2006 was the year Johnny Damon went turncoat and put on pinstripes, then tormented the Sox in a key five-game August series.
It’s time for another round of the Boston Red Sox & New York Yankees this weekend, as Team Turmoil heads to the Bronx for a three-game series with any wild-card hopes pretty much a pipe dream. It’s also a time for some bad memories. The third weekend in August is always one that sticks out for me—where I live near Milwaukee, it’s the weekend of the nation’s largest Irish festival and it’s a big family weekend. Six years ago was the last time the huge Irish family reunion coincided with the Red Sox-Yanks and the result was one of the worst four-day spans in Boston sports history. Five consecutive losses extended from Friday through Monday and all but ended the 2006 season. Let’s do another installment of the Summer of Discontent and look back on the five-game sweep of ’06…
Unlike this season, the ’06 Red Sox had a real shot when the Yanks came to Fenway Park for a series that would be a doubleheader on Friday, followed by single games the next three days. Boston had been as many as four games up in June and were still within a game and a half of first-place New York when a series that was highly anticipated throughout baseball began. David Ortiz was in the midst of a season that would end with him setting a franchise record with 54 home runs. Curt Schilling had finally made it back from the ankle injury that hobbled him in the 2004 playoffs and won 15 games. Jonathan Papelbon was in his first year as closer, and was on his way to a 35-save season and 0.92 ERA. Manny Ramirez hit 35 home runs and enjoyed his fourth consecutive year tag-teaming with Papi as one of the great 1-2 punches of all time. And the Sox-Yankees rivalry had been so even the last four years that even on the partisan YES Network, New York announcer Michael Kay was opining that it was a virtual given the series would end up 3-2 one way or another, with the race to be decided the rest of the way.
If you broke the series down game-by-game you would conclude the Red Sox would likely have to bite the bullet in the opener. Jason Johnson, a journeyman starter, was getting the ball for Boston, while New York sent ace Chien-Ming Wang, en route to a 19-6 season to the hill. On the flip side, the Red Sox should expect to win the Monday matinee finale when veteran David Wells would pitch against Yankee journeyman Cory Lidle. The middle sequence would include nationally televised battles between Josh Beckett and Randy Johnson on Saturday afternoon, Schilling and Mike Mussina on Sunday night and the Friday nightcap between rookie Jon Lester and mediocre vet Sidney Ponson was anybody’s guess.
2006 was also the first year since Johnny Damon had left Boston under less-than-ideal terms with management. While Damon did seem to want to make his peace with the fans, his choice of Pinstripes was doing him no favors. Nor was his ability to torment the Red Sox. He led off the series with a triple, scored on a single by Derek Jeter and later homered off Johnson. The Sox starter hung in as best he could against the powerful Yankee lineup and only trailed 4-3 after five. But New York broke it open against the bullpen and won 12-4. Johnson, with a 7.36 ERA in six starts, was released before the nightcap began.
Damon again had three hits and a home run in the second game, but the Red Sox offense was pounding on Ponson. Second baseman Mark Loretta had three-hit games in both ends of the doubleheader and Manny pounded out four hits. A still-to-young Lester gave up seven runs in less than four innings of work, but Boston led 10-7 after six innings. New York loaded the bases with one out and the top of the seventh and if nothing else, top setup man Mike Timlin and Papelbon were rested, so Terry Francona called in Timlin an inning early. It was the right move, but the veteran didn’t deliver, as the Yankees piled up seven runs and eventually won the game 14-11. Those that stayed at Fenway for the whole thing watched 4 hours and 45 minutes of baseball, a record for a nine-inning game.
The cameras of Fox Sports were honed in for Saturday afternoon’s Johnson-Beckett battle. It was Beckett’s first year in Boston and while he wasn’t pitching well—he would end the year with a 5.00 ERA—he was answering concerns about durability, in turning in the first 200 IP season of his career. Johnson’s career in New York was a far cry from what the Yanks had expected when they acquired him in a panic after collapsing in the 2004 ALCS. The Big Unit was also on his way to a 5.00 ERA. The two mediocre starters would still combine for 33 wins thanks to their offenses, but neither was pitching to their potential.
