I have often wondered which Negro League players and Cuban stars could have excelled in the big leagues. But what about Sadaharu Oh? What could HE have done in the major leagues?
That and more on today’s episode of The Sully Baseball Daily Podcast.
That and more on today’s episode of The Sully Baseball Daily Podcast.
The Yankees have a reputation of signing big name free agents and piling up World Series titles. But save for one season, the Yankees have fallen short of the title every year since 2000. And many of the big contracts have disappointed in the long run.
The Bronx Bombers almost found themselves in a giant hole in the 2009 World Series. But they were rescued by A. J. Burnett, a pitcher who save for that game looked like the personification of a bad signing.
Going into 2009, the mighty Yankees had not won a single post season series since the Red Sox stunned them in the 2004 ALCS. With Joe Torre gone to LA, the Yankees missed the post season altogether in the final year of Yankee Stadium and the first season for manager Joe Girardi.
With owner George Steinbrenner’s health failing, the team spent big and abandoned the patient “develop the pitching staff” approach from 2007 and 2008. In came sluggers Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher as well as Cy Young contender CC Sabathia. Burnett was also acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays and the fortified Yankees were ready.
After a slow start, the Yankees clicked and won the Division with 103 wins and swept Minnesota in the Division Series, getting the monkey off of their back and advancing in the post season.
The Angels challenged the Yankees but in the end, it was an old fashioned Northeast World Series between New York and Philadelphia.
A pair of former Indian Cy Young Award winners faced off in the opener. Cliff Lee topped Sabathia and the defending World Champion Phillies had a 1-0 lead. Pedro Martinez was ready to go in Game 2. The future Hall of Famer was a shell of his former self, but the potent Philadelphia lineup seemed poised to jump all over Burnett.
The free agent pick up did not have a bad year but he had a disastrous August that was fresh on Yankee fans’ mind. So was the thrashing he endured by the Angels in Game 5 of the ALCS.
With the specter of a 2-0 hole going back to Philadelphia and at least one more Cliff Lee start, the pressure on Burnett was intense.
A ground rule double by Raul Ibanez and an infield hit by Matt Stairs put the Yankees in an early 1-0 second inning hole. Pedro made it through 3 inning unscathed before allowing a game tying homer to Teixiera.
The Phillies would get on base against Burnett but could not cash in the runners. Jayson Werth was picked off one inning. Ryan Howard struck out with runners in scoring position in another.
In the sixth, Burnett faced the mighty heart of the Phillies order and got Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth in order.
When eventual series MVP Hideki Matsui homered with 2 outs and 2 strikes in the 6th, the Yankees finally had a lead.
In the 7th, Burnett once again got the Phillies in order, getting Pedro Feliz to ground out to end the inning. He had gone 7 innings, 4 hits, 1 run and 9 strikeouts. Eventually the Yankees gave Mariano Rivera an insurance run and the series was tied heading to Philadelphia.
The Yankees took a pair of wild games before Burnett got his chance to close out the World Series in 5. His luck ran out as he could not record an out in the third and the Phillies sent the series back to New York where the Yankees won in 6.
The rest of Burnett’s time in New York was rough. A pair of season where his ERA spiked above 5 saddled him with a “Free Agent Bust” label. Eventually he was dumped by the Yankees who picked up his salary while he played (and had success) in Pittsburgh.
But anyone who tries to totally dismiss Burnett’s time in New York needs to admit one fact: Had he not won Game 2, the Yankees were probably going to lose the World Series.
They have not even played in a World Series since, let alone win one. Imagine a world where the Red Sox had won 3 World Series since the last Yankees title. That almost happened.
And for that reason, A. J. Burnett is the unsung post season hero of October 29.
My fellow Red Sox fans and I are always willing to talk about the 2004 ALCS. An easy way to prompt a conversation with a Sox fan about those 7 games against the Yankees is to say something like “hello” or “how are you?” or “what is new?”
40 minutes later and we have broken down each detail of the first Major League team to come back from a 3-0 hole in the post season.
Now ask us to list the great moments and heroes of that October and there will be a plethora of answers. Dave Roberts and his steal. David Ortiz and his three walk off hits. Curt Schilling and his bloody sock. Bill Mueller driving home Roberts. Manny Ramirez being Manny and winning the World Series MVP. Pedro Martinez shutting out the Cardinals in his final Red Sox game.
Keep listing heroes and you will hear about Derek Lowe’s three clinching wins and Mark Bellhorn’s clutch homers and Tim Wakefield pitching his guts out in relief.
