June 26: JJ Putz strikes out a pinch-hitting Manny Ramirez to cap off an 8-7 win over Boston.
JJ vs. Bonds had the intrigue, but JJ vs. Manny had the implications.
The Mariners were still trying to get the bitter taste of a nasty swing through the NL Central out of their mouths, but at 39-33, they remained very much in the hunt, seven behind Los Angeles in the division and three behind Cleveland for the Wild Card. There wasn't much margin for error, though, so every day took on a certain importance, and with the onset of a six-game stretch against Boston and Toronto, you got the feeling like this could decide their season. A good showing would inspire a bit of legitimate hope, but a slip-up would set them back by perhaps too broad of a gap. For a couple series in June, the leverage meter was off the charts.
The M's got off to a good start, beating the Sox 9-4 to open the series. On top of that, they had what on the surface looked to be a huge pitching mismatch the next day with Felix going up against Gabbo, but then this was still Recently Off The DL Felix, so expectations were tempered. If we've learned anything from Felix over the years, it's been a valuable lesson regarding the perils of overconfidence.
And Felix, being the persistent, resolute instructor that he is, was determined to keep teaching us this lesson over and over, as his start was a bit of a mess. Over 5.2 innings he allowed six runs and a staggering 13 Sox to reach base, and the only thing that kept us from throwing a royal tizzy was the fact that Gabbo looked even worse. He'd been knocked out in the fourth, and the Boston bullpen hadn't done much to seal the busted dam. After six innings the M's held an 8-6 lead, and a funk blast from the unlikeliest of sources had lifted everyone's mood. The game wasn't yet comfortable, but it had loads of novelty value, and that's generally enough to keep people off the ledge.
Shaking off one of the ugliest performance stretches he's likely to have in his career, Brandon Morrow tossed a solid seventh to bring us that much closer to the inexorable clutches of Sherrill and JJ's lullaby duet. But rather than taking Morrow out of the game with a smile and handing things over to the Governor, Hargrove sent Morrow back out there to start the eighth, and he immediately got himself into trouble, allowing a walk and a base hit to bring David Ortiz to the plate as the go-ahead run (note to rookies: Brandon Morrow is not a good role model).
Fortunately Hargrove wised up in time for Sherrill to make Ortiz look like an FAS baby, but that was only one down, and the righty on deck meant JJ would have to summon all his strength (and some of other peoples' too) for a five-out save.
JJ can't strike out everyone whenever he wants, so a sac fly by Youkilis scored the runner from third, but he got Drew to ground out to preserve a one-run lead, which was all I think we really wanted. This way we'd get to see JJ take charge in the ninth without having to clean up somebody else's mess. There's nothing quite like a fresh canvas.
And take charge he did. After falling behind 3-1 on Mike Lowell, JJ came back to strike him out on a high fastball call that was admittedly generous. That brought Jason Varitek to the plate, but where a lot of people had some lingering concerns after seeing Varitek take JJ deep on a slider the summer before, this time JJ didn't screw around - he came right after the strike zone and got Varitek on a high fastball as well.
Two down, ninth inning, one-run game. Terry Francona played his best remaining card and pinch-hit Manny Ramirez for Eric Hinske (who, incidentally, had homered in the sixth). Manny's pop was down a little bit from what people typically expect of him, but he was still coming in with an .881 OPS and the track record of one of the best hitters in baseball history. Textbook definition of power on power. To that point in the season, this was easily the most compelling at bat, and people who might've been watching on TV with passing interest dropped everything and focused on the screen.
Everybody in the ballpark understood what was going down. The Red Sox chant got louder, and while the Mariner fans were a little uneasy and shifting in their seats, there was nevertheless a buzz projecting the kind of confidence that people tend to have in a closer as untouchable as JJ had been. In this particular scenario, the Mariners weren't the underdogs. By making more noise, the Sox fans were only cloaking their fear of impending dread.
When you have a power arm going up against a power bat in a critical situation, everyone's looking for the first-pitch fastball so that one of the parties may assert his control of the at bat. So JJ threw a splitter. Manny froze and took strike one.
Ahead 0-1, JJ's options opened up. Heat inside? Try to get Manny to chase something away? Climb the ladder? Drop another one off the table? JJ threw another split down at the shins that Manny fouled off for strike two.
JJ's splitter is a strikeout pitch. He rarely uses it to open at bats, and rarer still does he call on it twice in a row. This at bat was most uncharacteristic, and if Manny'd done any advance scouting before the series, he must've been completely befuddled. This wasn't what JJ Putz was supposed to do. What the hell was coming next?
With the splitter firmly planted in the back of Manny's mind, JJ was in total command. All he had to do was keep the next one at the letters.