The most obnoxious and self-aggrandizing fans on earth had way too many reasons to be happy at Fenway in August 2006.
Johnson continued his pattern of mediocrity, as Manny hit a three-run blast in the fourth inning, but Beckett was simply awful. He walked nine batters in 5.2 IP, four of which came in the interminable sixth inning. With the score tied 5-5, the Yanks took advantage of the walks, Jorge Posada hit a bases-clearing triple and it was 10-5 by the time the inning ended. The final was 13-5 and the Sox now trailed by 4.5 games in the AL East.
“Win tonight, win tomorrow and get back to 2.5”, was the message ESPN analyst Joe Morgan told the Sunday night audience, regarding the Red Sox focus. It was true enough, with Schilling and Wells on the mound, although it ignored the fact the Yanks already had a successful series in their back pocket and were now playing with house money.
Boston grabbed two runs in the top of the first as Manny continued to eat up Yankee pitching with an RBI double and Kevin Youkilis—in his first year as the starting first baseman—drove in another. Schilling gave up a three-run homer to personal nemesis Jason Giambi in the fourth, but the Sox quickly tied it, eventually got the lead and Schilling had the look of a veteran who was restoring order as he departed after seven innings with a 5-3 lead.
Timlin was on in the eighth and immediately put two runners on base. The season was hanging in the balance and Papelbon was rested and ready. In a move that baffles me to this day, Francona brought out lefty Javier Lopez to face Bobby Abreu, who’d been the Yanks big trade deadline acquisition. It was as though the manager didn’t realize that the fourth game of this series had morphed into one that had to be treated like an elimination game. Abreu drew a walk and Francona came to his senses and summoned Papelbon, who was able to get out of the inning with the lead intact, albeit it at 5-4.
Melky Cabrera led off the ninth with a double, but Papelbon blew away Bernie Williams and Damon to get to within an out of victory. Jeter was at the plate. The words of ESPN play-by-play man Jon Miller still ring in my head to this day—“It’s a bloop!”, Miller virtually shouted, as the dying quail landed in right field. Jeter had barely touched Papelbon, but the veteran got the ball in play and tied the game. Boston loaded the bases with one out off Mariano Rivera in the ninth, but the bottom of the order, Eric Hinske and Doug Mirabelli failed to drive in the winning run.
At this point the rest of the series seemed almost a fait accompli. Giambi and Posada homered in the 10th off the scrubs of the Red Sox bullpen and the game ended 8-5. On Monday afternoon Wells was brilliant, but a listless offense could do nothing with Lidle and the Yankees completed the sweep 2-1.
A listless showing in a matinee finale ended a terrible four-day sequence of five games.
The Five-Game Sweep all but ended the 2006 season as a 2-7 road trip to the West Coast further eliminated any wild-card consideration. The wipeout of August gave way to a late summer and early fall of acrimony. GM Theo Epstein had declined to make any moves at the trade deadline, believing that 2007 was the year he should target. I wish I still had my old Red Sox blog active so I could cite the numerous posts I wrote defending the GM, but as the World Series title of ’07 proved he was clearly right and the loud-mouthed criticisms of Dan Shaughnessy, Tony Massarotti, Bob Ryan and the rest of the Knights of the Keyboard were so much short-sighted screaming. The Red Sox didn’t lose because of a failure to get reinforcements. They lost because Timlin and Beckett were terrible, virtually costing them two games and the offense took a day off against Lidle.
And before we got to 2007, came the Saddest September. It was the month when we found out that Ortiz had an irregular heartbeat, saw Schilling shut down for the season, saw Manny shut himself down for the season and in the worst news, heard that Lester had lymphoma. Thankfully we now know that not only would Lester be okay, but in 14 months he would be the winning pitcher of a clinching game of the World Series. All bad things came to an end six years ago and they will again this time around.