After three false starts trying to write this Game Report, I suddenly realized why I had such a hard time building up a rhythm. Nothing could possibly recapture the nervous energy of actually watching this game. Nothing.
From start to finish, this was an exhilarating, nail-biting, death-defying series of swoops and leaps as the balance of power shifted from Sox to Jays, back to Sox, back to Jays, and back to Sox again until a series of heart-stopping reverses over the final two innings culminated in a routine Vernon Wells catch of a Ramon Vazquez fly to seal a 4-3 Jays victory, an exultant punch of the air from me, and a huge, heart-filling sigh of relief.
If this were a basketball game, it would be the kind that saw 15 second-half lead changes. In baseball's low-scoring evironment, where teams only take nine turns on offense and defense per game (even fewer than in most football contests), it's rare to see the likely winner of a game change a large number of times, let alone so often in the last three innings. But in this game, we saw the likely winner change a rather shocking eight times, as far as I can judge. Seven of those changes happened in the last four innings. The lead didn't necessarily change, but the team that was most likely to win did. What a ballgame. Let's go through those lead changes.
Start of the game
With Halladay taking the mound for the Jays, the Jays are a slight favorite.
Top of the first
The Jays are set down in order, and I would put the odds about even.
Bottom of the first
Manny homers (and what an incredible roll he is on - I think he's the league's most fearsome hitter when he's on a hot streak) and Boston takes the lead.
Second through Fifth innings
In this first half of the game, following the Manny homer, Halladay was a relentless, ruthless machine, mowing down the Sox hitters as fast as a pitcher can realistically go. Nearly every pitch was delivered into the strike zone, nearly every pitch threatened to break a bat with its velocity and movement. Meanwhile, despite his narrow lead and low margin for error, Arroyo was pitching with coolness and confidence, twice retiring Jays hitters in two-on, two-out situations.
Top of the sixth
Koskie homers with none out, and the teams are essentially tied. Then Hinske doubles with one out, and the Jays take the probabilistic lead. Then Arroyo gets Rios and Hudson to gound out, and suddenly the Red Sox are back in front - at least as far as their chances go.
Bottom of the sixth
Halladay gets three Sox to make easy outs. Here, the game is in a very narrow balance. Halladay is still fresh with only 56 pitches thrown, and the game is tied. I would put the Jays narrowly in front after Damon's groundout (and I felt that way watching), despite Toronto's weaker bullpen. It looked for all the world like Doc would cruise through nine - at least.
Top of the seventh
Zaun singles with two out, and if they weren't before, the Jays are narrowly in front. They slip behind again when Shea grounds out. Remember, all these "lead changes" and ups and downs aren't happening in a vacuum. The Fenway crowd is noisy as heck; Doc is showing his usual intensity. Both lineups are playing gritty, determined, lunch-bucket baseball. The way they do best.
Bottom of the seventh
Manny walks with one out, and the lead shifts heavily over to Boston. It's soon confirmed as Ortiz - the most beloved man in Boston - cracks a homer. The park shakes. 3-1 Sox, Doc is pissed, and Kevin Millar pays the price and stands in to get hit. The lead, at least probabilisitically, is increasing. Doc makes Renteria pay with three straight strikes that he never had a chance on, and Varitek gets a classic Roy Halladay at-bat to follow: strike looking, strike swinging, foul, grounder to short that Adams gobbles up. The Sox have the lead, but Doc isn't going to quit.
Top of the eighth
Koskie singles, and the Jays are creeping back. Vernon swings at the first pitch, fouls one off, and the punks who've been riding V-Dub for the last two weeks are tut-tutting to themselves about his aggressiveness.
And then all of a sudden, he shuts them up. Hopefully forever.
Vernon hits it 400 feet. In some parks, that ball bounces on the track, and Vernon steams around second, the third baseman looks for the throw and pees himself a little feeling Vernon stomp the infield dirt as he barrels headlong for third. In Fenway, forget it. Home run. TIE BALLGAME.
Even from my living room 450 miles away, you can feel the momentum shift. Jamie Campbell mentions how quiet it is - meaning, no doubt, that he can hear himself think for a while. And the Jays are back in front in probabilistic terms, which Eric Hinske confirms by lining a single into center. Whereupon Embree does something unexpected - he gets himself out of the jam. Rios grounds into a double play, Hudson pops out, and as quickly as the Jays put themselves in front, they're looking like underdogs again.
