kozmaerror

Red Sox capitalize on Cardinals’ blunders in Game 1

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BOSTON — You ever had one of those days when nothing goes right? I’m not talking about big and tragic things going wrong, no, just little things. Little stupid things. You wake up a half hour late because a blackout knocked out your alarm clock. Because of the blackout, the water in the shower is ice. You can’t find your keys. Your car is almost out of gas, so you have to stop at a gas station. You quickly realize you left your wallet at home. You scrounge enough change out of your ashtray to pay for .9 gallons worth. Your boss is waiting when you show up late. The “E” key on your computer is stuck and you can’t fix it. Nobody is around in the tech department. You want a snack but you left your wallet at home. You miss the call back from the tech department. Your boss wants the report, but you have to tell her your computer broke. She angrily suggests you call the tech department. You go out to lunch with borrowed money and get pulled over for a busted tailpipe — and you don’t have your driver’s license because you left your wallet at home. And on. And on. And on.

This was World Series Game 1 for the St. Louis Cardinals.

The final score was 8-1 Boston, the final box score showed the Cardinals committing three errors, throwing one wild pitch, hitting into one devastating double player and striking out five times looking. But those numbers don’t capture the St. Louis feeling. It was embarrassing. It was humiliating. It was so utterly frustrating. There they were in Fenway Park at the World Series, the childhood dream, and then stuff started going wrong, and more stuff started going wrong, and the Boston players fed on their clumsiness, and more stuff went wrong, and the Boston crowd roared happily, like they could not even believe their good fortune. And more stuff went wrong.

The horror probably began with the blown call. That was the first inning, Boston had runners on first and second with one out when David Ortiz hit a ground ball to second that seemed a likely double play. St. Louis’ Matt Carpenter fielded it cleanly and threw to shortstop Pete Kozma. The ball grazed off Kozma’s glove. It was a dreadful defensive play by Kozma, a lost-in-the-fog moment, but umpire Dana DeMuth one-upped him. He called the runner out at second. He apparently thought Kozma had caught the ball and it had popped out when he was making the exchange from glove to hand.

I’m not sure how DeMuth could have thought that. Replays showed two thing clearly — 1) they showed that Kozma did not come close to catch the ball and 2) they showed DeMuth looking RIGHT AT THE PLAY. But he missed the call, the runner was sent off, it was first and third with two outs for Boston.

Only then Red Sox manager John Farrell came out and, I like to think, told DeMuth he had just made the worst World Series call in a quarter century and that he might be remembered for it forever. Maybe Farrell didn’t say that. Whatever he did say, the next thing you knew there were six umpires huddled together to talk about the play. They talked for roughly nine hours. And then, finally, they overruled DeMuth and called the runner safe. It was now bases loaded and one out for Boston.

That put Cardinals manager Mike Matheny in a dreadful spot. On the one hand, he had to go out and argue vociferously — umpires almost NEVER overturn calls. It was so out of character that even Farrell would later admit, “Typically they’re probably going to stand pat.” On the other hand, though, Matheny KNEW the original call was not just wrong but dreadfully, horribly wrong. It wasn’t just a missed judgment call. It was a colossal blunder. The umpires awkwardly had gotten the call right. But they had gotten it right by doing things they almost never do.

“I get trying to get the right call,” Matheny said after the game. “I get that.”

The way Matheny said it, no, you didn’t think he got it at all. That odd overturn was the kick start, it was like waking up a half hour late. It knocked the Cardinals off-balance and they never did regain their balance. They never quite caught up. The next batter, Mike Napoli, cracked a three-run double to left-center. Cardinals’ centerfielder Shane Robinson kicked the ball around a bit in the outfield, which probably allowed that third run to score. Originally that was called an error. Later, the official scorer took the error away. I can only assume it was mercy.

Next inning, Boston’s Stephen Drew hit a pop-up almost straight up. It was a play every Little League team featuring players 10-and-over would make. This time, the ball dropped one foot in front of St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright, who has won a Gold Glove and is one of the better fielding pitchers in the game. That was NOT called an error because … well, because the error is a dumb statistic. But three batters later, Shane Victorino hit a ground ball that shortstop Kozma booted and that WAS called an error. Two more runs scored. It would have been more if Carlos Beltran had not made an amazing and shockingly-graceful, over-the-wall catch on Ortiz’s would-be grand slam.

Beltran had to come out of the game after that because of the way he hit the wall.

All night it was like that. Even good things turned bad. Bad things turned worse. Cardinals hitters who had started off the game very aggressive (“No surprise, we were expecting that,” Red Sox starter Jon Lester would say) suddenly went timid. They watched strike after strike go by.

