Commentary

Joba, Yankees can't avoid the plague

Originally Published: October 5, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

CLEVELAND -- The word "bizarre" doesn't do justice to some events on a baseball field. Randy Johnson once struck and killed a dove with a fastball. A black cat walked in front of the Chicago Cubs' dugout in the summer of 1969, portending the team's late collapse against the Mets. And 15 years ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates actually enjoyed a winning season.

AL DIVISION SERIES

Yankees-Indians
series page

Then you come across games like the one that took place in Cleveland on Friday night. They haunt the losers' dreams, make the winners feel blessed, and force the rest of us to scramble to make sense of it all.

With the New York Yankees on their way to pulling even in their American League Division Series with the Indians, Jacobs Field turned downright biblical. Plagues of insects dropped from the sky, swarmed the infield and turned New York reliever Joba Chamberlain into an "Off"-drenched monument to distraction.

Joba Chamberlain
AP Photo/Mark DuncanGrady Sizemore slides home with the tying run on the second wild pitch of the eighth inning from Joba Chamberlain, right.

While Chamberlain was looking itchy, the Indians scratched out a run to tie the score. Three innings later, Travis Hafner's bases-loaded single off Luis Vizcaino scored Kenny Lofton to give Cleveland a 2-1 victory, and you could only wonder where this thing might be headed.

The Indians are resigned to playing without the support of Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James, a diehard Yankees fan from head to toe. But they just might have a claim on destiny.

"Just when you think you've seen it all, you see something new," New York shortstop Derek Jeter said. "I guess that's the home-field advantage for them -- just let the bugs out in the eighth inning. It worked."

On a normal night, the story line would have revolved around the stellar performances of the two starting pitchers. Andy Pettitte lived up to his reputation as the Yankees' big-game guy, keeping the Indians off the board despite allowing a leadoff hit in five of his seven innings.

And Cleveland's Fausto Carmona, who emerged as a star this season with a 19-8 record, was as good as advertised. He pounded the zone with sinking fastballs in the mid-90s, induced lots of uncomfortable swings and easily outdid staff ace C.C. Sabathia, who labored through five innings in the series opener Thursday.

"I've had guys come down to first base all year, great hitters in our division who just want no part of him," said Indians first baseman Ryan Garko. "I'm talking about guys who've made All-Star teams and won MVP awards, and they're like, 'This guy is just nasty.' You don't hear that a lot about pitchers. I hear it about him all the time."

The Twilight Zone
Other strange but true instances that have occurred in Cleveland:
June 4, 1974: Ten Cent Beer Night was an ill-fated promotion held during a game against the Texas Rangers at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Fans could drink as many 8-ounce cups of Stroh's beer as they wanted for just 10 cents apiece, thus increasing ticket sales. But the stunt turned ugly when the fans turned into a rowdy and raucous crowd devoid of all inhibition. Ultimately, the game was forfeited to Texas on the orders of plate umpire Nestor Chylak because of the crowd's uncontrollable rowdiness and because the game could not be resumed in a timely manner.
May 27, 1986: A game between the Red Sox and the Indians was called because of fog after six innings. It led to the infamous Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd quote: "That's what they get for building a park on the ocean." The game was on the shores of Lake Erie.
April 6-9, 2007: The entire home series with the Seattle Mariners is snowed out.
Source: ESPN Research

Through seven innings, the Yankees held a 1-0 lead on a Melky Cabrera solo home run, and events were playing out just the way manager Joe Torre envisioned. He would call upon Chamberlain, his new weapon of mass destruction, and Kid Joba would blow away the Indians with his fastball and confound them with his slider as the bridge to closer Mariano Rivera.

The strategy worked to perfection in the seventh, when Chamberlain whiffed Franklin Gutierrez on three pitches and retired Casey Blake on a harmless fly ball to escape a one-out, two-on jam.

But something weird was in the air. During an at-bat in the eighth, Yankees first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz stepped out of the batter's box and began waving his hand in front of his face.

"We didn't know what was going on," Jeter said. "I thought he just had something in his eye."

By the bottom of the inning, swarms of small flying bugs, apparently midges, had engulfed the infield. It was bad enough that Chamberlain had to summon the trainers from the dugout twice to shower him with bug spray.

All over the infield, umpires and Yankees suddenly were waving their arms like human windshield wipers. The bugs were more distracting than TBS sideline reporter Craig Sager's lavender sport coat.

"It was really tough," said Yankees catcher Jorge Posada. "They came out of nowhere, and they just kept coming. For some reason, it seemed like it was the worst right around the mound."

Control has been a strong point for Chamberlain all year in his progression from Class A Tampa to national sensation in the Bronx. In 112 2/3 innings encompassing four stops, he walked only 33 batters, hit four and threw seven wild pitches.

That control was harder to spot Friday night. With New York nursing that tenuous 1-0 lead, Grady Sizemore walked on four pitches to lead off the eighth. He moved up on a wild pitch, advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt, then hustled home with the tying run when Chamberlain bounced a pitch past Posada.

They were in front of my face, but I wasn't the only one who had to deal with it. ... You can look at it a million ways, but when you come down to it, we were in the loss column. And it's because I didn't do my job.

--Joba Chamberlain

The TV cameras showed Chamberlain squinting, flinching, swatting bugs in front of his face and squirming as the insects covered the back of his neck. But Chamberlain, to his credit, declined to use the buggy onslaught as an excuse. He expressed regret for wasting a hard-fought effort by his teammates and took full responsibility for his performance.

"They were in front of my face, but I wasn't the only one who had to deal with it," Chamberlain said. "They didn't show up just for me. You can look at it a million ways, but when you come down to it, we were in the loss column. And it's because I didn't do my job."

The bugs were an equal opportunity annoyance, for sure. But Carmona, who had it just as bad as Chamberlain, was so focused he never stepped off the mound, much less paced or lost his concentration.

"I played in the Dominican Republic with [Carmona] last winter, and there were bugs 10 times that size flying around that field," Garko said. "Those bugs scared me to death. They were enormous.

"It just shows what kind of guy he is. It doesn't matter if it's raining, it's hot, it's cold or there are bugs. He just goes out there and pitches his heart out."

Indians Celebrating
AP Photo/Tony DeThe Indians swarm Travis Hafner after his walk-off hit in the 11th, but the game will be most remembered for the swarm that came a few innings earlier.

Before scoring the tying run without benefit of a hit, the Indians had to wonder whether they were the cursed team. They went 2-for-18 with runners in scoring position and caught a bad break when shortstop Jhonny Peralta hit a 420-foot shot off the center-field wall that just missed being a home run in the seventh.

Now the teams head to the Bronx for Games 3 and 4, with Cleveland in need of one more win to end New York's season. If it doesn't happen there, the Indians have the luxury of knowing Sabathia will be waiting to pitch Game 5 at the Jake.

Don't look now, but Alex Rodriguez is 0-for-6 in two games, the Yankees are hitting .121 as a team and New York sure seems to be on the wrong side of the series karma.

At this point, it's hard to tell what the Yankees need more -- a psychologist or an entomologist.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

ALSO SEE