October 16, 2003

The Curse of Grady Little

WOW. Just WOW, that's about all I can say.

It wasn't exactly the type of game I thought it would be, but it was as exciting and dramatic and entertaining as a game could have ever been.

The Boston Red Sox jumped out to an early lead, knocked Roger Clemens out of the game in the fourth inning, and handed Pedro Martinez a 4-0 lead to work with. And then the New York Yankees came back, tied the game in the eighth inning, and won it in the 11th.

I don't want to hear any nonsense about a "curse." If you want a reason why the Red Sox blew the lead and lost Game Seven of the ALCS last night, you can look right at the Yankees, who played their asses off and fought back to win the game. And if you need to look at something else, if you need to find something or someone to place the blame on, look no further than Boston's manager, Grady Little.

Pedro Martinez wasn't quite Pedro last night, but he was close. He dominated New York's lineup for the first six innings, giving up just a solo homer to Jason Giambi in the bottom of the fifth.

Then in the seventh, with the Red Sox leading 4-1, Pedro gave up another solo homer to Giambi. The next two batters, Enrique Wilson and Karim Garcia, both singled, and it looked like Pedro was in some serious trouble. But he came back and struck out Alfonso Soriano swinging to end the inning, preserving Boston's 4-2 lead.

At that point, Pedro had pitched seven innings while allowing just two runs, and he had thrown 99 pitches. It is extremely easy and fairly ridiculous to second-guess after the fact, but I thought that taking Pedro out at that point, with the Red Sox up 4-2 with just two innings left to play, was a real option.

When David Ortiz hit a solo homer in the top of the eighth, it became even more of an option, with Boston's bullpen getting an extra run to work with, needing to preserve what was then a three-run lead. But certainly, Grady Little's decision to bring Pedro out to start the eighth inning was a defensible one.

Unfortunately for Little, Pedro and the Red Sox, that is when it all fell apart. After getting Nick Johnson to pop out for the first out of the inning, Pedro gave up a long double to Derek Jeter and then gave up a run-scoring single to Bernie Williams.

It was 5-3 Boston, Pedro was at 114 pitches, and the left-handed hitting Hideki Matsui was coming to the plate. It looked fairly obvious to me that Pedro was almost completely out of gas and I figured Little would call lefty Alan Embree in from the bullpen to pitch to Matsui.

Embree is a big, hard-throwing lefty who has been extremely tough of left-handed batters throughout his career and Matsui hit much worse against lefties (.287/.335/.379) this season than he did against righties (.287/.360/.460).

Instead of making what seemed like the obvious move, Grady Little left Pedro in the game and Embree in the bullpen. Pedro got ahead of Matsui 0-2, but then threw a fastball right over the plate, which Matsui ripped into right field for a double. Runners on second and third, one out.

At that point, Pedro was at 117 pitches and he had given up three hits in a row and hits to six of the last eight batters he faced. With Jorge Posada up, Grady Little left Pedro in, and Posada drove in both Williams and Matsui with a hit to centerfield, tying the game at five.

I can understand wanting to stick with a pitcher as incredible as Pedro Martinez. And I can understand a manager's unwillingness to go to a bullpen that, despite being extremely good this post-season, was very shaky throughout much of the regular season. But at some point last night, before the New York Yankees tied the game, Grady Little needed to remove Pedro Martinez.

Personally, I may have told Pedro to call it a night after seven innings, with the score 5-2 Boston. Pedro was scuffling a little bit and he was right around 100 pitches. With just six outs left to get and a three-run lead, I think I would have liked my chances with Embree, Mike Timlin, Scott Williamson and Tim Wakefield.

At the very least, I would have brought Alan Embree in to face Hideki Matsui, and I suspect not making that move is what is going to cost Grady Little his job as the manager of the Boston Red Sox.

Perhaps the most important job of any manager is to manage the pitching-staff, and particularly the bullpen. Leaving a pitcher in for two or three batters too many can destroy a team and the choice of which pitcher is on the mound in which situations ultimately falls squarely on the manager.