In the fourth, with a chance to get back into the game, St. Louis’ David Freese hit into a double play with the bases loaded. In the seventh, Freese made a throwing error to allow Dustin Pedroia to reach base. Matheny decided to bring in lefty Kevin Siegrist to face Ortiz. Lefties hit .118 against Siegrist this year and none had hit a home run off him. Until Ortiz. What a player. What a force. He launched the first pitch over the wall and into the stands in right-center. He trotted around the bases at Big Papi speed. He came out of the dugout to acknowledge the cheers.

The Cardinals just looked utterly lost. People will try to assign reasons because that’s what we do at big sporting events. We try to find logical explanations for sometimes illogical things. We will say the intense pressure of the World Series crushed the Cardinals. We will say the Boston crowd simply imposed their will. We will say it was the Fenway ghosts. Maybe it was those things. Maybe not. Maybe it was just one of those rotten days.

“We had a wakeup call,” Matheny would say afterward. “That is not the kind of team we’ve been all season. I think we’re frustrated. Embarrassed to a point. We had an opportunity to show the kind of baseball we played all year long, and it didn’t look anything like we showed today.”

The numbers are not promising for the Cardinals or any other team that loses the first game of the World Series. Those teams lose almost two-thirds of the time. In the last quarter century only the 1996 and 2009 Yankees, the 2002 Angels and the 1992 Blue Jays have lost the first game and come back to win the World Series.

But the Cardinals are a good baseball team. And it was just one bad day. In baseball, you find, there are people who believe in momentum carrying over and people who do not. As you might imagine, the Cardinals are now firmly in the camp of people who do not.

“These days,” Matheny said with a shrug, “you just have to let go of them.”

Jose Fernandez was in the middle of baseball’s culture war

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 11:  Jose Fernandez #16 of the Miami Marlins and Brian McCann #16 of the Atlanta Braves have words after a solo home run by Fernandez in the sixth inning during a game  at Marlins Park on September 11, 2013 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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A lot has been written since news of Jose Fernandez’s death broke early Sunday morning. Fernandez will be remembered fondly for the way he seemed to never stop smiling and for the way he competed on the field. Having already won the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year, it seemed inevitable that Fernandez would one day win a Cy Young Award. We were truly watching one of the best arms of this era and that was paired with a terrific personality. The combination is quite rare and the sport made so much better in the four years during which Fernandez pitched.

Fernandez defected to the United States four times and was sent to prison after each of the first three unsuccessful attempts. On the fourth attempt, his mother was thrown overboard in choppy waters and Fernandez dove in to rescue her. Fernandez risked everything to come to the United States to play baseball and seek a better life for himself and his family. If anyone had a right to tell other players to “play the game the right way” or to “respect the game,” it would have been Fernandez. But he never did. He played every game like it was his first. He savored his time out on the baseball field.

When Fernandez somehow snagged a Troy Tulowitzki line drive, Tulo stopped in his tracks to ask him, “Did you catch that?” Fernandez, flashing his trademark smile, replied, “Yeah, I did.”

When Giancarlo Stanton hit a monster home run to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth inning, Fernandez cheered like he had just won the lottery.

Most memorably, Fernandez took a moment to take in his first career home run, hit on September 12, 2013 against the Braves. He lifted a 1-0 Mike Minor change-up for a no-doubt home run just in front of the Clevelander sign beyond the left field fence at Marlins Mark. Fernandez took his time circling the bases and, as he passed third base, Chris Johnson chirped at him. Catcher Brian McCann confronted him at home plate and shortly thereafter, both benches emptied. Even during this tense moment, Fernandez was seen smiling. In the dugout, he had an expression on his face that seemed to say, “Really?”

Fernandez was not the most central figure in baseball’s culture war, but as one of baseball’s best and most well-known players, he was certainly in the middle with the likes of Yasiel Puig, Jose Bautista, and Carlos Gomez. The war was about baseball’s “unwritten rules” which were devised by a homogeneous group of players decades ago and still followed today, still a rather homogeneous group. Newer players, an increasingly diverse group, were expected to adhere to these rules despite the fact that many of them played the game in a culture where emotion and exuberance were a normal part of the game.

Fernandez’s death should be a reminder that, when all is said and done, baseball is just a game and we’re meant to have fun with it. He was the embodiment of fun on the baseball field. In his memory, players should admire their handiwork on the field. Flip a bat after hitting a foul ball, like Odubel Herrera. Bat flip a fly out, like Puig. Players should laugh and pump their fists and cheer as if they might never have a chance to do it again. Because they might not.

