NEW YORK - A kid named Joba Chamberlain came along and threw a couple of pitches behind Kevin Youkilis's ear, got himself ejected, and started a new chapter in this Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, much to the delight of 55,067 fans at Yankee Stadium yesterday.
If "The Bronx Is Burning" becomes a long-running series, yesterday's ninth inning will be an episode. In fact, afterward the Red Sox were burning as well.
Chamberlain has already become a must-see performer, much as Mariano Rivera was in his heyday. When he gets two strikes on a batter, the fans are on their feet in anticipation of a 100-mile-per-hour fastball for a strikeout. When Chamberlain made two consecutive throws behind Youkilis, whether he meant to or not, and got ejected in the ninth inning of a 5-0 win, Yankee fans realized they had a new cult hero.
There will be a lot of bravado over the next day or two about whether Chamberlain meant to throw the pitches. And there will be reverberations that will spill over to the next series Sept. 14-16 at Fenway.
Chamberlain, knowingly or not, seemed to kick the Red Sox when they were down. The Sox had already been buried for three games; their offense was nowhere to be found. They were no-hit by Chien-Ming Wang into the seventh inning after being no-hit by Roger Clemens into the sixth the night before. They had been enraged by a call in the seventh when umpires ruled Youkilis out of the basepath. Then the ultimate indignity of Youkilis having to avoid torpedoes coming at his head.
"I didn't know pitches were coming at someone's head at 98 miles per hour. I didn't see any other pitches out of the strike zone," Youkilis said.
Youkilis made the most sense when asked whether he felt Chamberlain was throwing at him: "I don't know. Only one guy really knows the answer."
The rookie phenom said there was no way he was throwing at Youkilis because "I have too much respect for the game and too much respect for Youkilis. That guy plays the game right."
This kid is good. He's humble and very believable.
Yet he has incited another Yankees-Red Sox incident to further inflame what has burned for years. New wood for the fire. New life in a rivalry that hasn't been that exciting most of the year because Boston has held such a big lead. The Sox entered with an eight-game lead in the American League East and left five up. They had come to bury the Yankees. Instead, the Yankees have risen, not only in their hunt for the wild card, but in pursuit of another division title with 28 games left.
Sound familiar? It should. That was Boston's lead with 28 games left in 1978.
"I was there," said Yankees pitching coach Ron Guidry. "I know how it happened and why it happened."
Nobody expected the Yankees to sweep the Sox into the corner as if they were a pile of dirt.
"There's another series for us," Youkilis said. "I'll be curious to see how that plays out."
So, what does that mean? More balls thrown behind batters' heads? More guys getting hit in the rib cage or shoulder? Great way to settle things, isn't it?
What Chamberlain did didn't look so good. It was obvious why umpire Angel Hernandez tossed Chamberlain without warning as Sox players like Josh Beckett shouted from the dugout and pitching coach John Farrell uttered a few unpleasantries at the kid as well.
The Red Sox were frustrated and tired. Andy Pettitte, Clemens, Wang, Rivera, and, yes, Chamberlain had wiped out their offense. Then this kid does a Clemens on them, throws the ball over a batter's head. Is it a coincidence that Clemens's locker is adjacent to the rookie's in the Yankee clubhouse?
"There is more than a little bit of history between these clubs," said second base umpire Derryl Cousins. "Those were two pretty nasty pitches the young man threw. Up here, you need to be a little better throwing strikes, and we just had to put a lid on it before there was a problem."
There's no doubt the Sox thought Chamberlain was throwing at them.
"I don't want to make no comment about that. I don't think it's fair," said David Ortiz. "Guys throw 100 at somebody's head. They hit somebody in the head at that velocity, you know you're going to have a negative result. He's young. He will learn."
Why would Chamberlain, barely out of high school, try to establish himself as a mean guy this early in his career and risk suspension at a time when he's become the Yankee setup man? Why hit Youkilis in the ninth after retiring Ortiz? Could the Yankees have ordered Chamberlain to throw at Youkilis, who was mouthy about the overturned play at third base in the seventh? The Yankees couldn't be that confident, could they?
"I really don't know what he was trying to do," said Guidry about his young horse. "Youkilis dives in. You try to pitch him in. For Chamberlain . . . there are 55,000 people . . . his adrenaline had to be sky-high. I'm sure his heart was beating. This is the first time he's gone two innings against a club like this. The first time he threw the ball over Youkilis's head, OK. But I'll have to ask him what was behind the second one. I understand he's trying to get the ball in. Don't forget, he has only 10 innings in the big leagues. He throws hard. So if you're gripping it, you want to throw it a hundred. I'll talk to him to see what was going through his mind."
Sox manager Terry Francona offered an ominous theory: "If the kid wanted to get our attention, he did a very good job."
Chamberlain claimed he never wanted to get anyone's attention that way and seemed disturbed about Francona's comment. Other Yankee players were also wondering what Francona meant.
"I have all the respect in the world for that team," Chamberlain said. "There's no way I'm trying to do that. I'm not trying to send that kind of message. That's not what I'm about. I was just trying to let a couple loose. We're trying to pound the zone and hopefully sneak one by him. A couple slipped and that's that. It probably will never happen again."
Joe Torre was incensed that his young pitcher was tossed. The four-time World Series champion called for umpires to use common sense in making such decisions. "A couple of years ago, they threw Eric Gagné out of a game in the ninth inning in a save situation," said the Yankee manager. "You've got to think through what makes some sense."
Chamberlain insisted, "First time I've been ejected. There was nothing behind it. I wasn't trying to do anything."
Lots of people will opine and guess, but we'll never know what the truth is.
The Yankees will believe what they want to believe and the Red Sox will believe what they want to believe.
Until the next episode.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com.