We’ve already seen the future of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry: flamethrowers like Joba Chamberlain and Philip Hughes joining second baseman Robinson Cano in the Bronx; second baseman Dustin Pedroia’s rookie-of-the-year caliber .324 average (entering Sunday’s game), phenom outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury’s near-.400 average in his first 66 big-league at bats, and rookie pitcher Clay Buchholz’s no-hitter in just his second game in Boston.
But last night’s game, a 4-3 series-deciding win for the Yankees, was about reaching back to the past, with heavy implications for the upcoming postseason.
For most of the game, the scoreline indicated a vintage duel between future Hall of Fame pitchers Roger Clemens, 45, and Curt Schilling, 40. But neither was in vintage form.
Clemens, who hadn’t pitched since September 3, needed to show both effectiveness and health to hold off 21-year-old Philip Hughes (and possibly 22-year-old Ian Kennedy) in the Yankees’ likely postseason rotation, behind stalwarts Andy Pettitte and Chien-Ming Wang.
Curt Schilling, meanwhile, needed to continue his largely successful reinvention as a pure control pitcher to assure him a Game 2 start behind Cy Young candidate Josh Beckett.
Schilling went to work with his balanced arsenal right away, mixing the low-90s fastball with a big curve at around 73-75 MPH, and a low-80s changeup. (His uses his fearsome splitter far less frequently now , and his fastball is not only slower, but far less lively. His strikeout rate, just 6.1 per 9 innings–his lowest since 1992–shows it.)
Still, he managed to get Bobby Abreu to swing and miss at the curve, then at the fastball up to earn a strikeout in the first inning. It would be his last strikeout until the eighth inning.
Clemens, meanwhile, immediately displayed the ill effects of his layoff. His first three pitches were balls to Ellsbury, who reached on an error by Johnny Damon. Clemens threw the first of many sliders up in the zone—that is to say, sliders that didn’t slide—to Pedroia, who took it, then flew out. He threw five straight balls to David Ortiz, including a 3-0 pitch that Ortiz hacked at—another slider up. Mike Lowell singled in a run, J.D. Drew flew out (it seems to be his specialty) and after a fastball to get ahead of Jason Varitek 0-1, Clemens left a slider up on the inner half of the plate. Varitek ripped it down the first base line, and the Yankees would have been in a 3-0 hole if Doug Mientkiewicz hadn’t made Joe Torre look like a genius for playing a .225 hitter at first base, robbing Varitek of the certain double.
The game continued to follow this pattern. Schilling threw an ungodly amount of strikes. He showed mastery of his pitches, throwing the fastball, curve and change all for strikes. It took him until the eighth inning to throw 20 pitches for balls. But his put-away pitches of old, the splitter and the 98 MPH fastball, were scarcely seen. He threw the splitter with two strikes just once, on a full count to Melky Cabrera leading off the eighth inning, and the fastball topped out at 92 for most of the night, until a 95 MPH offering in his final at bat of the night.
Meanwhile, even though Clemens appeared to settle down, based on the results, his night was really a journey of self-discovery with a brief spurt of dominance in the middle. The second inning is a great example. The results were: groundout by Eric Hinske (on a slider left over the heart of the plate), flyout by Coco Crisp (on a fastball down the middle, though at least it reached 94), a five-pitch walk to Julio Lugo, and a rookie, Ellsbury, ignoring his struggles and jumping on the first pitch, grounding out to first.
True to form, Clemens found a way to make it work, finding his rhythm over four batters in the third and fourth innings. With one out in the third, he set David Ortiz up with a hard slider, then got him up on a fastball. Mike Lowell foul-tipped a fastball into Jose Molina’s glove. Clemens came back from a 3-1 count to blow two fastballs past J.D. Drew. And he struck out Jason Varitek, after having let the count get to 2-2 with another 86-MPH slider that simply didn’t move much. (On the ESPN broadcast, they deferred to Clemens, calling it a small slider.)
But by the fifth inning, Clemens was no longer working with a deficit. Robinson Cano led off the top of the fifth with a home run just over the Green Monster. Not surprisingly, it came on a pitch Schilling tried to throw past Cano up in the zone—at 88 MPH. But Schilling went on to retire the next nine in a row, essentially abandoning the change and simply throwing the curve and the fastball, which often dipped into 86-88 range, for strikes.
Clemens, meanwhile, couldn’t throw anything but his fastball for strikes by the sixth inning. Pedroia flew out on the third straight heater, but Ortiz didn’t bother chasing some bad sliders and walked, and Lowell simply waited for a fastball, then singled to right. Then the normally patient Drew picked the very worst time to swing at the first pitch, with men on against a tired pitcher with control issues, and grounded into a force at second. As Chamberlain warmed in the bullpen, Clemens got his last bit of good fortune on a 1-1 slider he left up and in the middle of the plate. Varitek flew out.
Clemens has succeeded, but not without struggling throughout for command. Part of it may have been the 13-day layoff. But the extra juice on his fastball was probably also a result of his extra rest. If the velocity stays while the command returns in his next two starts, the Yankees have the Rocket back. But if the velocity returns to his 2007 norm of 90-91 for the fastball, and he has no other pitches he can locate, the Clemens that has struggled since the All Star break could be problematic in an ALDS start.
Schilling’s ultimate moment came in far more humiliating fashion, of course. He started the eighth by falling behind Cabrera 3-1, before reaching back for a 92 MPH fastball in, followed by his splitter to get strikeout number two on the night.
But that something extra he reached for was near the last of his reserves. In the next at bat, Mientkiewicz lined an 0-1 half-fastball, half-changeup (84 MPH) into left for his second hit of the night (making Joe Torre look like a genius for employing a first baseman now hitting .235), and Jason Giambi reached up for a 92 MPH fastball and smashed it off the top of the Green Monster.
Schilling came back to jam Johnny Damon, getting a first-pitch groundout.
That brought Derek Jeter to the plate. Schilling started him with another perfectly-placed pitch, an 86-MPH fastball just off the outside corner, getting Jeter to swing and miss. Briefly, a flash of old Schilling reappeared with a 94-MPH fastball, his hottest of the game. But this time, location, rather than speed, showed Schilling’s age—it fell harmlessly into the catcher’s glove, well outside, as did the following pitch at 93.
That was about all Schilling had left. Jeter timed an 84-MPH fastball on the outside corner, an 85-MPH on the inside corner, then when Schilling tried to get him upstairs, without the necessary oomph, Jeter launched his pitch deep into the Green Monster seats.
The Yankees led 4-1, Schilling’s night was over, and both Boston and New York had to be asking questions about what their once-great pitchers will have left for the postseason.