Jose Fernandez was remarkable on and off the field

JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Pitcher Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins poses for photos on media day at Roger Dean Stadium on February 24, 2016 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
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Jose Fernandez’s love for baseball was born in Santa Clara, Cuba. It was there, alongside childhood friend and St. Louis Cardinal Aledmys Diaz, that he devoted hours to makeshift games of baseball. Often alone, often without a teammate, a playing field, or even a baseball, Fernandez would spend hours lobbing baseball-sized rocks in the air, hitting them with sticks, and circling imaginary bases.

The dream was to play in the Cuban National Series, a 16-team league that formed when the original Cuban League disbanded in 1961. When Fernandez became a teenager, however, his stepfather, Ramon Jimenez, defected to the United States. It took Jimenez 13 attempts before he made a successful escape, and soon he sent for his wife and children. Whatever baseball aspirations Fernandez had took a backseat to his own treacherous journey from Cuba to Florida.

After two unsuccessful attempts and two months in a Cuban prison, 15-year-old Fernandez, his mother, and his stepsister tried again. The voyage was tumultuous; at one point, Fernandez’s mother fell overboard. Fernandez dove in after her and helped her swim 30 yards back to the boat. It took another month and change before Fernandez was settled in Florida with his family, and from there, his baseball career appeared to flourish overnight. He enrolled in Braulio Alonso High School and pitched during two championship runs with the Florida Class 6A state champions, working a 13-1 record and 2.85 ERA in his senior year with two no-hitters.

By 2011, several weeks before his 19th birthday, Fernandez was selected by the Miami Marlins in the first round of the MLB draft. His ascension through the minor leagues was even more remarkable. In his first season with Single-A Greensboro, Fernandez contributed six innings of a combined no-hitter, pitched to a combined 1.75 ERA and 158 strikeouts between Greensboro and Advanced-A Jupiter, and was distinguished as the preeminent Marlins minor league pitcher of the year.

If the transition from Miami’s minor league circuit to the big league stage was a rocky one, Fernandez hid it well. He debuted with the Marlins on April 17, 2013, holding the Mets to five innings of one-run ball and striking out eight of 19 batters. Only six major league pitchers under 21 years old had struck out at least eight batters during their major league debut; at 20 years old, Fernandez was the seventh.

The rest of his rookie season was no less groundbreaking. Fernandez worked a 2.19 ERA, second only to Clayton Kershaw’s 1.83 mark among qualified starting pitchers, appeared in his first All-Star Game, was named Rookie of the Month in two consecutive months, and capped his year with a staggering 4.1 fWAR. The Marlins didn’t just find their next ace in Fernandez; they found one of the best starting pitchers of the decade.

This isn’t to say that Fernandez was perfect — no player is. Reports surfaced in November 2015 that the 23-year-old hurler was working under a strained relationship with the Marlins’ brass, refusing to adhere to dugout protocol and asking president of baseball operations Michael Hill when he would be traded. Per Andy Slater of slaterscoops.com, the higher-ups in the Marlins’ organization weren’t the only ones frustrated with their star pitcher. Casey McGehee reprimanded Fernandez for showing up late to the clubhouse, and unnamed players also expressed their hope that Fernandez would struggle on the mound in future starts as a consequence for his arrogant behavior.

Following the report, several players stepped forward in Fernandez’s defense. According to a report by FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, the worst criticism levied at Fernandez was that he occasionally acted his age. (Brian McCann, who confronted Fernandez in a benches-clearing brawl after the rookie’s first career home run, might have agreed.) Others, like right-handers Dan Haren and Tom Koehler, vocalized their support for the pitcher despite any underlying tension surrounding his potential departure.

Whether or not the rumors had merit, Fernandez was spared the chopping block during his lengthy recovery process in 2014 and 2015 after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. In 2016, he again proved his dominance on the mound. Through 186 ⅔ innings, the 24-year-old posted 16 wins, a staggering 12.49 K/9 rate, a 2.86 ERA and career-high 6.2 fWAR. It should have been just the second outstanding season of a lengthy career; instead, it was his last.

In the wake of today’s tragedy, it is difficult to dwell on Fernandez’s professional accomplishments. We know that he was more than the sum of his innings pitched in Miami, more than a feel-good story or a testament to the resilience of other players who defected from their home countries in pursuit of a better life. By all reports, he was a man of incredible courage, a cherished son and grandson, and a remarkable talent on the field. His life, as with any other, should be valued not for what he did or did not do, but simply because he existed.