The American League season was six months of calisthenics, all those games nothing but 1,140 jumping jacks, including seven passed off as Division Series matchups in which the outcome was supposedly in doubt. By last Saturday night, of course, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees had outspent, outplayed and outlasted their competition. Properly warmed up, they arranged to meet again, as they did last year in the AL Championship Series, for what Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez calls, "the matchup everybody wanted to see, including the players." ¬∂ "We're both going to be bloody by the time it's over--not literally," Yankees manager Joe Torre said, apparently forgetting the sight of one of his pitchers, Tanyon Sturtze, leaking hemoglobin like oil from a jalopy after a July 24 brawl between the two teams. "Emotionally drained," Torre added, to clarify. ¬∂ Both teams played to type in dispatching the last obstacles to their inevitable rematch. The loaded, loose Red Sox, who lack nothing but a decent barber and a bit of couth, steamrollered Anaheim in three games so convincingly that Angels first baseman Darin Erstad exclaimed, "Those boys are winning the Series. That's the deepest team I've ever seen. They've got every piece of the puzzle. I don't see anybody beating them."
Meanwhile, the closely cropped, tight-lipped Yankees spotted the Minnesota Twins one game before ripping off three straight come-from-behind wins, the last being Saturday's 6-5 thriller in 11 innings that was made possible by Ruben Sierra's game-tying, three-run homer in the eighth. "The guy did what those Yankees do," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said after it was over. "It's unbelievable."
Out of 48 postseason games under Torre in which they were six outs or fewer from defeat, the Yankees have now rallied 17 times to win. Of that Octoberfest of comebacks, the most famous was last year's iconic ALCS Game 7, which Aaron Boone ended with an 11th-inning walk-off homer.
The two Division Series, however, also underscored how significantly the AL East archrivals have changed since that Game 7. Red Sox ace righthander Curt Schilling, whom the Yankees were unable to acquire in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks for lack of farm-system resources, and Rodriguez, whom Boston was unable to acquire in a trade with the Texas Rangers for lack of financial resources, bring new weapons and fresh blood to the rivalry.
The 37-year-old Schilling opened the Division Series with a workmanlike 9-3 victory on Oct. 5 and ended it soaked in beer and champagne as part of his official Boston baptism last Friday. (It marked only the second time since, ahem, 1918 that the Red Sox clinched a postseason series at home.) Not bad for a guy who was signed to his first professional contract--with Boston--by Boone's grandfather Ray. "I know the reason I'm here is to pitch big games in October," Schilling says. "That's why I came here. And this is only the first step."
Schilling agreed to the trade to Boston last fall after a negotiating session with then 29-year-old Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein over Thanksgiving dinner at Schilling's suburban Phoenix home. "The first time I cook Thanksgiving and it's national news," Schilling's wife, Shonda, recalls. "Talk about pressure. But it was nice that Theo was so young. Curt threatened to have him babysit our kids."
This season Schilling discovered a Boston team that reminded him of the outlandish and goofy 1993 Philadelphia Phillies club, for which he starred. Righthander Pedro Martinez, for instance, blew off the on-field player introductions before ALDS Game 1 in Anaheim, then appeared for the intros before Game 3 at Fenway Park wearing a headband instead of a cap. For batting practice before that game, first baseman Kevin Millar donned a camouflage hat and reserve first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz sported Millar's jersey.
Centerfielder and leadoff batter Johnny Damon's Nazarene look is one of many extreme hairstyles--Friday's starting pitcher (Bronson Arroyo) wore cornrows and the winning reliever (Derek Lowe) a mullet--that have inspired homages from wigged-out Red Sox fans. And the players pick from a line of inspirational, bumper-sticker-like T-shirts to wear under their jerseys (e.g., why not us? ... the time is now ... if 25 men believe they can, they will).
"Oh, it's not an act--these guys are crazy," Schilling says. "There must have been 50 times this year that we'd say in the clubhouse, 'Man, can you imagine if the public saw what we did?' This is a fraternity--a fraternity where you don't have to go to school and everybody has a hell of a lot of money. That's horribly dangerous. But come game time, this team plays hard, and it plays the game as right as it was meant to be played."
As it was last season, Boston is a relentless offensive club. Trying to pitch around Red Sox batters is like trying to make your way around the furniture in an unfamiliar room with the lights out. You can proceed as slowly and as carefully as you like, but eventually you'll crash into something. The three Anaheim starters, for instance, averaged a numbing 23 pitches per inning against Boston and lasted a total of only 12 2/3 innings.
The Red Sox batted .302 and scored 25 runs in the three games, the last two coming on a series-clinching walk-off homer by the neatly bearded David Ortiz, who looked not to heaven but to his rally-starting leadoff man when he said, "Thanks to you, Jesus."
With the Angels dispatched in short order, a rested Schilling, a career 6-1 pitcher in the postseason, could start three times if seven games were necessary against the Yankees. "I absolutely want to," Schilling says. He has, however, been plagued by a sore right ankle that has limited his effectiveness late in games. This season Schilling held batters to a .209 average through his first 75 pitches per outing, but they hit .310 thereafter.
And Schilling will face a Yankees lineup that does its best work late. New York prefers to grind out at bats against starting pitchers--on Saturday night Twins ace Johan Santana did not come out for the sixth inning after throwing 87 pitches on short rest--and beat up on bullpens. The Yankees have a major-league-record 64 come-from-behind wins this year, including a series-turning 7-6 win in ALDS Game 2, in which they trailed 6-5 with no one on base and one out in the 12th inning. Rodriguez tied it with a towering double off tiring Twins closer Joe Nathan, and two batters later Hideki Matsui hit a game-ending sacrifice fly. As Torre made his way out of Yankee Stadium that night, he shook his head and said, "I don't know what to say. What words are there for that? That doesn't take a backseat to any of the [other] ones we've pulled out."
With the double, Rodriguez became a made Yankee, accepted not by blood ritual but by the requisite big moment in October. He also won Game 4 in the 11th by lashing a double, stealing third without a throw and scoring on a wild pitch. "It's very satisfying," says Rodriguez, a career .361 postseason hitter. "I mean, I've always felt most comfortable in October, and I've played my best baseball in October. It's a fun time to play."
The Yankees and the Red Sox entered the ALCS having played each other 45 times over the past two years, with Boston winning one more game than New York. Before Boone hit his epic home run last year, each team had three wins and had scored 29 runs in that series. "I anticipate it's going to be the same kind of emotional roller coaster," Torre says. "I guess it was supposed to come down to this."
October is usually a time for pitchers, but sluggers thrived in this year's Division Series
Traditionally the playoffs are a time when fewer runs are scored than in the regular season and starting pitchers dominate. Not so in this year's Division Series, which had a high number of runs and homers per game (even higher than the season averages of 9.6 and 2.25, respectively) and only one starting pitcher lasting into the eighth inning (the Dodgers' Jose Lima, who shut out the Cardinals in Game 3). Here's a year-by-year look at the Division Series since it debuted nine years ago.