Bottom of the eighth
Halladay re-established himself with two quick groundouts. Then Johnny Damon, in classic style, asserts himself on the game. He singles, and suddenly Doc is confronted with a threat of a different kind - Damon the thief. He balks him over, throws a wild pitch on 2-2, and has to walk Trot Nixon - Boston definitely is back as favorite. Thank god it's Jay Payton and not Manny Freakin' Ramirez on deck - Payton hits the first pitch to Catalanotto and this game is as tied as tied gets.
Top of the ninth
You know, Keith Foulke started really well, with two nasty pitches to Russ Adams. Then something happened that changed the game - as quietly but decisively as you can imagine.
The leadoff hitter against any pitcher, has an important job quite aside from the obvious one of getting on base. The leadoff hitter needs to be patient and take some pitches, like Adams did with Foulke's first, to make the pitcher show off his full arsenal so the rest of the lineup gets to see him work. Russ Adams is the type of hitter ideally suited to this task, but suddenly down 0-2 versus Foulke it looked like he'd be gone quick. As Pat Tabler pointed out in the broadcast, Foulke's not an easy man to face for the first time.
Adams, down 0-2, got to see three more pitches from Foulke. Those two fouls, tiny and inconsequential, and the little fly to left gave (I firmly believe this) the rest of the lineup the chance to see what Foulke was doing. It sent Foulke the message that the Jays were not going to go away. Foulke was throwing some unbelievable stuff at them... Cat went down 0-2 in a hurry as well. And then it happened. Foulke hit Catalanotto with an 0-2 pitch that he was trying to waste, and the Jays started to grind it out.
Zaun walked, a classic Gregg Zaun at-bat, getting to a rising fastball on a 2-1 hit-and-run that saved Catalanotto from an ignominous fate. Foulke, now, tired of seeing Blue Jays clip everything he sent their way, was trying to get guys to chase. By now, the Blue Jays with runners on first and second and one out, were firmly in front. And Ted Hillenbrand sat dead red, and it happened. An excuse-me, seeing-eye, dribbled grounder through the left side between Renteria and Vazquez and Reed Johnson couldn't possibly fail to score.
Right? Wrong. Jay Payton, playing shallow in left, charged the ball and made no mistake, making a great throw to Varitek. Sparky knew he ws beat; he tried to slide right, got his hand caught under him, and Tek calmly tagged him out. And the momentum had shifted. Again. I sat there, no nails left, thinking uh-oh - two out, and the probabilities essentially back to even.
Foulke, though, didn't see it that way. Tired of the treatment he was getting, he fell behind Corey Koskie by trying to get him to chase. Koskie took a 1-1 pitch, then smacked the 2-1 offering for a no-doubt RBI single. 4-3; ecstasy.
Bottom of the ninth
Does Miguel Batista know he makes me nervous? It's like he's baiting me. Batista comes out of the bullpen, and starts (I'm not joking) wandering around like he doesn't know where he is. I know he has trouble finding the plate sometimes, but I've never seen a guy not be able to find the mound.
Eventually, he gets sorted out, and as we head to a commercial break on TV, he heads finally off to take his warmup tosses. I know intellectually that the Jays are a substantial favorite now, but I can't help the nervous feelings. This roller-coaster of a game has actually gotten to me; I expect more craziness.
I get it after one out. Batista's nasty fastball at the knees to Dave McCarty, inexplicably, is a ball and not the strike it was obviously desinted to be. McCarty pulls himself together, fouls off a couple more, and gets his bat splintered on a 3-2 pitch so nasty it had horns. Except the ball, the ball, the freaking ball, dribbles slowly out to Adams' right, and he can't put enough juice on the throw to nail the not-very-swift McCarty. I'm prostrate on the carpet, and this game is one of the best I've seen in ages.
From here, Batista who started so well actually does start to look shaky. Renteria helps him out by lofting a 2-0 pitch high in the air to left, but then Batista helps out a first-ball fastball hitter but giving him a first-ball fastball - Varitek singles, and the Sox are on the charge.
Never in my life have I been so glad to see Ramon Vazquez.
Jays 4, Red Sox 3, and the Jays are still ahead of the Sox in the standings.
All in all, around the majors, this has been the best April of baseball I can ever remember. The way the Jays are winning just enhances that. It's only April and yet many games have been as tense as a September pennant race. I can't help but feel we're being rewarded for the Nightmare last year, but I'm enjoying it while it lasts. The Fighting Jays fought well yesterday and won; I think there are more like this to come. This team feels like how I expected the 2004 team to feel, and that's a good sign to say the least. If the games get any better, I may need to be institutionalized.