Sixth sense: The beginning of the end
NEW YORK -- How many baseball games have been played? A billion? A trillion? Let's just say ''many."
And in those games, how many times do you think a team ends an inning in the middle of the game with five straight hits? Is ''never" a possible answer to that question?
Make it one, anyway. As complete and utter proof that when you're going bad, you're going bad (this is baseball: It's essential one be ungrammatical, even if one has a doctorate in English), your defending world champion Boston Red Sox ended the top half of the sixth inning of last night's 6-3 loss to the Evil Empire with five straight hits, the last two of which resulted in men being thrown out at the plate.
''For the Red Sox, one run on five hits and two left." How's that for a summary? Bet Joe Castiglione or Jerry Trupiano can't recall making too many of those calls.
Oh, but it gets better. The Yankees opened their half of the sixth trailing, 3-1. Five batters later they led, 6-3, and there still was no one out. This means in the sixth inning 10 men reached base consecutively, five for the world champs and five for the Evil Empire. The only difference was that the world champs had one additional run on the scoreboard, and the Evil Empire had five.
That pretty much sums up the way things are going for both teams. The Yankees can only find ways to win, having taken 16 of their last 18 games. The Red Sox can only find ways to lose, having lost the first four games of this road trip to fall a game and a half behind the Evil Empire (they are five behind the division-leading Orioles).
Terry Francona does not want to think cosmically. It's just not his style. He's taking these increasingly gruesome losses one agonizing, painful, horrifying game at a time.
''You know what?" he said. ''They made plays. I don't think we made outs. They made plays."
The first play was made by left fielder Tony Womack, a moonlighting second baseman. The Red Sox were leading, 3-1, with Mark Bellhorn on second and Johnny Damon on first when Edgar Renteria hit a fairly hard single to left. Third base coach Dale Sveum waved Bellhorn home. You can say, ''Well, if he holds up the man, the bases would be loaded for David Ortiz." Or you could say what Sveum apparently said, which was something to the effect that, ''Tony Womack is a second baseman, for goodness sake. Let's see what kind of an arm he's got." On this occasion, at least, the arm was pretty good. Jorge Posada gathered up Womack's strong one-hopper, blocked the plate, and Bellhorn was out with no argument.
Ortiz followed with a ball hit up the middle. Second baseman Robinson Cano had to make a play behind the bag. Whether Sveum waved Damon home, or Damon decided to come on his own (I'm still unclear), Damon made a move to the plate. Posada took a strong throw from Cano, blocked the plate, and Damon was out.
''He made a perfect throw home," said Damon. ''We took a chance. Make the other team make a play. And they did."
As far as the Bellhorn play was concerned, Sveum is on safe ground with his skipper. ''Dale was bringing him all the way," said Francona. ''I was bringing him all the way from the dugout. First of all, I would never second-guess Dale Sveum. He is an awesome coach." He didn't add that Ortiz isn't going so hot these days, but I will.
No doubt talk-show callers and chat-room folk will, in fact, roast Sveum, because that's what people do nowadays whenever any third base coach gets a man thrown out. That comes with the territory, but this little baseball oddity of having the inning end with successive men thrown out at the plate wouldn't have been so disastrous had the Yankees not jumped on Tim Wakefield and Alan Embree for five runs to start the home half of the sixth. ''It doesn't matter what happened in the top of the inning," reminded Wakefield. ''We did get a run. My job was to get the offense back into the dugout, and I didn't."
Wakefield's knuckleball was hopping well enough, but it wasn't always hopping into the strike zone. He walked seven and hit a batter, and he was very fortunate to get through the first five innings giving up just one run. But his luck ran out in the sixth, when he walked Bernie Williams and then tried to get ahead on the count against Cano, the rookie second baseman. He jumped on Wakefield's first pitch and drove it over the right-center-field fence.
Derek Jeter followed with a single, and that was all for Wakefield. Francona summoned Embree, who engaged Womack in a lengthy at-bat before the southpaw swinger fisted a good pitch into left.
That brought up the menacing Gary Sheffield, and you just knew this was a bad matchup. Embree has been giving up some bombs lately, and when he tried, and failed, to waste an inside pitch, Sheffield took a classic Sheffieldian swing, the replay revealing both feet to be off the ground upon contact. The ball left the bat, and the only apparent question was whether it would land in Upper Westchester or Southern Connecticut. It finally came to rest in the first row of the third deck in left, an area visited by humans and pigeons, but very seldom frequented by baseballs. Colleague Nick Cafardo thinks he's seen Jim Rice and Jack Clark launch one or two up there in his time, but I can't recall any in my visits to this place, which opened for business with this configuration in 1976.
''It wasn't supposed to be a strike," said Embree.
That was the ballgame, although the Red Sox did get the tying run to the plate against Mariano Rivera in the ninth. But with two on and two out, Bill Mueller took a called third strike to end the game. Have I mentioned that five of the last six Red Sox outs were K's of one kind or another, and that they were registered by three Yankee pitchers? Francona might disagree, but there was no way the Red Sox were winning this game. It was celestially impossible.
This will all turn around; really, it will. When that will be is something I cannot tell you. What I can pretty much guarantee is that it will involve something none of us have ever seen before. Or Dale Sveum. Or both.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.