The Boston Red Sox represent one of the two or three greatest collections of baseball talent on the whole planet. There's little doubt about this. They could easily have won the first three games of this World Series. There's little doubt about this, either. But instead they're down two games to one, and that's largely because they've committed the same fundamental error in Games 2 and 3 ... and yet, those fundamental errors have been mostly lost among all the other dramatic events surrounding them.
In a moment, I'll explain (and I promise promise promise, there will be .gifs). First, though, a few semi-random thoughts about Game 3 ...
- I've been screaming for weeks about Daniel Nava, and Saturday night he finally got his shot. Fortunately for his playing time and my shaky reputation -- not to mention the Red Sox' chances in the Serious -- Nava hit the ball hard twice and drove in two runs. Consider it a small victory for the forces of Rationality.
- Some of us have been accusing Mike Matheny throughout the postseason of being too slow on the trigger with his starting pitchers. He's got those lights-out relief pitchers, so why not use them? So it was refreshing to see Matheny yank starter Joe Kelly in the sixth, even though Kelly had thrown only 89 pitches and his club was still winning, 2-1.
- But Matheny still didn't get it quite right. He brought in lefty Randy Choate to face David Ortiz. Good move, even though Ortiz did rip a single into right field. Then, a bad move. Ortiz's hit placed him on first base and Victorino on third. Matheny wanted the double play, which is understandable. Right-handed reliever Seth Maness is accomplished at inducing ground balls. Matheny brought in Maness.
The problem is (did I mention this already?) that Maness is right-handed, and Nava beats right-handers silly. Meanwhile, Nava struggles against left-handers. Also, there's this:
gotta get Maness' 68% groundball rate in there to replace Choate's 68% groundball rate— Jeff Sullivan (@based_ball) October 27, 2013
This Sullivan guy seems like a real smart alec. Might have to keep an eye on him. But I digress. The point is that Matheny replaced a lefty ground-ball pitcher with a righty ground-ball pitcher, at what seemed the wrong time to do that. Nava stroked a game-tying single into right field, and then Maness got the inning-ending double play.
- In the seventh, John Farrell brought in Craig Breslow, who took his lumps in Game 2, thanks partly to some bad luck. Same thing in Game 3. First batter reached on an infield single. The second batter, Carlos Beltrán, reached when Breslow's fastball just grazed Beltrán's elbow. Or to be precise, just grazed the pad on Beltrán's elbow. It looked to me like Beltran made zero effort to avoid getting hit, and according to the rules he shouldn't have been awarded first base. But of course that's a judgment call, and of course it's a judgment that very few umpires have the courage to make. Can't really blame Dana DeMuth, who was already having a pretty bad game and probably didn't want to be responsible for Matheny falling dead in the dugout from a brain aneurysm. But Beltrán did not deserve first base.
Farrell yanked Breslow in favor of Junichi Tazawa. Another good move. My friend Jonah Keri wanted Farrell to instead summon Koji Uehara, but a) Tazawa's pretty good, and b) there's not a single manager in North American professional baseball who would have used Uehara in that spot. Anyway, Tazawa gave up a two-run double before escaping the inning.
- Things would get really weird in the bottom of the ninth inning ... but they'd already been weird. I mean, REALLY WEIRD. Trevor Rosenthal's been nearly unhittable all month, but the Red Sox got to him. Matheny was (again) aggressive, summoning Rosenthal for a five-out save, potentially. With a fielder's choice and a two-out chopper that bounced into center field, the Sox tied the game.
- That was the top of the eighth. Tazawa had thrown 24 pitches in the bottom of the seventh. Farrell replaced him in the bottom of the eighth with Brandon Workman. With two runners aboard and Matt Holliday coming up, we were all yelling at our electronics, Where is Koji? Because just a single from Holliday probably means the Red Sox lose a close World Series game without their best reliever ever leaving the bullpen. We were all yelling.
The rationale, though -- at least on Twitter -- was that with the pitcher's spot due second in the top of ninth, Farrell didn't want to bring in Uehara and be forced to either let him hit or lose him after just a third of an inning's work. But then again, why not double-switch? Farrell could, right then, have placed Uehara in the fifth slot in the lineup, and replaced left fielder Nava with Quintin Berry, with Gomes in the ninth slot (and batting second in the top of the ninth). Or he might have Uehara in the seventh slot, with David Ross going into the ninth slot and taking over for Saltalamacchia behind the plate. Farrell did have some options. Instead he stuck with Workman, who did retire Holliday to keep the game tied.
- And that wasn't even the REALLY WEIRD thing. The really weird thing happened in the top of the ninth. With Rosenthal still pitching, Will Middlebrooks led off and struck out. Which brought up that dreaded ninth spot. Would Farrell send up pinch-hitter Berry? No, not him. Not Ross, either. Farrell would of course send up the best hitter on his bench: Mike Napoli, who hit 23 home runs this season.
Well, Farrell actually had another option. He could let Workman hit for himself. No, Workman had never batted in a professional game before. But sometimes the manager just has to go with his ... Nah, there's really no way to justify letting a relief pitcher bat for himself with a good hitter on the bench in a tie game in the ninth inning in the World Series. There's just no way to do it. And Farrell's non-move looked even more bizarre when, with the game still tied in the bottom of the ninth, Farrell replaced Workman with Uehara after just two batters. You just can't figure why Farrell would let Workman bat unless he was committed to letting him pitch another inning. Which, in the event, he clearly was not.
After the game, Farrell did admit he should have double-switched. But earlier than we thought. And somehow he still tried to justify keeping Workman in the game for as long as he did.
- Now, about the controversial ending. Grant's written at great length and with great skill about that, and I want to discuss just one aspect of the play. But first I'd like to take you back to Game 2, and the critical play in that game. In case you've already forgotten, here it is again, with everything broken down real nice:
It's easy to focus on Gomes' off-line throw and Breslow's wild toss into the stands. But Breslow never makes that throw if Saltalamacchia doesn't lose the ball, and Saltalamacchia loses the ball because of his pointless attempt to keep his left foot on the plate. About which I ask, why? What was he defending with that foot? What might he possibly have lost by doing everything possible to field the throw cleanly? Nothing.
Now, fast-forward 48 hours to Game 3. And in a million-to-one shot, Will Middlebrooks made exactly the same mistake that Saltalamacchia made.
Now, this one's not quite as blatant because Middlebrooks at third base didn't have nearly as much time as Saltalamacchia had in Game 2. Still, this was not a terrible throw. Granted, maybe he shouldn't have thrown at all. But catchers are going to make that throw ... what, 95 percent of the time or more? And it wasn't a terrible throw. If Middlebrooks is quicker with his mind or quicker with his feet, he deserts the base and catches the damn baseball. And then maybe Uehara gets out of it, and maybe he doesn't. Maybe the Red Sox win, and maybe they don't. But we're having a completely different conversation right now. And we're robbed of one of the more controversial and exciting endings in World Series history.
Ultimately, it's just lore. Excellent lore. But the Red Sox really should try to protect the baseball before worrying about those silly bases. Or bitching about the umpires.