When it comes right down to watching nine innings of America's pastime, there are ho-hum baseball games, like last night's snooze-fest between the Red Sox and Royals, and then there are exclamation point baseball classics that preview the game's best month, like last night's gem between the Astros and Padres.
After the Red Sox plated five against a Kansas City fella whose name sounds more like a missing piece to the Wankel rotary engine than a pitcher, it was hopeless for the hapless Royals, even in spite of Mike Timlin's hiccup in the ninth inning, which sent yours truly diving back into "Straight Man," possibly the finest tome from the fabulous Richard Russo. Can't wait to catch tonight's anticipated duel between Matt Clement and D.J. (seven walks in 4 2/3 against Boston Aug. 4) Carrasco. After such an entertaining series as we just witnessed in Anaheim, we have to be expected to pay attention to this?
Meanwhile, two times zones west of KC, old man Roger Clemens and Jake Peavy, a pitcher almost two decades the future Hall of Famer's junior, locked up in one of the season's best pitching duels (one hour, fifty-three minutes to boot), a 2-0 win for Peavy and the San Diego Padres over the Houston Astros. With complete-game efforts, Peavy allowed just four hits and no runs, while Clemens allowed five hits and two runs. Both pitchers are 11-6 and among the favorites for the NL Cy Young Award.
The San Diego Tribune's Tim Sullivan says "There's no excuse if you missed this one," and suddenly even Russo seems pedestrian by comparison. It is contests like that one that remind us what's coming in just five weeks, the drama and intensity of October baseball that never fails to disappoint the fan in all of us. Unless it's another Subway Series, in which case most of us outside of 212 cease caring.
These are also the sort of nights that illustrate why the Red Sox aren't going to be playing much past the Androscoggin Valley's foliage peak. Bob Ryan admits as much today when he writes, "Enjoy the bashing until the season ends and then sit back and relax. You have one in the hand, and this team isn't supposed to win. That's pretty cushy fan duty, if you ask me."
Indeed. While the Red Sox might be one of the most dangerous run-producing teams of all time, the pitching, at the outset of August, remains a work in progress. They are, for all intents and purposes, the Cleveland Indians of the mid-to-late 90's. Oh, sure, Curt Schilling could be the ace he was last year again over the next few weeks, but it's just as improbable. Come October, one thing matters above all else, and the 2005 Schilling, Matt Clement, and David Wells are no comparison to the 2004 Schilling, Pedro Martinez, and an out-of-nowhere Derek Lowe.
I mean, don't get me wrong. It could happen. Bronson Arroyo might become unhittable for a stretch. Keith Foulke might be healthy enough to contribute. But there isn't that dominating factor that makes you go "Aha!" and tab them a possible dominant postseason contender.
How many of those dominating factors are there? Not many, and surely if he proves fit, Schilling will leap into that category. Right now, among playoff contenders, I would consider them to be Randy Johnson, Johan Santana, Bartolo Colon, Chris Carpenter, Martinez, Dontrelle Willis, Clemens, Roy Oswalt, Barry Zito (Game 2, 2003, anyone?) and despite little-to-no playoff experience, Rich Harden and Peavy. The jury is undecided on the White Sox' Jon Garland-Mark Buehrle one-two punch, which has recently hit a rocky road. John Smotlz and Tim Hudson are also on the bubble because they play for the Heimlich Braves, who now even have to deal with that silly SI curse.
That doesn't make those teams the so-called favorites (although the Clemens-Oswalt-Pettitte, Willis-Beckett-Burnett, and Carpenter-Mulder-Morris trios look pretty good going into October, as does the surprisingly successful grouping of Colon-Lackey-Donnelly, 5-6-7 in the AL in winning percentage), but it does give them that possible dominating presence. The Orel Hershiser. The Schilling. The Johnson. The Jack Morris. The Bob Gibson.
As for teams like Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Washington, all within striking distance of the playoffs, well, if they make it they aren't to last long, with pitching staffs headed by Cliff Lee (a nice pitcher, but not of the above caliber yet), Jon Lieber, and Livan Hernandez. The excitement factor is somewhat missing along these lines, no? And the only difference between the likes of these sure-to-be also-rans and a team like the Red Sox is that while Boston may have the best offense in the game, they also have the worst bullpen.
They're just not good enough, and that's nobody's fault no matter how much you want to bemoan the loss of Pedro. Would you have rather Schilling shut it down mid-October last year to win 20 this season?
Think of this season like 2002 for the Patriots, the downtime before dynasty. They're probably not going to raise the trophy this time around, but with studs like Craig Hansen, Jonathan Papelbon, and Manny Delcarmen on the way, the hopeful re-signing of Johnny Damon, and the emergence of guys like Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia, a simple re-tooling could reel off a similar championship streak.
Once the Sox finish their business in Kansas City, they'll be ready to rock the majority of their remaining games at the Rolling Stones' most recent concert venue (would it have been in bad taste for the Stones to dedicate "Shattered" last night to their Spidey fan?), where they play .679 ball. That ought to be good enough for them to win the AL East for the first time since 1995. Just don't expect them to win their first World Series since 2004. Hey, it's 85 fewer seasons than 86 was, right?