One Win Away From the World Series

One Win Away From the World Series
October 18, 2013, 12:15 pm
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The whole scene only took about three seconds to unfold, but in real time it felt like forever. Or, comparatively speaking, the time it takes for Miguel Cabrera to run from second base to home plate —

First, the pitch shot out from of Koji Uehara’s right arm. Next, it connected with Jose Iglesias’ bat. And finally, it landed softly in Dustin Pedroia’s glove, marking the 27th and final out in another wild Red Sox win.

Final score: Boston 4, Detroit 3.

In the immediate aftermath, Uehara’s celebration was more subdued than usual. He didn’t explode off the mound and fly into his catcher’s arms. Instead, Koji waited for David Ross to make his way out to the bump, greeted him with an emphatic hug and the look of a man who’d just been rescued from the top floor of a burning building. Like everyone who’d just lived through the previous nine innings, whether as a player in the thick of the insanity or as a fan back home on the couch, desperate for a clean pair of underwear, Uehara needed a second to not only process what had just happened, but also rejoice in the simple fact that it did. After all, the 38-year-old had already saved 24 games this season, 71 games dating back to his previous life in Japan, and nothing could have matched the emotions associated with the five outs he needed to slam the door on Thursday night.

Like each one that came before it, Game 5 of the ALCS was unlike anything you’ve ever seen. A random mishmash of the best, worst and weirdest that baseball has to offer. While the game itself may not have entirely exceeded the craziness that this series has consistently delivered, it was a craziness all its own. Like a bipolar snowflake.

The first two innings featured two separate home plate collisions, and an unprecedented 17 references (all courtesy of Tim McCarver) to Xander Bogaerts’ childhood in Aruba. The top of the second brought back-to-back doubles from the Sox No. 8 and 9 hitters, an infield single and just your average 900-foot home run off the AL’s ERA king.

The surge gave the Sox an early 3-0 lead; their largest of the series. But beyond that, it accomplished a few other things: First, it brought Anibal Sanchez down to Earth and ensured that the superhero confidence built up over his dominant Game 1 start wouldn’t carry over into this one. Also, it was a message to Jon Lester: “Hey, buddy. Sorry we left you hanging last Saturday. But here’s a fat little cushion to get you started tonight.”

The third inning was highlighted by one of the best catches you’ll ever see from a shortstop. It’s a play that I’d categorize as one-of-kind if not for the likelihood that Jose Iglesias will spend the next decade or so making plays like that look routine. It’s also a play that was overshadowed by the Sox picking up another run, on a two-out wild pitch, with their de facto pitcher’s spot* standing at the plate. And it was 4-0 Boston after three. (*Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Stephen Drew!)

That was the last run Boston scored all night. In fact, over the last five innings, only three Sox runners found their way into scoring position, with only one advancing as far as third. Meanwhile, the Tigers commenced chipping away — a process defined by a handful of promising rallies and a trio of devastating double plays.

The first one, off the pinch-hit bat of Brayan Peña, ended things in the fourth. The Tigers got a run back in the fifth on Miguel Cabrera’s RBI single, and another in the sixth when Peña knocked in Victor Martinez. At this point, Lester had already been run from the game. His final line: 5.1 innings, seven hits, three strikeouts, three walks and two earned runs. And what you see there is pretty much what the Sox got. There were no nuances to Lester’s performance. He was OK, but far from great. Solid, but not spectacular. After Lester, John Farrell handed the ball to Junichi Tazawa, the first time since June 23 that he’d gone to his unofficial set-up man prior to the seventh inning. And on the heels of Peña’s RBI single, Tazawa was in trouble. First and second, with one out and Austin Jackson, who I believe had reached safely in his previous 250 at-bats, at the plate.

Double play No. 2. Inning over.

There was more trouble in the seventh, as Iglesias and Torii Hunter collected back-to-back singles, putting runners on first and third with the scariest man this side of Cyrus the Virus standing in the box:

That’s Cabrera, who knocked in Detroit’s third run, but did so by way of yet another double play. And thus ended one of the most bizarre pitching lines in ALCS history. Junichi Tazawa: Five batter faced, three hits, two double plays.

Craig Breslow came in and retired Prince Fielder, who had this point couldn’t get a hit off of Craig T. Nelson, and the inning was over. Breslow then retired Victor Martinez to lead off the bottom of the eighth, and with five outs now standing between the Sox and a series altering victory, Farrell turned to Koji.

Jhonny Peralta went down swinging. Omar Infante went down swinging. Uehara reemerged for the ninth, three outs from the finish. Peña flew out to left on the fourth pitch. Jackson flew out to center on the second pitch. Finally, in stepped Iglesias, who eventually popped out to Pedroia and that was that. Game over. Uehera waited on Ross, took his personal moment of reflection, and after making peace with what could have been, Koji, along with the entire population of Red Sox Nation, was ready to embrace what was — another Boston victory . . . their second in three days at Comerica . . . and a 3-2 lead in the ALCS.

Uehara finally let go of Ross, hit Mike Napoli (he of the 900-foot blast) with a flying chest bump, found David Ortiz, jumped into his arms and celebrated with a roaring set of Dominican Butt Bongo Fiesta. The Sox walked off the field together, into the dugout, the clubhouse and then on to the airport for their flight home — where the opportunity of a lifetime awaits back at Fenway.

They play these series — the ALCS and the NLCS — to determine the best team in each league. And when all’s said and done, you can usually take a step back, look at everything that transpired over the course of the six or seven or however many games, and say, “Yeah, that’s right. This all makes sense.” You can point to specifics, a series of tangible reasons why one team advanced and is more deserving of that spot on the game’s biggest stage. Like, “Yes! This is the better team! Baseball got it right.” But through five games of this ALCS, I’m not sure the better team exists yet, if at all. Right now, you get the sense that the Sox and Tigers could play an entire 162 game season and split it right down the middle with a run differential of zero.

To this point, the biggest names — Pedroia, Ortiz, Buchholz, Lester, Scherzer, Verlander, Fielder and to a lesser extent, relative to his body of work, Cabrera — have had the least impact on the bottom line. Sure, they’ve had their moments, Verlander and Scherzer were both outstanding, but save for Ortiz’s Game 2 grand slam, show me something any of those guys have done that’s made a substantial positive difference in the final score. Any final score. You can’t. Nope. Instead of big names, this has been a series defined by tiny bounces, random outliers and two bombs from one of the streakiest hitters to come through Boston in years.

Moving forward, the Tigers can build faith on stellar starting pitching, and in Scherzer and Verlander, couldn’t ask for two better arms to lean on with the season hanging in the balance. Then again, Scherzer and Verlander were the starters in two of Detroit’s three losses.

The Sox have found success on the strength of their bullpen, which has allowed only one earned run in 17 innings this ALCS. But while Uehara’s earned a lifetime of trust, Breslow and Tazawa are, in many ways, still Breslow and Tazawa. You feel better about them right now than you have at any point this season, but you could stand to feel a little better. An appearance by either in a critical situation isn’t complete without the overwhelming urge to bury yourself under a fort of couch pillows.

You’ll find yourself right there on Saturday, and with the way this series has gone, most likely on Sunday, too. If not for their presence then by way of some other absurd and unforeseen development that’s guaranteed to present itself at some point over the course of this weekend.

But for all the craziness that’s unfolded so far, there remains a single, absolute truth that materialized the second Uehera’s pitch landed in Pedroia’s glove and will ring true regardless of all the craziness still waiting in the wings.

The Red Sox are one win away from the World Series.

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