Well, isn’t this a fine kettle of chowdah? As the actor John C. McGinley says to Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) in “Platoon” when he’s asked to lead a small band into the jungle one more time, “I got a bad feeling about this one, Skip.”
The Cleveland Indians are, for the third time in these American League playoffs, going to have to send a boy out to do The Man’s job. No usual boy, this Fausto Carmona kid, but still a boy when it comes to this grown man’s game of major league baseball.
On Thursday night, C. C. Sabathia — ostensibly The Man and in the hunt for the Cy Young Award along with his mound opponent, the estimable Josh Beckett — took the hill in a situation that called out, nay, begged for a strong stomach, if not utter brilliance, from two men.
One came running, the other didn’t even bother to answer the bell.
Too strong? Perhaps. But then he is, after all, The Man, and should be every bit up to the task of handling warranted criticism as he is, well … handling a situation like Thursday night’s.
In the parlance of baseball people — which are the scouts, the pitching coaches and the managers — C. C. Sabathia is what is known as a “Hammerhead.”
When faced with the sticky problem of having to win The Big Game — or, say, a situation whereby the pitcher has cluttered up the bases with runners — a Hammerhead is a hurler whose solution to every problem is to grip the ball tighter and attempt to throw it hard enough that it might shatter the broad side of a sturdy red barn.
While such a pitch might, indeed, shatter the barn, it sure as heck will miss, entirely, the big, fat “Chew Red Man Tobacco” sign that’s plastered on it.
Deep background: It is a well-established fact that in order for The Man to be, well, a No. 1 guy and to be at the absolute top of his game (See: Performance during regular season), Sabathia has to “dial it back” some. In other words, throw his fastball in the 91 to 94 mph range instead of flinging it up there in the high 90s.
Vignette: Fox Network’s Joe Buck, who hasn’t yet found the tense spot in a ballgame worthy enough of not being interrupted for some inane quizzing and banal responses from a manager or pitching coach, was interviewing Tribe pitching coach Carl Willis on just that very subject.
While Willis was providing Buck with the simpleton answers we all expected to hear, Fox’s inset picture showed Sabathia pitching to the batter with the radar gun recording each pitch. As Willis politely confirmed that it was best for Sabathia to throw in the 91-94 mph range, the radar gun went 96 … 95 … 97.
Some of Sabathia’s pitches went in the dirt while some of them landed in Victor Martinez’s mitt as if the plate was high and outside. All of them missed the “Chew Red Man Tobacco” sign.
So tight was Sabathia’s grip on the ball that one expected cork dust and yarn to lay a trail like breadcrumbs between the rubber and home plate. If only Sabathia’s grip had been as firm on the situation at hand.
Damn. We needed that one, Big Guy. The one place the Indians didn’t want to be tonight is where they are: in that fine kettle of chowdah known as Fenway Pa-a-ahk. You know, the place where Carlton Fisk willed a ball to hit off the foul pole instead of hooking to the left of it.
But here they are and all because The Man, the one who is a candidate for the Cy Young Award, resorted to being a “Hammerhead” in a big game.
The frustration is not so much that Sabathia lost, but that in three attempts during the playoffs he hasn’t pitched well one time. When he beat the Yankees, it was by the grace of the gods. He pitched sloppy, but was good in the clutch.
The bullpen and the Tribe’s bats saved him. His second outing, Game 1 against the Red Sox, was thoroughly rotten. Last night he just flat-out didn’t step up like a No. 1 guy.
What C.C. Sabathia is doing in the playoffs is laboring. Laboring big-time. Laboring in a hammerhead kind of way that it is painful to watch.
You owe us one, Big Guy. If you lose 1-0 or 2-1, well, OK. Them’s the breaks. But you damn well owe everyone a decently pitched game. The kind of game all the great ones pack their lunch pails for when pitching in the playoffs or World Series.
Great ones like Bullet Bob Gibson, Vic Raschi, Sandy Koufax, Allie Reynolds, Orel Hershisher, John Smoltz, Jack Morris, Andy Pettitte, Curt Schilling …
… and this Josh Beckett fella.
Tore a page right out of the past with that eight-inning gem Thursday night, Beckett did. Hell, he tore a page of his own book, the one he authored against the Cubs a few years back when the Florida Marlins were also down 3 to 1 in the playoffs. Pitched a shutout that night.
Clearly, this is a pitcher who welcomes big games. Steps up and shakes hands with it, his grip firm and steady. But not so firm that the ball isn’t loosely tucked in his hand and fingers when unleashing the fastball and that devastating curve.
It also seems to tickle Beckett pink when he pitches on nights a former girlfriend is on the premises. He pitched a gem against the Angels when actress Alyssa Milano was lurking on the field before the game and he did it again Thursday when country singer Danielle Peck sang the National Anthem. He was amped, but not so amped that he couldn’t knuckle down to the job at hand.
C.C.? Well, Sabathia gets amped in a way that isn’t good. The camera caught him in the dugout between innings the other night jiggling his legs like he had ants in his pants. A dead giveway, that. Better to have your blood run cold like Gibby and Raschi and Koufax and Smoltzie and this Beckett fella.
So here we are in a Game 6 with Boston and the Tribe will send The Boy, Carmona — himself a 19-game winner like Sabathia — to do what The Man couldn’t do.
Carmona, like Beckett, seems to pitch with ice water in his veins. Carmona has been cooler than his manager — the camera catching Eric Wedge several times gritting his teeth and shaking his head as things went from bad to worse.
Another dead giveaway, that. Wedge may as well have been screaming, “But I don’t wanna go back to Fenway! I’m afraid!”
But back at Fenway we are, with the pennant riding on Carmona’s slender shoulders and whip-like arm against old Curt Schilling, the grizzled fireballer-turned-finesse-pitcher.
It is a time for all the Tribe’s fine young cannibals, so hungry for a pennant these kids, to step up once again. It would be nice — more than nice, really … imperative you might say — if Travis Hafner were to show up for this game, too. And maybe bring a bit of the Grady Sizemore that is the clutch, .300-hitter and not the .200-something guy he’s been so far, along with him.
If a pennant is to be won, you can’t have the ones who brought you to the dance — the Sabathias, the Hafners, the Sizemores — sitting out the last waltzes.
Into the heart of the beast we go. One more time.
Contact Doug Clarke at email@example.com.