by Hank Waddles
I am optimistic to a fault. There are some things that I worry about, I suppose, but in general I assume that everything’s going to work out for the best. Perhaps that’s what drew me to baseball as a boy. Baseball is a game of hope, much more so than any other sport out there, in the long term as much as the short. If you’ve ever watched until the last pitch with your team down seven runs or thought about your team’s playoff rotation in the early days of March, you know what I mean. Baseball is hope.
Except when the Yankees are playing the Angels. I can’t explain what happens to me when these two teams hook up, especially when the games are in Anaheim. Take Tuesday night, for instance. A normal person would’ve looked at that early 5-0 lead and felt confident. The optimist would note that Ervin Santana was getting hit hard and that Chad Gaudin looked remarkably like a number four starter, but the pessimist would answer that Santana’s diving changeup had led to seven early strikeouts and that Gaudin was, well, Chad Gaudin.
The optimist would look at all those two-out, two-strike counts and head for the kitchen to grab a snack, but instead I sat nailed the couch, certain something bad was on the way. Sure enough, something bad usually was. It started in the fateful fifth, when an Angel hitter worked a full count after two were already out. (The name on the jersey said Figgins, but we all know it could’ve been any of a dozen pesky Angles, all cut from the same bedeviling cloth. In fact, I’m not sure why they don’t just stitch ECKSTEIN on everyone’s back and be done with it.) Rather than striking out and grabbing his glove, Figgins lofted a pop fly to right which slithered around the foul pole. It was cheaper than any Yankee Stadium home run, which seemed just about right. Damn those Angels.
Two batters later, our old friend Bobby Abreu earned another full count, but Gaudin walked him, and to borrow a phrase from Vin Scully, the Angels finally had a look at the game. Up next was Vlad Guerrero, who quickly hacked his way to an 0-2 count. If ever there were a time to throw a pitch about two feet off the plate, this was it, but instead Gaudin spun a little breaking ball belt high across the center of the plate. The only surprise was that the ball stayed in the park. Minutes earlier Gaudin had been a single pitch away from five shutout innings and a shot at a win; now he was walking slowly to the bench.
Vulture Aceves quickly got out of the fifth inning, but the Angels kept chipping away, scoring their third run when pinch hitter Gary Matthews, Jr., lined an 0-2 (!) pitch to right, and their fourth when Abreu drew a bases-loaded walk on a 3-2 pitch. In the eighth, Yankee-killer Howie Kendrick reached on an error by Canó, then took off for second on the first pitch and kept going to third when Posada’s throw sailed into the outfield. Moments later Kendrick was trotting in behind a Macier Izturis single, and the game was tied. Damn those Angels.
But then a funny thing happened. Brett Gardner walked up to the plate to lead off the ninth inning, and my optimism returned. “If Gardner gets on base here, the Yankees will win,” I told myself. “He’ll steal second on the first pitch and someone will knock him in.” I had it almost right.
Gardner singled and stole second on the secondpitch. The Yankees managed to survive some questionable bunting decisions (Jeter squared on a 3-0 pitch, but I have to believe he was taking all the way, and Damon followed with a risky two-strike bunt that pushed the runners to second and third) and A-Rod game up with a chance to win the game. He turned on the first pitch he saw from Darren Oliver, sending a sac fly to left and plating Gardner with the winning run.
Rivera closed up shop, and my optimistic heart started pumping again. Instead of worrying about a sweep, I was now expecting A.J. Burnett to bring home a series win with a good start on Wednesday. Instead of worrying about the division lead, I noted that the Yankees had clinched a playoff spot, ending our long national nightmare. Instead of obsessing on the Angels, I thought about the Twins and Tigers and a path to the World Series.
Is it too early for that? Of course not. Baseball is hope.