BEFORE EVERY HOME GAME the Boston Red Sox rip open cartons of new baseballs to use for batting practice. Given the ease with which they fly out of the ballpark, many of the balls are destined to have a life span of one pitch. While most clubs reuse practice and game balls for BP, tumbling them through a machine to clean them, the Red Sox cut no such corners. The new balls, like fresh Titleists on a range or fresh flowers in an office lobby, are a small daily reminder that Boston has the means and passion to operate like nobody else this side of the New York Yankees. "Money," says one Red Sox veteran, "is no object here." ¬∂ If the Yankees are the Boardwalk of baseball's Monopoly, the Red Sox are its Park Place. Their payroll ($143 million) could nearly cover the combined payrolls of the three other league championship contenders, Arizona, Colorado and Cleveland ($167 million). Under the stewardship of principal owner John Henry, who purchased the club in 2001, the Red Sox, famously known for conditioning their fans to assume the worst, have turned around the culture of the franchise.
Indeed, a major shift in the outlook of Red Sox Nation was evident at the start of the American League Championship Series against Cleveland, when Boston found itself in a position unknown to the franchise since Babe Ruth last wore the uniform in 1918: the clear-cut team to beat. After winning a division title for the first time in 12 years, racking up the most wins in baseball (96, tied with Cleveland) for the first time in 61 years and rolling to three straight postseason wins over the Los Angeles Angels by a combined score of 19--4, with sluggers David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez basically kicking sand in the face of any pitcher who dared get in their way (they would reach base 33 times in their first 44 tries this October), Boston looked every bit the heavy.
But just when the Nation looked to be swimming in milk and honey last Saturday night—having won Game 1 10--3, Boston was 12 outs away from another victory as it pursued its second pennant in four seasons—the Indians restored some old-time angst to Boston and some much-needed tension to a too-placid postseason. Cleveland scratched out the tying run in the sixth inning and later, with seven runs in the 11th, turned an extra-inning game into a blowout win, 13--6. For the first time in six series tries this postseason a team would not jump out to a two-games-to-none lead. That momentum carried over to Monday's Game 3 in Cleveland, where the Indians held off Boston 4--2.
The Indians didn't come to the postseason without some baggage. They possess the longest world championship drought in the league (59 years) and rely heavily on a young, dime-store bullpen anchored by one grizzled vet, Joe Borowski, the most disrespected closer in baseball. The 36-year-old righty is pitching for his 12th professional organization—Newark Bears and Monterrey Sultans included—and had a regular-season ERA of 5.07. From such apparent slights, however, do the Indians prosper.
"The people who run those [computer] simulations would have come up with a very slim chance of us winning this game," said Indians G.M. Mark Shapiro after Game 2. "Our starter [Fausto Carmona] is out in the fifth inning, and the Red Sox are winning at home. But really, this game was indicative of our team and how we play. We don't quit, and it seems like it's a different guy every night who pulls us through."
On Saturday it was the bullpen trio of Jensen Lewis, Rafael Betancourt and Tom Mastny, which combined for 5 2/3 shutout innings in front of Borowski, who closed out the night. "Our guys are getting their experience level boosted real quick," says Borowski, who then finished off the Sox in Game 3 with a rare 1-2-3 inning. "First Yankee Stadium; it's so loud and has that aura and history. Now Fenway, which probably has the most decided home field advantage in sports. There may not be two more difficult places to play."
In four games against the Yankees and the first three ALCS games against the Red Sox (the AL's No. 1 and No. 3 offenses, respectively), the Cleveland bullpen had a 2--0 record and a 2.08 ERA. If the series, like Games 2 and 3, plays out as a battle of bullpens, the Indians like their chances, even if the man they trust to get the final outs was once released by the Cubs and the Devil Rays in the same year (2005), doesn't crack 90 mph with his fastball and has the least intimidating stuff in their pen. Warned The Chicago Tribune in a headline about Borowski before the start of the Boston series: HIDE YOUR EYES, INDIAN FANS. "You know what?" Borowski says. "I don't care what anybody else thinks of me. The only people I care about are my teammates and coaching staff. What else matters? Nothing."
