dying has commenced.

In the immediate future, it might be hard to match the intensity of these last 10 games, where the Sox found themselves in a perpetual battle for AL East supremacy with the Yankees, Rays and Orioles. Starting tonight, they host the Mariners and Diamondbacks for three games a piece, then head on the road for three against the Quadruple-A Astros, four in Kansas City and then three up north against the reeling Blue Jays, before returning to Fenway for another series with the Yankees. But from here on out, the opponent doesn’t matter. Every game is a battle for AL East supremacy. Every night is a match-up with the Rays, the Yankees, the Orioles and every other team with dream of playing into October. Ben Cherington will be faced with the decisions that define his legacy. Slumps and injuries are no longer simply inevitable hardships that a team must withstand over the course of a long season. Instead, slumps and injuries will now define seasons and alter the course of baseball history. For fans in Boston, it simultaneously opens the door for unspeakable highs and mind-numbing lows.

But after everything that’s transpired over at Fenway these last few years, just the opportunity to feel anything is more than worth it.