For the first time since 2003, the World Series is competitive.
It has been six years since the Series went at least six games. The storylines in recent years have been given little time to develop.
Recent Octobers have been dominated by tradition-rich franchises claiming their first titles in ages, starting with the Red Sox in ’04 (ending an 86-year drought), and followed by the White Sox (88 years), Cardinals (24 years), Red Sox and Phillies (28 years).
But the great and memorable tension of the season’s most important games was missing. The series proved too lopsided to make the details truly engrossing.
Now, for the first time since Josh Beckett, then with the Marlins, took the Yankee Stadium mound on three days' rest in Game 6 of the 2003 World Series and shoved the ball down the Yankees’ throats, this year’s World Series is offering the sort of drama to engage every baseball fan, regardless of his or her allegiance.
The Yankees’ decision to use their starters on three days of rest could either be viewed as a stroke of genius or folly. The Phillies’ bullpen shuffle — closer Brad Lidge, who allowed three ninth-inning runs in Game 4 on Sunday, went unused in the ninth-inning of Philadelphia’s win on Monday, replaced by Ryan Madson — also will be scrutinized. Those topics represent the mere tip of the iceberg for a series that is becoming increasingly interesting to follow.
As such, it comes as little surprise that there has been no shortage of Red Sox-themed subtexts unfolding over the course of this year’s World Series. Here are five of the most compelling:
5) ‘MIKE LOWELL SURGERY’ MAY BE A REQUIREMENT FOR WORLD SERIES MVPS
Until roughly a year ago, the idea of surgery to repair a torn hip labrum was completely unfamiliar to the baseball world. But Mike Lowell — the Most Valuable Player of the 2007 World Series — set something of a precedent, undergoing precisely such a procedure last October.
In the months that followed, other players followed Lowell’s path, including the most significant members of both the Yankees and Phillies lineups.
Alex Rodriguez, who had surgery on his torn hip labrum in spring training, is hitting .360 (BA)/.484 (OBP)/.820 (SLG)/1.304 (OPS) with six homers and 18 RBI this postseason. In the World Series, he is leading the Yankees with six runs batted in.
Chase Utley, who underwent hip labrum surgery last November, went deep Monday night for the fifth time in the World Series, tying the record for most homers in a single Fall Classic. He is hitting .314/.435/.686/1.121 in October.
Their performances, coupled with Lowell’s meaningful contributions to the Sox this year, suggest that the surgery will become increasingly common going forward.
4) CLIFF LEE: WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN
This has been a common lament for every team in the postseason, aside from the Phillies. The Dodgers talked with the Indians about acquiring Lee at the trade deadline, as did the Angels. Everyone contender had reason to jump in the market on a pitcher whose talent and affordable contract would make him a powerful addition for both 2009 and 2010. The Sox were no different.
When Lee was being shopped by the Indians in July, the Sox believed they had a realistic chance to acquire both Lee and Victor Martinez, thus acquiring both a No. 1 pitcher and a middle-of-the-order hitter.
Had the Sox pulled off such a deal — which would have required a massive package of prospects in return, including pitcher Clay Buchholz — it would have represented arguably the largest mid-year addition in baseball history: a reigning Cy Young winner and an All-Star catcher/first baseman.
Instead, the Indians decided to make separate deals involving Lee and Martinez, and their seven-prospect haul from those two deals may well have been more significant than what they would have gotten from the Sox in a combined deal.
Moreover, Lee might not have been able to make a difference for the Sox against the Angels, considering that the Sox were at their most competitive in the Division Series in the game started by Buchholz.
All the same, one cannot help but wonder what kind of position the Sox might have been in not just this autumn, but also in 2010, had they acquired both Lee and Martinez. Lee is 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA this postseason and has been as impactful a performer as any other this October.
3) THE CURSE OF MT?
Mark Teixeira was the biggest impact player of last offseason. The switch-hitting first baseman was viewed as an exceptional talent, complementing his lineup-changing power with elite first-base defense. That is why the Red Sox lusted after the player, and why they were crestfallen by his decision to sign with the Yankees.
Teixeira delivered the goods during the regular season, but he’s been an offensive non-entity in the playoffs. When he stepped to the plate representing the tying run in the ninth inning of Game 5, the outcome seemed almost predictable: Teixeira whiffed on Ryan Madson’s changeup, in the process falling to 2-for-19 (.105 average, .261 OBP, .316 slugging) in the World Series. In the three playoff rounds this year, Teixeira is now hitting .172 with a .269 OBP and .579 OPS.
There is danger, of course, in making judgments about a player based on a single postseason — witness the rush to reverse judgment about Alex Rodriguez’ ability to perform in October. Nonetheless, should the Phillies find a way to win the World Series, Teixeira will be subject to immense scrutiny for his inability to contribute this postseason.
2) JOHNNY DAMON’S NEW YORK FINALE?
Johnny Damon is now in the final moments of a four-year contract that left New England and the Red Sox reeling when he signed it.
