Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.
— Red Smith, October 4, 1951
If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it — and I’m still not sure I do. This was the type of game that makes you believe in miracles and curses, mystique and aura, and destiny. It had heroes and it had goats, unlikely comebacks and lost opportunities, highlight-reel plays and errors. It was the kind of game that makes you a baseball fan until the day you die.
And it began with a mismatch.
With Kevin Brown on the disabled list — and now diagnosed with a parasite just like the ailing Jason Giambi — rookie Brad Halsey was matched up against the great Pedro Martinez. Halsey had pitched a fantastic game against the Dodgers two weeks ago, but was terrible last Saturday against the Mets. Against one of the best hitting teams in baseball, with one of the best pitchers in the game on the mound, the Yankees’ chances seemed bleak.
But the Yankees caught a break before a pitch was even thrown, as Nomar Garciaparra was given a day off to rest his Achilles’ Heel, which had cost him a third of the season already.
And then Halsey pitched fantastically well, giving up only two hits and two walks through the first five innings, while striking out four. Pedro only gave up two hits through the first five, too — but both of those went over the wall, and entering the sixth, the Yankees led 3-0, and an improbable sweep was in their grasp.
But now the Yankees started to make mistakes on defense, mirroring the bumbling of the Red Sox in the previous two games. After Mark Bellhorn struck out swinging, David Ortiz hit a fly ball down the left-field line. Hideki Matsui, playing Ortiz to pull, made the long run … and missed the catch. Not an error, but a defensive miscue nonetheless, the ball bounced into the stands for an automatic double.
Three pitches later, Manny Ramirez hit a ball off the front of the black center field bleachers to bring the Red Sox within one. That ended the night for Halsey, who walked off the mound to a standing ovation, and with Paul Quantrill coming in, and Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera looming, a reasonable expectation of collecting his second major league win.
But in the seventh, the Yankees’ gloves cost them another run. Kenny Lofton was unable to hold on to a deep fly ball by Dave McCarty — a ball that was in his grasp, but popped out and fell to the ground. Again, it was not called an error, but the damage was the same. “Euclis, The Greek God of Walks” singled McCarty to third, and he scored to tie the game on a Pokey Reese double play.
And tied it would remain, though not for lack of trying. The Yankees put two on with two out in the bottom of the seventh, but Kenny Lofton flew out to left to end the threat. They loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the ninth, but Ruben Sierra swung at two straight pitches over his shoulders, and Lofton again ended the threat, grounding out to second.
Again the Yankees got the winning run to third in the 10th, but Bernie Williams lined out to Youkilis, and now it was the Red Sox’s turn to waste an opportunity — in an unbelievably dramatic way.
Mariano Rivera had struck out the side in the ninth Wednesday, and struck out two of the three batters he faced in the 10th. But David Ortiz worked the count full, and slapped a single into left field. Manny Ramirez then singled to center field, and as David Ortiz raced to third base, Bubba Crosby threw the ball past Alex Rodriguez, and Ramirez moved to second. Jason Varitek was intentionally walked, and the Red Sox now had the bases loaded with nobody out.
As unlikely as it was, they failed to score a single run. Kevin Millar ripped a 1-0 pitch down the third base line, but Alex Rodriguez dove and grabbed it, touched third base, and threw around pinch-runner Gabe Kapler from his knees to get the out at home. Posada fired back to third, and Rodriguez tagged Manny Ramirez.
For an instant, it appeared the Yankees had gotten out of the inning on a triple play, and Rodriguez protested the umpire’s call that it was only two — before realizing that by touching third base he had already retired Ramirez. Everyone had a good laugh, and Rivera got McCarty to fly out to left to get the actual third out.
The Yankees failed to take advantage of any of that momentum, though, and went quietly in the bottom of the 11th.
Again the Red Sox threatened with Tanyon Sturtze relieving Rivera in the 12th. Youkilis did what’s made him famous, and led off with a walk. Pokey Reese sacrificed pinch-runner Cesar Crespo to second, and Johnny Damon singled to left to, once again, put the go-ahead run on third with less than two outs.
