Friday, December 24, 2010

Memorable Game: A-Rod Blasts a 3-Run Walk-off Home Run

Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.  ~Michel de Montaigne

Fans of any of the Cleveland sports teams have been given plenty of memories that fit perfectly into Montaigne's quote.  The Browns contributions include Red Right 88, The Drive, and the Fumble.  The Cavaliers added The Shot and through no fault of their own The Decision.  The Indians finally got into the act by blowing a 1-run 9th inning lead in Game Seven of the 1997 WS before Edgar Renteria delivered the game winning hit in the bottom of the 11th inning.  

We all also have the individual games that for one reason or another seem to stick in our memories more so than others.  Some of these games brought us euphoria and some of them brought us despair.  Usually, there is a side story that accompanies these games such as a family outing, a first date, or some other human interest event that coincides with the sporting event. 

For me, THAT game was played between the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees on April 19, 2007.  For months I had been studying for an 8-hour long Professional Engineer exam which was to be taken on Friday, April 20th at the Orlando Convention Center.   At the time, I lived about an hour and a half from the testing facility, so I decided to drive out the day before the exam and get a hotel for the evening.  The Indians and Yankees were playing a day game that afternoon and I was looking forward to listenting the game on my XM as I drove to Orlando.  What better a distraction to take my mind off the equations floating in my head for a few hours than a Indians and Yankees baseball game?  Things wouldn't work out the way I, or the Indians had hoped, as Alex Rodriguez would spoil the day with a walk-off three run home run to defeat the Indians 8-6. 

The Indians were coming off a 78-84 finish in 2006 despite scoring 870 runs while allowing only 782 runs to score (a pythagorean record of 89-73).  The 2006 season had started with great promise as the Indians won 7 of their first 8 games.  By July 19th, the Indians had stumbled ot a record of 42-52 and found themselves 21 games out of first place, so on July 20th, the Indians sent their closer, Bob Wickman, to the Atlanta Braves.  The Indians would go on to finish the year with a 36-32 record, but were unable to find a reliable back end bullpen combination or a closer.

Most painful to watch in the 9th inning that year was Fausto Carmona, whose whole tenure as closer is best described by Montaigne's quote.  After the 2006 season, the Indians front office invested heavily to shore up the back of their bullpen.  Keith Foulke was signed to a 1-year, 5 million dollar deal and Joe Borowski was signed to a 1-year, 4.25 million dollar deal which included a 2nd year club option worth 4 million dollars.  The additional depth provided by the Foulke signing woudl be short lived, as on the day before pitchers and catchers were to report for spring training, Foulke would retire citing pain in his elbow that offseason.  With Foulke's retirement, the plan was to have Joe Borowski fill the closer role for the Indians in 2007.

There was not a lot of optimism surrounding the 2007 Indians, but a slight bit of hope had surfaced after the Tribe started the year off with a 6-3 record as they headed into New York to play the Yankees.  The Yankees would win the first two games of the series dropping the Indians to 6-5 and the team would turn to Fausto Carmona to try and salvage at least one game  

Carmona was coming off a nightmare season which saw him post a record of 1-10 with an ERA of 5.42.  A year that included a seven day period where he would be charged with 4 losses (3 blown saves) and post an ERA of 37.13.  Carmona would end 2006 starting and begin the 2007 season in Clevelands rotation due to an oblique injury to Cliff Lee sufferred in Spring Training.  Carmona would lose his first game in 2007 to the Chicago White Sox giving up 6 ER in 4.1 innings.  Entering his second start on April 19th, Carmona hadn't won a big league game in over a year (April 15, 2006).  Carmona would pitch effectively against the Yankees that day and would leave after 6 innings trailing 2-1.

It would seem as if luck was going ot be on Carmona's side this day.  In the top of the seventh, the Indians would score 4 runs, capped by a Victor Martinez 3 run homer to put the Indians on top 5-2 and put Carmon in line for that long sought after victory.  The Indians would carry that lead into the ninth inning, and would add a run in the top of the ninth thanks to an Alex Rodriguez throwing error to lead 6-2. 

Even though the game was no longer a save situation, Indians manager Eric Wedge had Borowski warmed up and he hadn't pitched in 3 full days.  Borowski on the year had done what the Indians had asked for him by converting 5 out of 5 save opportunities on the young season.    Borowski would retire the first two batters, Robinson Cano on a fly out and Melkyl Cabrera to ground out, with relative ease.  The Indians would avoid the sweep and Carmona's long wait for a victory would most certainly be over.

Josh Phelps would hit what would seem to be a meaningless solo home run to prolong the game.  What followed is a string of at bats that I have yet to get out of my mind concluding with a befuddling managers decision that I have to this day never been able to understoand.   Jorge Posada would single on a 2-2 pitch, Johnny Damon would run the count full before drawing a walk, Derek Jeter would hit a RBI single to left to make it a 6-4 game, Bobby Abreu would hit a RBI single on a 1-2 pitch to pull the Yankees to within 2 runs at 6-5.    The Yankees were down to their final strike three times and three times they found a way to prolong the inning, setting the stage for Alex Rodriguez.

A-Rod had been off to a blistering start in 2007.  In his first 13 games, A-Rod hit for an average of .365 with an on base percentage (OBP) of .435 and an obscene slugging percentage of .981.  He had already hit 9 home runs and driven in 23.  He was the hottest hitter in  baseball and stood in that day with runners on first and second, and his team down only a run.  Borowski's first pitch was a wild pitch putting runners at 2nd and 3rd with 2-out.  Certainly Eric Wedge would now walk Alex Rodriguez (I understand the not wanting the walk the winnng run into scoring position) and face Jason Giambi, right?  No, Borowski's next pitch was drilled to straight away centerfield and all Grady Sizemore could do as a jubilant A-Rod rounded the basepaths as the Yankees waited to congratulate him at home plate. 

Eric Wedge stated after the game that he chose to face Alex Rodriguez rather than walk him because he liked the righty-righty matchup and didn't want Borowski to have to pitch to a very selective hitter (Giambi) with the bases loaded.  Additionally, Wedge noted that A-Rod had struck out twice that day and Giambi had already hit a home run.  Lifetime, A-Rod was 2-5 against Borowski and Giambi was 3-5 with 2 home runs.  I have never understood, for whatever the logic, allowing the hottest hitter in the game to beat you, but Wedge did.  A-Rod became the quickest player in major league history to reach 10 home runs with the walk off blast, I don't know who could've been a hotter hitter?

Borowski said after the game, "Fastballs, breaking balls, up, down, they just hit everything."  Borowski would make a habit of torturing Indians fans with 9th inning tightrope acts for the remainder of the season, a year which he would lead the AL with 45 saves.  But, it was quite a statistical difference between save situations and non-save situations.  In non-save situations, Borowski would have a record of 2-4 with an ERA of 9.60 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.58.  In save situations, he'd have a 2-1 record with an ERA of 3.73 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.50.

Both Carmona and Borowski would exact some bit of revenge on the Yankees in the 2007 ALDS.  Carmona would hold the Yankees to just 1 run in 9 innings and the Indians would win in the 11th inning on a walk off single by Travis Hafner to give the Indians a 2-0 game lead in the ALDS.  The game would best be remembered as "the Midges" game.  Joe Borowski would enter another game with the Tribe with the Indians up 6-3 in the 9th.  Borowski would again give up a solo home run to make it a little tighter at 6-4, but would not allow another hit as the Indians eliminated the Yankees from the 2007 post-season.

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