The Sox had been braced for the possibility that he would leave, given agent Scott Boras’ suggestions that he had a six-year, $72 million deal in hand. But when the Sox heard that the Yankees managed to sign the outfielder for four years — a duration that Boras had deemed laughable throughout negotiations — and $52 million, one Sox official was so stunned that he nearly drove off the road.
The Sox had offered Damon four years and $40 million. They were prepared to offer the outfielder something in the vicinity of $44 million over four years, but they set a value for the player and were unwilling to exceed it.
Interestingly, according to Fangraphs.com, a site that calculates player value based on offense, defense and baserunning contributions, Damon’s performance over the past four years has essentially split the difference between what the Sox might have offered and the amount for which the Yankees signed him. The site values Damon’s contributions in his four years in New York at $48.7 million.
Similarly fascinating: Damon finished his four regular-season campaigns with the Yankees with numbers that were nearly identical, in many respects, to those he amassed with the Red Sox. He enjoyed a significant power surge in New York, thanks largely to cozy right field dimensions at the two Yankee Stadia, but that notwithstanding, his numbers were strikingly similar over his four years with each team:
Damon in Boston (4 years, 2002-05, $32 million):.295/.362/.441/.803, 56 HR, 299 RBI, 461 runs, 98 SB, 82.4 percent SB success rate
Damon in New York (4 years, 2006-09, $52 million): .285/.363/.458/.821, 77 HR, 296 RBI, 410 runs, 93 SB, 81.6 percent SB success rate
Damon may well re-sign with the Yankees. Throughout 2009, he certainly has found no shortage of occasions in which to state his desire to do so. Even so, if this is the end of his New York tenure, he is finishing with a bang. Now two days shy of his 36th birthday, he has been a World Series force, hitting .381 with a .435 OBP and .911 OPS.
He also played an enormous part in the Yankees’ ninth-inning rally in their Game 4 win. It was Damon’s single (at the conclusion of a nine-pitch at-bat) and two steals on one pitch that seemed to unhinge the Phillies as New York scored three runs.
The Sox may be better off for not having signed Damon, since his inability to play center over the last couple of years would have rendered him a difficult roster fit, and his numbers would have been less impressive if he still made his home at Fenway.
That notwithstanding, it would appear that the Yankees have been left with little reason to regret signing Damon. While some of his skills have eroded (he is now a left fielder rather than center fielder and has become much less aggressive on the bases), he does not belong in the list of free agent dollars wasted by the Yankees this decade.
1) PEDRO'S BACK IS ONCE AGAIN AGAINST THE WALL
For the fifth time in his career, Pedro Martinez will have a meaningful role in a postseason elimination game. When the 38-year-old takes the mound on Wednesday, it will be, unquestionably, the most significant of his three career World Series starts, and on the short list of the biggest games he’s ever thrown.
If history is a guide, the combination of Pedro and a win-or-go-home scenario will lend itself to an unforgettable game. Here are the previous four times that those two elements have been combined:
Oct. 11, 1999: ALDS Game 5, at Indians
Martinez, sidelined for most of the American League Division Series by a back injury, enters as a reliever in the fourth inning of the winner-take-all Game 5 against the Indians. He fires six no-hit innings of relief, as the Sox take a 12-8 win and complete the first-ever comeback from a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-five ALDS.
Oct. 6, 2003: ALDS Game 5, at A’s
Once again, Martinez is the man on the mound for the Sox as they try to complete a comeback from a 2-0 hole in the ALDS. This time, the opponent is Oakland. Martinez carries a 4-2 lead into the eighth inning but allows a pair of hits for a run to start the eighth. With the Sox clinging to a 4-3 lead, the Boston bullpen comes up huge, punctuated by Derek Lowe’s infamous crotch chop after punching out Terrence Long with the bases loaded.
Oct. 16, 2003: ALCS Game 7, at Yankees
This one was rehashed once or twice in New England after the fact. Martinez was dominant through much of the game but started to fade in the middle innings. After he gave up a run in the seventh inning, it appeared that the Sox ace considered his work done. But he was sent back to the mound for the eighth inning, and the Yankees — who entered the inning trailing 5-2 — jumped on a gasping-for-air Martinez for three runs as his pitch count drifted up to 123.
Martinez left with a no-decision, and the game marched on. Aaron Boone’s leadoff homer in the bottom of the 11th inning served as the dagger in the Sox’ season.
Oct. 18, 2004: ALCS Game 5, vs. Yankees
By this point, the Yankees were beyond intimidation with Martinez. After the right-hander allowed a bases-clearing, three-run double to Derek Jeter in the top of the sixth inning, it appeared that the impending free agent would absorb the loss in his final game as a Red Sox, a contest he left with his team trailing, 4-2.
But the Sox came back against New York’s bullpen, setting the stage for an agonizingly exciting, 14-inning contest in which the Sox claimed a 5-4 win on David Ortiz’ walkoff single after 5 hours, 49 minutes of play. By that point, Martinez had been rendered an afterthought, but the game will not be forgotten in baseball lore anytime soon.