Eventually you will hear about Keith Foulke, getting the final out of the World Series. Make no mistake, however. If Keith Foulke was anything less than outstanding in the ALCS, all those great memories would have been wiped out and 2004 would have been just another year where the Yankees got the best of the Red Sox.
After the near miss of 2003, the Red Sox needed two pieces to their puzzle. They landed an ace to compliment Pedro Martinez by trading for Yankee slayer Curt Schilling. They also needed an anchor to their bullpen. To fill that role, they nabbed free agent Keith Foulke, who had a dominating All Star season for Oakland in 2003. Ironically one of the few blemishes on his resume was losing a playoff game to David Ortiz and the Red Sox.
Foulke was lights out all year and allowed Mike Timlin and Alan Embree to slide into set up roles and give the Red Sox one of the best bullpen’s in their team’s history.
When the inevitable rematch with the Yankees took place in the ALCS, the refortified Red Sox looked overmatched. Down 3-0 in the series and trailing the fourth game 4-3, Boston manager Terry Francona threw the proverbial book into the garbage and brought his closer Keith Foulke into the game behind and in the 7th. They needed to get out the red hot Hideki Matsui and Bernie Williams and keep the game close.
Foulke pitched brilliantly in Game 4, allowing 2 walks and no hits over 2 2/3 innings, striking out 3. The Red Sox rallied in the 9th to tie the game and won in the 12th on an Ortiz homer. Foulke threw 50 pitches and under normal circumstances would sit the next day. These were not normal circumstances.
On no days rest, Foulke was ready to go in Game 5. The Red Sox took a 2-1 lead into the 6th, but Pedro Martinez tired. A three run double by Derek Jeter gave the Yankees a 4-2 lead and only a sliding inning ending catch by Trot Nixon kept the Yankees from breaking it wide open.
In the top of the 8th, the Yankees went for the dagger. Miguel Cairo doubled and Jeter bunted him to third to set up the red hot trio of Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui.
In retrospect, the 2004 Red Sox were the gallant warriors who stared down the odds. But at the moment, they were a team that was 2 days removed from a 19-8 humiliation in Game 3. The Roberts steal and Game 4 comeback felt like the delaying of the inevitable. It was a face saving victory as they avoided a humiliating sweep. But the Yankee bats were poised to erupt again and the pennant celebration was only a few innings away. With 2 on and 2 outs, Francona again threw “the book” into the toilet and brought his closer in the 8th inning and down by two runs.
Foulke got Matsui, who was a lock to win the Series MVP, to fly out and end the inning. In the bottom of the 8th, the Red Sox staged another remarkable rally, highlighted by an Ortiz homer, more outstanding base running by Dave Roberts, a Trot Nixon hit and run and a Jason Varitek sacrifice fly.
Foulke pitched the ninth and quickly got two outs. But Ruben Sierra walked on 5 pitches. Then with 2 strikes, Tony Clark, subbing for Jason Giambi at first, hit a long drive to right field. It was either going to be a go ahead homer or an RBI double. Instead the ball bounced barely over the wall for a ground rule double, preventing Sierra from scoring.
Given a reprieve by the baseball Gods, Foulke got Cairo to pop up and end the threat. He would be lifted after the ninth and the rest of Boston’s bullpen, especially Tim Wakefield, picked up where Foulke left off, winning in the 14th.
With no travel day between Games 5 and 6 because of weather, Foulke appeared in Game 6, once again with the season on the line. He was a little shakier in Game 6 but struck out Tony Clark to end the game.
He would throw in three straight days for a total of 5 innings allowing no runs, 1 hit, 5 walks and 6 strikeouts, with the season on the line for practically each of his 100 pitches.
Mercifully for Keith Foulke, the Red Sox blew out the Yankees in the finale and he could rest. He would eventually clinch the World Series and be awarded the Babe Ruth Award for post season MVP.
Foulke was never the same pitcher after 2004 and his three year stretch in Boston did not end well as he clashed with the fans and the media. Thankfully, as the years passed, Red Sox fans have embraced Foulke and the feeling has been mutual as their former closer has returned to Fenway to thunderous ovations. Fans recognized that he may have sacrificed his career for his remarkable post season performance in 2004.
And while the image of Foulke recording the final out of the Curse breaking World Series is etched into every Red Sox fan’s mind, it was his clutch relief in the ALCS that set up the great Boston comeback. If he were merely good instead of excellent, there would have been nothing to celebrate in 2004.
That reason above all makes Keith Foulke the Sully Baseball Unsung Post Season Hero of October 18.