It’s almost as if this World Series is mocking baseball, the sort of script Quentin Tarantino would write if he did sports. You could watch entire seasons and not see the freaky, nonlinear finishes the Red Sox and Cardinals have produced over four absorbing nights. Game 4 left us as stoned as the others — yes, stoned — ending with a wayward baserunner, the Cardinals’ Kolten Wong, leaning toward second base and allowing himself to be picked off Sunday night with October-potent Carlos Beltran left holding his bat in the cold.
This was the first time a World Series game ended on a pickoff throw, just as Saturday brought the first World Series game ending with an obstruction call, just as Thursday brought the rare World Series game decided by a reliever’s errant throw into the stands, just as the Game 1 tone was set by umpires who for the first time reversed a wrong call in a World Series. Obviously, we’re seeing maybe the most unique and eclectic World Series ever played, and unless you’d like to invoke a natural disaster such as the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, or a scandal such as the Black Sox fix of 1919, you’ll be hard-pressed to find another that keeps tapping into the creative reservoir for unprecedented, if also sloppy, twists.
A walkoff pickoff. Really?
“It’s a real roller coaster here, obviously. We stayed away from throwing the ball down the third-base line tonight,” said Red Sox slugger Johnny Gomes, whose three-run homer provided the margin in a 4-2 victory — but not without the pain of his seven-month-old beard being stretched like taffy by his partner in mulch madness, Mike Napoli.
Whatever complaints the Red Sox had about the obstruction call on Will Middlebrooks, and whatever complaints the Cardinals had about the reversed ruling that Pete Kozma indeed dropped the ball — those arguments are canceled out now. This is a best-of-three scrum in a Series seemingly destined to go seven games, and if you’d like to hazard a guess on how it might conclude, you’d better reach deep into the imaginative recesses. Crazy as it was to see the Red Sox lose twice on wild throws to third base, it was crazier to see their closer, Koji Uehara, notice Wong trying to extend his lead at first when the run he represented was inconsequential. Down two runs with two out in the ninth, his job as a pinch-runner for Allen Craig was to do nothing more than observe as Beltran — he of the 16 postseason homers — tried to tie the game with a swing.
He never got the chance, thanks to a rookie’s mental blunder.
That quickly, we second-guessers who’ve had a field day in this series turned our focus to Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. The previous 24 hours, we’d dissected the dreadful Game 3 decisions of Red Sox manager John Farrell, who, among other missteps, had kept Napoli on the bench in the ninth while letting rookie reliever Brandon Workman take his first professional at-bat — you read that correctly — against Cards closer Trevor Rosenthal, which, um, didn’t work out well. “In hindsight, having Workman hit against Rosenthal is a mismatch, I recognize it, but we needed more than one inning out of Workman,” Farrell said. Actually, he needed to get a lead and try to close out the game in the ninth.
But now, it was Matheny being asked why he entrusted Wong with such a situation. Yes, he has speed, as he showed earlier in the series. Why did he drift so far, which led to a loss of his footing, when nothing was to be gained from it? “We had meetings early on, we go over all these pitchers,” Matheny said. “We talk very clearly about who has a very good pickoff move. He was reminded once he got on base and also reminded the run didn’t mean much, be careful, shorten up (his lead). He got a little extra (lead), then he slipped and the slip cost him.”
“I knew I was dead once I went to plant and push off and i felt nothing go,” Wong said, per ESPN.com. “My foot slipped out, and I was done.”
Earlier, with two out in the sixth, Matheny had removed starter Lance Lynn for another rookie, Seth Maness. Up came Gomes, who had been 0 for 9 in the Series and was playing only because Shane Victorino was scratched with lower back tightness. You know the rest. “I left a pitch up and I don’t have the velocity to beat a guy like Gomes up in the strike zone,” said Maness, per USA Today. “I made a mistake and he hammered it. I didn’t execute the pitch and he made me pay.”
Said Matheny: “Seth has been able to get the big out when we needed it. I wanted to give him a shot. I just didn’t work out.”
A flip-flopping drama inevitably will become a referendum on managing. In Boston’s case, as we’ve seen all postseason, the trick is waiting for a mighty blow. Once again, they got it and fed off it. “What’s going on inside here is pretty special, magical,” said Gomes, the journeyman who was among seven mid-priced free agents signed last offseason by general manager Ben Cherington.
From here on out, the Cardinals will be favored simply because of pitching. With ace Adam Wainwright going tonight and rookie marvel Michael Wacha set for Game 6 on Wednesday night, they have an edge over a Boston staff that has its own ace, Jon Lester, going in Game 5 but had to use No. 2 starter John Lackey in relief Sunday. With Clay Buchholz gutting out only four innings in Game 4 with shoulder issues and Jake Peavy producing iffy results in Game 3, the Red Sox will have to piece together arms to get through three games. That is assuming there are three games and that Lester, who had a suspicious splotch of goo in his glove during Game 1, survives tonight. But before you dismiss the Red Sox, never forget about the inspiration in their dugout.
His name is David Ortiz. In the fifth, he gathered his teammates and delivered a pep talk. “I keep telling my boys, this is one life. You don’t come to the World Series every day. Let’s loosen up,” Ortiz said. “I know we have a better team than what we’ve shown. Sometimes, you get to this stage, you try to overdo things. And it doesn’t work that way.”
“It was like 24 kindergartners looking up at their teacher,” Gomes said. “He got everyone’s attention, and we looked him right in the eyes. That message was pretty powerful.”
I know, we’re not exactly watching the finest baseball ever played. But it is some of the most gripping, compelling baseball ever played. Has a World Series ever ended on a balk?