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Soup of This Day #348: Some Kind Of Mysterious

October 29, 2013

Kingda Ka
The peak of the main top hat tower of the Kingda Ka roller coaster. Topping out at 456 feet, this is the tallest roller coaster is the world, making it some kind of green monster to get over – Photo: Dusso Janladde, 2006. Dusso Janladde is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

No matter what happens to the Boston Red Sox in Game 6 of this World Series, 2013 has been the most fun I’ve had across a baseball season in my memory.

Yeah, 2004 was awesome, seeing as it did the end of an 86-year old curse. But that history was exactly why it wasn’t as enjoyable – It couldn’t be when you’re waiting every pitch of every game for an implosion. Sure, it was epically fun right after Keith Foulke underhanded that ball to Doug Mientkiewicz for the last out of the year, but everything up to that was a solid lump of something radioactive in my gut.

Well almost everything – That part where the Sox rallied from 0-3 down in the 2004 American League Championship Series (ALCS) to eliminate the Yankees was just a little bit of non-radioactive hilarity that ironically has a half-life of forever.

2007 lacked the historical context and was therefore definitely fun, but it was kind of not unexpected. There was no wonderful shock to the system – That Red Sox World Series win was a final confirmation that the curse was gone. If 2004 had seen the curse killed off then 2007 was the funeral for it.

A Jamaican-style funeral, a la Live And Let Die, with dancing and music but without the clandestine death of a secret agent.

However it was celebrated, it was the end of a story arc coloured by 86 years of bad baseball juju. And now, after some murky years wandering the transitional baseball swamp of hackery, 2013 has marked the beginning of a new narrative and it’s been a lot of fun to watch.

Perhaps it was the contrast with the mammoth implosion that marked the closing September of 2011, or the Bobby Valentine-led dysctional mess of 2012, but 2013 has seemed like the kind of year where even the losses are positives in disguise. In no small measure, credit for that goes to General Manager Ben Cherington. He went out and filled roster holes with stand-up guys – Players who brought a vibe to Fenway that was about more than just pure talent.

Guys like Shane Victorino, who at least once per outing tries to run through a wall for his team, or Mike Napoli, who made that scene in Moneyball, where Ron Washington tells Scott Hatteberg that 1st base is really difficult, redundant.

And then there’s Jonny Gomes, who in 2002 suffered a heart attack, forcing his then-team’s doctor to keep nitroglycerin tablets on standby in case of a 2nd instance. Nowadays Jonny seems to be amping up on those tablets for fun, making the most easy outs look difficult, in between swatting occasional but very important blasts over the fences.

None of these guys seem like Hall of Fame entries. What they represent though is the ability of this year’s Red Sox to forge something out of intangibles.

How else do you explain the pitching? Jon Lester we knew about – He had been on the wane but is back to being an ace. Clay Buchholz is not really a surprise either – He’s delivering on promise, although that does include being injured. John Lackey though?

Nothing tangible there at all. He is the same John Lackey who stunk up 2011 so much that many fans were grateful that he was forced out of 2012 for Tommy John surgery.

I was 1 of them. I may have suggested he move to Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland. Which in my defence is a lovely place with the painted houses, the friendly locals and a dearth of starters who can chew innings.

Fortunately he didn’t move to Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland. This is lucky because in 2013 John Lackey has been inspiring in a positive way. He has gone to the mound and pitched his guts out, often without run-support and early on without respect.

He’s earned the latter back by sheer force of pitching will and an apparent attitude shift towards fighting for his team. He’ll even start Game 6 of this World Series having successfully volunteered to come into Game 4 as a reliever. That he did so in a spot where the Sox have struggled of late makes it all the more commendable.

For all of that, the most intangible of Red Sox pitchers in 2013 is not John Lackey. It is instead Koji Uehara. The 38 year old journeyman was hired as a late-innings relief guy and seen by many pundits as being of no great import. Then Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan both got injured and suddenly the enthusiastic veteran was thrust in as the closer.

In hindsight, calling Koji the closer is like calling Da Vinci a painter. For just like nobody can work out what’s going on with the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile, Koji’s palette of splitters is painting up mysteries. Seriously, they might be in the low 80’s to high 70’s but they’ve proven beyond the comprehension of pretty much all of the game’s big hitters.

And then there’s the dude’s irrepressible love for what he does, as manifested in his wildly over-the-top yet somehow genuine high 5s. That kind of thing doesn’t get isolated to just the originator. From the outside, what Koji does looks like an airborne affliction, spreading to everybody in range – Even errant high 5s that smack unprepared colleagues in the head get a laugh. Think less of a disease floating around and more nitrous oxide leaking around the Japanese closer.

Koji was a Ben Cherington hire too. As was David Ross, the veteran catcher who has become less of a back-up to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and more part of a platooning option at backstop. Ross, like Napoli, Gomes, Lackey and others has embraced the growing of a beard, the symbol of this team. At another time growing a playoff beard in April might seem like hubris – For these guys in 2013 it’s just an indication that they are bat#%^* crazy enough to make their postseason gig a foregone conclusion.

Which is not to say that beards, Cherington or splitters are the only aspects that have made this fun. John Farrell, replacing Bobby V in the skipper’s role, has bound this collective into a playing entity without his predecessor’s histrionics. Think of a roller coaster which has a bunch of cars, many of which have different gauges and ways of operating.

John Farrell turned them into a pretty awesome ride. With a forked dip from Koji at the end.

The biggest of those cars and the most familiar is David Ortiz. Big Papi is the last remaining veteran of 2004 still getting on board for the Red Sox. At a lumbering 38 he should be resting on his laurels or at the least letting his younger colleagues drag him around the track.

Nope. Not this Papi.

About all you need to know about David Ortiz in 2013 is encapsulated in this World Series so far. He’s had 15 at bats and has hit safely in 11 of them. That is an astonishing .733 if you’re counting, including 2 doubles, 2 blasts and 6 RBIs. And this is against a backdrop of pitching that has seen his team-mates add just 18 more hits to his total.

It does make me wonder why the Cardinals keep pitching to him though.

For all that, Big Papi is not who I’m ending this post with. Instead I’m finishing up with a player who is no longer with the Red Sox, having been traded to the Detroit Tigers a bit over 2/3 of the way through the season.

José Iglesias is a 23 year old shortstop with a glove that will surely be golden 1 day soon. His batting however has in the past been a weakness – So much so that in 2013, across 133 plate appearances for Triple-A Pawtucket, he managed to bat at just .202.

But then he got called up to the Boston Red Sox and across 230 plate appearances hit a hitherto unbelievable .330, which included what seemed like the greatest collection of infield hits you’re ever likely to see this side of a circus act. What made this all the more astonishing is that Ben Cherington used this to leverage a starting pitcher via a trade to Detroit.

Where Iglesias managed 148 plate appearances at a much more realistic .259. That, plus his defence did get him a gig for the Tigers through the playoffs and he was in fact the last out of their 2013 campaign.

In Game 6 of the ALCS against the Boston Red Sox.

Where he whiffed at a Koji Uehara splitter.

Tell me that’s not some kind of magic going on there. Man, this baseball year has been fun.

Some Kind Of Mysterious

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