But Mark Bellhorn popped the first pitch to second, and pinch-hitter Trot Nixon popped a 1-2 pitch down the third base line. Derek Jeter raced out to make an excellent catch (in case you hadn’t noticed, he’s actually playing good defense this season), and his momentum carried him into the stands … face-first into a chair.
Jeter came up dazed, bruised and bloodied, and was escorted to the locker room. With Jeter due to bat second in the bottom of the inning, and Enrique Wilson, their only other infielder, already out of the game, the Yankees were faced with the undesirable possibility of having to play someone out of position if they couldn’t score a run.
Miguel Cairo delivered exactly what the Yankees needed, smashing a ball off the left-center field wall, reaching third when the ball bounced over Johnny Damon’s head. With the winning run 90 feet away with no outs, the Red Sox brought Kevin Millar in from the outfield to play the infield, and the Yankees turned to the ailing Jason Giambi to hit for Jeter. But Old Wormy couldn’t make contact, and struck out swinging. Sheffield was plunked, A-Rod intentionally walked, and the Yankees had the bases loaded, one out, and rookie Bubba Crosby at the plate.
Crosby worked the count full, but couldn’t get the ball out of the infield, grounding hard to short. Pokey Reese forced Cairo out at home, and Varitek may well have made the double play at first had Cairo not come in with a takeout slide, clipping Varitek’s leg and throwing him off-balance. It was all for naught, though, as Bernie Williams struck out to end the threat.
Now the Yankees had to make a tough choice — who would they bring in to play the infield? Torre chose Gary Sheffield to play third, a position he had not played since 1993 — and not all that well even then. To fill in Sheffield’s spot, Bernie Williams vacated the DH slot to play center, and the Yankees were now playing by NL rules with only eight hitters, only John Flaherty on the bench, short reliever Bret Prinz and the starters in the bullpen, and perhaps the worst defense ever fielded by a great team.
But before all those disadvantages could hurt them, Manny Ramirez did, clubbing another homer over the left-field fence, and the Red Sox finally had the lead. After Varitek struck out, Sheffield made a nice pick on a hard grounder by Millar, but overthrew Tony Clark for an error. Dave McCarty walked to move Millar to second, but with Garciaparra on the bench, Cesar Crespo was left in to bat … and hit the first pitch to second for an inning-ending double-play.
It didn’t seem like that would matter, of course. The Yankees had made 24 outs without scoring, and with Posada, Clark and Sierra batting from their weaker sides in the bottom of the inning, to be followed by Cairo and Sturtze, a rally seemed unlikely.
But apparently the Heart of Gold was in port, because last night the improbable came true again and again. Posada and Clark were retired, but Ruben Sierra was able to keep the game alive with a single into center. Curtis Leskanic, who had worked out of the 12th inning jam of his own making so brilliantly, now got ahead of Miguel Cairo quickly 0-2. But Varitek was unable to sell strike three, and Cairo fouled off the 1-2 pitch.
The next pitch was belt-high, over the outside part of the plate. Cairo went with it, and drove it hard into right-center. Millar couldn’t cut it off, it rolled to the wall, and Sierra scored without a throw, and improbably, the game was tied. But it wasn’t over yet.
John Flaherty, a 36-year-old backup catcher with a .669 career OPS, pinch-hit for Sturtze, and as Bret Prinz hurriedly warmed up, Flaherty worked the count to 3-1. And again, Leskanic threw it belt-high, over the middle of the plate. Manny Ramirez, turned, ran, and then slowed and watched it hit the warning track 30 feet from him, bounce into the stands, and end the game.
If it wasn’t Yankees/Red Sox, if it wasn’t such a crucial game for the Red Sox, it still would have been the best game of the year. That it was these two teams, that so much did ride on it for Boston, makes it one of the great games in Yankees history. It wasn’t Bucky Dent, it wasn’t Aaron Boone, but it was almost as exhilirating, almost as heartbreaking, and every bit as memorable.
There are people in this world who do not like baseball, there are people who find it boring. But last night’s game showed, once again, why baseball is the greatest game ever invented; it will always find a new way to surprise you. Even a poorly played game like last night’s contest can be a classic. If that’s boring, then nothing in this world is interesting.