I have heard complaints about Grady Little's managing throughout the season. Boston fans have not been pleased with his lineup construction at times, or his in-game tactical decisions and particularly his decisions regarding the bullpen.

I didn't follow the Red Sox closely enough all season to make large, sweeping generalizations about Grady Little as a manager. But I do know that his decisions last night ultimately proved incorrect, which is not something I fault him for. I do, however, fault him for not making decisions that, to me at least, seemed fairly obvious.

If Pedro doesn't start the eighth, does Boston's bullpen blow a three-run lead in the final two innings? It is certainly possible. If Pedro does start the eighth, but Embree comes in to face Hideki Matsui, do the Yankees still tie the game in the eighth? Again, certainly possible. If Embree or Mike Timlin comes into the game to face Jorge Posada following Matsui's double, can the Red Sox find a way to make it out of the inning with the lead intact? Who knows.

At some point between the beginning of the seventh inning and the end of the eighth inning, Pedro Martinez wore down and lost much of his effectiveness. If it was obvious to someone like me, watching the game at home without any inside knowledge of the situation, it had to have been obvious to Grady Little. He needed to make the tough decision, to turn to his bullpen, to take out his superstar pitcher. And he didn't do it.

You can talk about curses or mystique or aura or whatever other fictional stuff you feel like talking about, but the fact is that the Boston Red Sox were in a very good position to win last night's game and they didn't, because their starting pitcher was left in for several batters too long. And ultimately, that blame falls squarely on the shoulders of Grady Little. If he makes it through the end of the month as Boston's manager, I will be incredibly surprised.

Of course, the other side of this tale is that the New York Yankees, as they have done so many times, came back and won a game in the post-season. They were down big early, their manager yanked their starting pitcher too soon instead of too late, and a cast of thousands came in from the bullpen and kept the game close.

Mike Mussina was excellent for three innings and the trio of Felix Heredia, Jeff Nelson and David Wells gave up one run in two innings of work. And then, with the game tied, Joe Torre went to his ace in the hole, bringing Mariano Rivera into the game.

All of the good adjectives for describing a pitcher have been used to describe Mariano Rivera's post-season play in the past, so I will just say that he is absolutely amazing.

During the regular-season, Rivera pitched more than one inning in just 15 of his 64 appearances. He pitched as many as two innings in just five of his 64 appearances, including zero times since the middle of July. And yet, once the post-season rolls around, he becomes a workhorse, capable of giving Joe Torre multiple innings at a time whenever it is asked of him.

Before last night's game, Rivera had pitched in five post-season games this year, going two innings in four of them. Last night, he was asked to go even beyond that and he was up to the challenge. Rivera shut Boston down for three innings, throwing a total of 48 pitches while striking out three, walking none and giving up just two hits.

Rivera did not throw as many as even 40 pitches during the entire regular-season. Or last season. Or in 2001. I would gladly tell you when the last time Mariano Rivera threw 40+ pitches in a game was, but sadly ESPN.com's "game logs" don't even go back that far.

The man is just such an incredible weapon to have in the playoffs. If the Yankees are winning, he can make it a seven-inning game. If the Yankees are tied, he can make it a 10 or 11-inning game, giving New York's offense several shots at winning it. Which is exactly what happened last night.

Rivera came in for the ninth and shut Boston down. The Yankees couldn't score.

Rivera came in for the tenth and shut Boston down. The Yankees couldn't score.

Rivera came in for the eleventh and shut Boston down. Aaron Boone hit a solo homer to lead off the inning, and the Yankees are in the World Series.

Game One is on Saturday night, in the Bronx. Florida versus New York. This post-season has been incredible so far and there is no doubt in my mind we are all in for a very good World Series.

I don't have much time to work on a preview before Game One, but I'll definitely have something up for you all to read first thing Saturday morning. Until then, sit back, relax and rest a little bit. Because there is still a whole lot more baseball left to be played!

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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