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Big Papi, Wild Nights: October Never Better

Posted By Jay Mariotti On October 14, 2013 @ 8:33 AM In JM - Archive,JM - The Columns,MLB | No Comments

That’ll teach you. Do not take a single solitary break from the baseball playoffs — not for a tsunami alert or a bodily function or even a hot date — unless you want to miss something amazing. This time, it was David Ortiz, the autumn-dependable Big Papi, erasing with one swing all the good Max Scherzer had done in 5 2/3 no-hit innings, all the scoreboard insurance Miguel Cabrera had provided with a home run that inspired a four-run sixth inning, all the equity the Detroit Tigers had built with a 5-0 lead.

With one grand slam from the man who has produced more spectacular postseason moments than almost any slugger alive, every baseball poet in New England was searching for fresh words about Ortiz’s special kinship with Boston and its healing process after the Marathon bombings. It set up a walk-off base hit in the ninth for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, made possible by Tigers shortstop (and former prized Red Sox prospect) Jose Iglesias, whose attempt to make a highlight reel became a throwing error that led to a wild 6-5 Red Sox win and turned a Detroit-tilted American League championship series into a 1-1, anything’s-possible fantasyland.

“We needed it, man,” said Ortiz, who has been a Boston folk hero since his 2004 heroics helped overcome the so-called, 86-year Red Sox curse. “The postseason is something that can work both ways for you. It can go well if you stay calm. Or it can go bad if you try to overdo things. It happens to all of us. So we pretty much needed the momentum. And I think winning this game is going to tell a lot.”

Everyone who watched was mesmerized, including his peers in both dugouts. “The guy’s an actor at work,” Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino said, per the Associated Press. “It’s fun to watch. It’s great to see. He’s always upbeat and always positive. He always likes to go up and swing the bat.”

“That’s what he does. He’s an amazing hitter,” said Scherzer, whose brilliant work went for naught when his relievers didn’t back him in the eighth. “He’s an amazing postseason hitter. He’s clutch. Any given moment, a swing of the bat he can always take you deep.”

What it does on the immediate horizon is save the Red Sox from a likely 0-3 series hole, with recently unhittable Justin Verlander starting Game 3 for the Tigers in Detroit. Now, I’d be shocked if the ALCS isn’t extended the full seven games. These teams are too evenly matched, too intertwined with impending drama.

“We’re going to play it to the final out,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “So many times David has come up big, whether it’s the regular season, postseason. And none bigger than tonight.”

“It’s playoff baseball,” mumbled Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who surely needed a cigarette or two after the tough defeat. “Looked like we had one in hand and we let one get away, there’s no question about that. But there have been two great games.”

He speaks not only about a riveting ALCS, but for all of October. The night before, Anibal Sanchez and a quartet of Detroit relievers had nearly combined for the first multi-pitcher no-hitter in postseason history, making the Red Sox seem like old men with Abe Lincoln beards instead of facial-hair-fueled sluggers. The common denominator between the two games was Tigers closer Joaquin Benoit, who surrendered the hit that lost the Game 1 no-no, then served up the grand slam to Ortiz. Even so, the grand slam nearly was hauled in by Tigers rightfielder Torii Hunter, who tumbled over the wall and disappeared into the bullpen as a Boston police officer raised his arms, showing no immediate interest in helping Hunter to his feet.

All of which came a few hours after a miracle of sorts in St. Louis, where a Cardinals rookie shut down the suddenly feeble Dodgers after almost throwing a no-hitter in his previous playoff start.

You don’t know what you’re missing, peeps.

Other than family, friends and TBS analyst Dirk Hayhurst — sorry, I don’t recall anyone by that name ever pitching in the big leagues — I’m not sure how much of America is watching another terrific October. Of the dozen highest-rated shows since the new TV season launched, baseball occupies as many slots as the Dodgers managed runs off rampaging Michael Wacha in Game 2 of the National League championship series: zero. In fact, all 12 programs were NFL game telecasts, proving again that life-and-death ordeals such as a concussion crisis and an accused murderer mean nothing to the American masses when compared to a fantasy football roster, a wager with Rocco and the replica jersey of your favorite player.

Baseball tends to burn off and fade away much like summer itself. Once the kids are back in school and your team is eliminated, there isn’t much interest in the playoffs — unlike the NFL, which commands universal attention during its Super Bowl lead-up. Sometime between the football boom of the ’70s and ’80s and the steroids era of the ’90s and ’00s, baseball became the national past-its-time, now ranking behind pro and college football and even the NBA in resonance.

That said, hasn’t this postseason been absolutely divine?

Chicks used to dig the long ball, but pitchers are the stars of October in this sort-of-post-PED era, none brighter than Wacha. The best compliment I can give the Texas A&M product is that he has become bigger in sports than Johnny Manziel, which would make him Michael Baseball, though it sounds so utterly ridiculous that I’m sorry I mentioned it. He outpitched Clayton Kershaw in Game 2 and is drawing considerable attention to the remarkable way the Cardinals develop young pitchers. The Dodgers will spend more than $200 million on Kershaw this offseason after spending $147 million last offseason on Zach Greinke. Wacha and Joe Kelly, the Cardinals’ starter in Game 1 versus Greinke, make peanuts by comparison. Who’s doing business the smart way?

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said the injured Cardinal, Rafael Furcal, per USA Today. “Everybody talks about Clayton Kershaw and Zach Greinke, but they don’t know about our guy. You see him throwing 98, and guys throw harder, but not with his kind of control. And not with his changeup. He’s unbelievable. For me, he’s the type of pitcher that could win a Cy Young (award) next year.”

