Commentary

Epic showdowns define this storied history

Originally Published: September 17, 2007
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- It was a classic baseball journey that began with a duel of two starting pitchers with 569 wins between them. Of course it did.

It was a classic baseball journey that ended with a pulsating battle between the greatest late-inning bat magician of his time and the greatest closer of all time. Of course it did.

And it was a classic baseball journey that was decided by an epic eighth-inning mano a mano between a pitcher and hitter who have met so many times before that their Sunday night faceoff felt almost as if your favorite Clint Eastwood flick had just erupted back to life right before your eyes.

Derek Jeter
David Butler II/US PresswireMeet Mr. Big Shot: Derek Jeter is batting .441 with runners in scoring position and two outs -- the best mark in the majors.
This was the unique magic of Yankees-Red Sox, the greatest show on baseball's earth. The story lines come flying at you from a thousand different directions, like a giant sporting meteor shower. And Sunday, their 18th and final regular-season meeting of 2007 was no different. Because it couldn't possibly be any different.

"There's more theater in this thing," said an exhausted Joe Torre afterward, "than you could ever imagine."

So there, in the eighth inning of the Yankees' riveting 4-3 win in Boston, was Derek Jeter, locking in on his old foe, Curt Schilling, with a classic mid-September baseball game on the line.

It was the 58th time these two men had faced each other over the years -- the 58th. Who knows? It might also be the last.

Maybe they'll meet again, wearing these same familiar uniforms, for these same familiar teams. Maybe even in a few weeks. Or maybe, the next time, it will be in some whole other setting ... with Yankees-Red Sox just some distant plot line stuffed deep in the back of both their memory banks.

Or maybe there won't be a next time, if free agency leads Schilling to some other town, in that other league, and their highways never converge again.

But wherever this is leading, these are the moments that inspire ESPN to point about 87 of its finest cameras in the direction of Yankees-Red Sox on a Sunday night in September. These are the duels that make Yankees-Red Sox the most magnetic rivalry in baseball.

Contrary to what all those time zones west of, say, Albany might suspect, the magic of this rivalry is more than a figment of East Coasters' ratings-starved imaginations.

It's about Derek Jeter rocking in the batter's box on a spectacular late-summer evening. It's about the baseball spinning in Curt Schilling's hand, as the brain cells spin in his head, in the eighth inning of a tie game.

It's about the shock waves that reverberate through Fenway as Jeter sends a game-turning home run ball soaring toward the back row of the jam-packed Monster seats.

It's about the dazed look on Schilling's face when he realizes what just happened here, the realization that one swing of the bat had just trumped all the good stuff he'd done for the past 2½ hours.

It's about two men who have made their reputations by demonstrating how much they live for exactly these kinds of moments -- the moments when the fate of games and seasons and careers all hang in the balance.

Ever since you're a kid, you always think about being up in big situations. I think you always envision yourself coming through. I don't know how many times you envision yourself [making an] out. I've been in a lot of situations where I've failed. But I've also been in a couple where I've succeeded. So I just enjoy it.

-- Yankees SS Derek Jeter

"Ever since you're a kid," Jeter said, "you always think about being up in big situations. I think you always envision yourself coming through. I don't know how many times you envision yourself [making an] out. I've been in a lot of situations where I've failed. But I've also been in a couple where I've succeeded. So I just enjoy it."

By the time the events of this evening brought Jeter and Schilling face-to-face in this spot, Schilling and Roger Clemens already had spent the two previous hours re-enacting their last meeting, in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, right down to the exact score (1-1) heading into the eighth.

That was a lifetime ago for both of them, though. Clemens punched out 10 that night. Schilling struck out nine. They were two of the most intimidating power pitchers alive back then, and they had the radar-gun readings to prove it.

Now they own nearly 8,000 career strikeouts between them, and 569 wins -- the most combined victories by any two pitchers who've ever met in any game at Fenway Park. But those numbers have come with a price.

Clemens is just a week removed from the first cortisone shot of his career, a shot designed to coax his elbow through the last few weeks of what is shaping up as his final season. Really. Finally. This time for sure.

And Schilling has won only twice in eight starts since spending a month and a half on the disabled list, as he searches for a formula that will enable him to make an impact in his favorite month of the year -- October.

But with pitchers like this, said Red Sox manager Terry Francona, "There are other reasons why they're really good besides just stuff." And they spent the evening demonstrating all those reasons.

An acrobatic play by first baseman du jour Doug Mientkiewicz saved Clemens two runs in the first inning. But then the Rocket got his act together and made it through six innings, allowing just an unearned run and even touching 94 on the gun.

"I've got some work to do," Clemens said afterward. "I'm not all the way back. ... But they don't have to worry about me."

Schilling, meanwhile, glided into the eighth with a remarkably efficient three-hitter that required just 69 pitches in the first seven innings.

But in Yankees-Red Sox wars, the big test is always right over the horizon. And here it came. Mientkiewicz lashed a one-out single to left. Jason Giambi missed a go-ahead home run by two feet.

Suddenly, it was first and third, one out, Johnny Damon at the plate. But Schilling splintered Damon's bat into 76 pieces for the second out, and the score remain tied. Then, up stomped Jeter, a .315 lifetime hitter against Schilling in a decade's worth of at-bats.

Jeter worked the count to two and two. Every one of the 36,543 occupants of Fenway was standing, knowing the joyous nightly chorus of "Sweet Caroline" was one strike away.

Jeter fiddled with his batting gloves. Catcher Jason Varitek trotted to the mound to confer with Schilling for the third time just in this at-bat.

Finally, Jeter dug in. Schilling wound and tried to break off one more splitter -- the pitch that has evolved into his best weapon at this stage of his career.

But Jeter lashed it into the ozone. Schilling spun, watched it for a second, then slumped in shock, staring at the dirt, his hands on his knees.

Roger Clemens
David Butler II/US PresswireRoger Clemens delivered just what the Yankees needed.
"That's not something I can do anymore," Schilling would say later, the frustration oozing out of him. "I can't overthrow the ball late in the game. ... This is an incredibly painful way to have to learn a lesson you've already learned and you already know."

There is no reason to think, even after this loss, that the Red Sox's 4½ -game lead in the AL East is in any serious jeopardy. But these teams could conceivably meet again in the ALCS. And who knows what groundwork the Yankees might have laid for that rematch by winning eight of their last 10 games against the Red Sox?

But Yankees-Red Sox is about more than the standings, more than the mathematics, more than any of the big-picture details.

"I don't know how to explain it," Mientkiewicz said. "But both teams find a way to make it crazy every time we step on the field."

Torre knows this all too well. "I've experienced this now for 12 years," Torre said. "And it's unbelievable. It's exhausting. That's the only thing I can say. I dread it."

So even with a 4-1 lead and six outs to go, he knew this couldn't be easy. Even with Mariano Rivera sitting in his bullpen. And sure enough, there was the great Mariano, loading the bases in the ninth, letting that lead shrink to 4-3 and having to deal with the clutch-meister, David Ortiz, if he wanted to end this thing.

Of course.

The way these games go, Torre laughed, "You figure, 'Why not him?'"

But finally, Rivera powered a cutter in on Ortiz's hands and got a popup to short out of it. And when Jeter gathered in that last out, the emphatic pump of his fist said it all.

"Nothing is easy," Torre said, "when you come here."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com