Borowski was picked 823rd in the 1989 draft by the White Sox and bounced between the Orioles, Braves, Yankees, Brewers and Reds before getting his big break with the 2003 Cubs. When closer Antonio Alfonseca injured a hamstring in spring training, Borowski happened to be the most rested reliever when the next save situation popped up. He held the job from there, saving 33 games, but never got the chance to save the one game that would have given the Cubs their first pennant since 1945: Game 6 of the NLCS, the infamous Bartman Game. "Honestly, it all happened so fast, I never really visualized getting the chance," he says. "All of a sudden it was like, 'What just happened?'"
Borowski had an ERA of 8.02 the following year, though, and later moved on to Tampa Bay and Florida, where he saved 36 games last season. The Indians, coming off an 84-loss season that could be ascribed in large part to an awful bullpen, signed him last December. The signing, however, hardly came with a ringing endorsement—the front office told him that they would continue to shop for closers. A month later they signed free agent Keith Foulke, who quit just before the start of spring training, again making Borowski the closer by default.
Borowski did lead the league with 45 saves, but he also blew eight chances and gave up 77 hits in 65 2/3 innings, and only 14 times did he pitch a 1-2-3 inning for a save. These Indians and the 1996 Rangers, with Mike Henneman, are the only teams to reach the postseason with a closer (minimum: 30 saves) pitching to an ERA worse than 5.00. Meanwhile, setup men Betancourt (.183 opponents' batting average, an 80-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio), Lewis (34 K's in 29 1/3 innings) and Rafael Perez (1.78 ERA) were much more effective, with lights-out stuff. So why do the Indians continue to use Borowski in the ninth?
"You have to look at the bullpen as a whole," Shapiro says. "Betancourt and Perez have pitched in most of the highly leveraged situations with runners on. Often the biggest outs come before the ninth. And Joe has the toughness you need from a closer. He's aggressive, isn't afraid to pitch to contact and, most important for a closer, if he blows a game he forgets it in 10 minutes."
Relief pitching tends to be a highly variable element; pitchers, after all, are often assigned to the pen because they lack enough pitches or polish to start. While Borowski may be one prominent example of the erratic nature of the trade, so too was the Game 2 losing pitcher, Eric Gagné. The Red Sox obtained the 2003 Cy Young Award winner from Texas at the trading deadline to fortify what was the best bullpen in the league but one showing signs of fatigue. Gagné has been an UNMITIGATED DISASTER, allowing 40 base runners in his 20 innings with the Sox while collecting $4.5 million from them.
Gagné pitched one shaky inning of mop-up work in Game 1, in which Boston righthander Josh Beckett, 27, bronzed his reputation as the best postseason starting pitcher of his generation. Beckett joined Greg Maddux as the only pitchers to win consecutive starts in the same postseason without walking a batter. In two starts Beckett threw 52 balls to 53 batters while throwing 72% of his pitches for strikes.
"He's pitching with the command of Maddux but with a fastball he can run up there in the mid-90s," Boston pitching coach John Farrell says. "That's unheard of."
Boston manager Terry Francona held off using Gagné as long as he could the following night, using four relievers before summoning him in the 11th. Gagné got the big inning rolling by allowing a one-out single to Grady Sizemore and a walk to Asdrubal Cabrera, whereupon Francona removed him. As Gagné trudged off the mound, the crowd at Fenway Park, with the smell of imminent defeat in the air, sent him off with a dirge of vicious catcalls and boos. At that moment it sounded very much like the Red Sox' rise to baseball aristocracy would not come so easily. It sounded, in fact, like old times.
Borowski's signing hardly came with a ringing endorsement—the club said it would shop for ANOTHER CLOSER.
Gagné has been an unmitigated disaster, allowing 40 base runners in 20 innings with the Sox while collecting $4.5 million.
Photograph by Damian Strohmeyer
TURNING POINTS Cabrera completed an acrobatic double play in Game 2, which was decided by Trot Nixon's 11th-inning single.
WORLDS COLLIDING Sizemore and the Indians have crashed the postseason party with a payroll $81 million less than Boston's.
BIG POP The Sox duo of Ortiz (above) and Ramirez reached base a flashy 33 times in their first 44 playoff plate appearances.
AL BELLO/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]