“He’s becoming a guy a lot of teams wish they drafted,” Cardinals third baseman David Freese said of Wacha, per the Associated Press. “What he’s done is remarkable, especially on this stage.”

Most remarkable is his poise. Does he realize what time it is? “I don’t feel like I’m going out there and trying to overwhelm people,” Wacha said. “I just go out there and try to pitch to contact. The defense was making crazy plays behind me and keeping me in the ballgame that late. They’re taking hits away from guys. A lot of credit goes to these guys.” If it sounds boring, it works. The Cardinals managed two hits in Game 2 and still won, becoming the first team to accomplish so much with so little since the 2001 Yankees.

As for that hype-manufactured rookie, Yasiel Puig, he was last seen staring groggily at his wiffle-ball bat after fanning four more times, giving him six strikeouts in an 0-for-10 NLCS washout. Know how bad it is for Puig? Even Carlos Beltran, who performs his usual October wonders for the opposing team, is dispensing advice: Don’t swing too hard.“It’s the same swing I had against Atlanta, but I have been missing,” Puig said through an interpreter, per USA Today.

Don Mattingly, the embattled Dodgers manager, credits catcher Yadier Molina for strategizing Puig into a feeble state. “Yadier does a good job of yo-yoing him, showing him enough breaking balls and showing him the fastball,” Mattingly said. “And it’s back to the breaking ball … keeping him in the rocking chair.” Point being, the Cardinals are thinking several steps ahead of the Dodgers. This is a mental mismatch.

And don’t think for a nanosecond that Sanchez was upset about being yanked in the sixth inning of the American League championship series opener. Arm preservation is the trick to October, and he had thrown 116 pitchers when Tigers manager Jim Leyland summoned Al Alburquerque … and Jose Veras … and Drew Smyly … and then closer Joaquin Benoit, who gave up the hard one-out single to Daniel Nava in the ninth. “At this point, especially in this series, it’s not about throwing a no-hitter,” said Sanchez, per the Associated Press, after the 1-0 victory “As soon as you get some zeroes … it’s more important. It’s more important than the no-hitter at this point.”

The Tigers boast three starters — Scherzer, Sanchez and Verlander — capable of dominance on any night. Along with Verlander’s no-hit bid in Game 5 of the AL divisional series, Detroit became the first team in postseason history with three consecutive starters taking no-hit bids past five innings. No-nos are fairly commonplace in regular seasons, but in October, we’ve seen only two: Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series and Roy Halladay’s no-hitter for Philadelphia in 2010.

Between Wacha and the Tigers, I’m thinking another is forthcoming.

The baseball has been that riveting, going back to the last round. In one magnificent 12-hour stretch, we saw Wacha take a no-hitter into the ninth inning, a potbellied slugger (Juan Uribe) hit a series-winning homer after twice failing to lay down bunts, an Australian-born relief pitcher (Grant Balfour) spark a near-brawl because he didn’t like how someone was looking at him and a backup catcher (Jose Lobaton) hit a walk-off homer into a giant fish tank. Through it all, after two five-game series and two four-gamers, baseball is rewarded with a particularly compelling final four, something it hardly deserves after another scandal involving performance-enhancing drugs but typical in how the sport always rises above the rascals who try to ruin it. We have four of the sport’s biggest brand names, each oozing of tradition and pomp and starpower, all prepared to dazzle.

The Red Sox are the bearded behemoths who look like rogues but play with uncommon camaraderie and purpose, even if someone finds a squirrel and nuts inside Mike Napoli’s clump of facial hair.

The Tigers are loaded with studs in the rotation and lineup, trying to finally win a World Series as long as their ball-grabbing fans don’t sabotage the cause with a Steve Bartman moment.

The Dodgers, despite their hitting drought, are the raging fools who dared to spend big and think big and now are ready to conquer October with a Hollywood flair and party vibe.

The Cardinals are the antithesis of the Dodgers, a Middle American fixture with a winning culture that carries on long after Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols departed.

In spite of itself, in spite of a Biogenesis scandal that left more juice stains on the 2013 canvas, the sport is flush with a waterfall of profits. Simply, a baseball team can provide 162 games of live content in the DVR era, allowing networks to charge higher advertising rates — and cut richer national and local TV deals — at a time when we tape Mad Men and watch it days later. That’s why a nameless, faceless financial group called Guggenheim Partners could buy the Dodgers for $2.15 billion and sell the TV rights to Time Warner Cable for $7 billion. That’s why the small-market Reds can sign a fat regional TV deal and give Joey Votto a monster contract, and why three of the eight teams in the divisional round were low-spenders from Oakland, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh. Some credit for baseball’s unprecedented financial prosperity goes to commissioner Bud Selig and the owners, who have committed to labor peace while insisting that attractive ballparks become fan destinations even when a team isn’t winning. And some of their success is simply sheer, dumb luck.

The regular season remains almost unwatchable, devoid of drama over a numbing, six-month taffy pull. You’d still like to put a 20-second clock on pitchers and hitters who drag out between-pitch rituals for nearly a minute, forgetting that the world operates at a breakneck pace in 2013 and that people look at their smart phones once every 2.1 seconds, or so it seems.

But come October, baseball rarely lets us down. And this October, baseball is at its entertaining best, the 49-second pauses between pitches giving us chances to exhale and then breathe in the relentless fun.

Walk away from it at your own peril.


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