Thursday, May 21, 2009

Foulke vs. Clark: The most gripping at-bat ever?

The Sox had another game to win, but the Yankees empire was toppled when Keith Foulke whiffed Tony Clark to end Game Six of the 2004 ALCS. Photo from this site.

As noted Wednesday, Keith Foulke will forever be known as the guy who recorded the most anticipated out in Red Sox history when he induced Edgar Renteria to ground back to the mound at 10:40 p.m. CST on Oct. 27, 2004. Foulke fielded the ball, jogged a couple steps towards first base and tossed it to Doug “Mine Mine Mine oh boy this is all mine!” Mientkiewicz to set off a celebration 86 years in the making.

But that’s not Foulke’s most memorable out, at least as far as I’m concerned. I figure he got the most pressure-packed out in the history of baseball to end Game Six of the ALCS.

East coast hyperbole? Maybe. But I can’t imagine there’s ever been more on the line in a single at-bat.

The Sox had an avalanche of momentum as Foulke came on in the ninth inning to try and preserve a 4-2 lead. They were, of course, three outs away from becoming the first baseball team to force a Game Seven after falling behind three games to none and on the verge of an unimaginably unique opportunity to end eight decades of torture at the hands of the Yankees.

The Yankees were trying desperately to hang on to their aura of invincibility and already quite possibly aware there was no way they were going to win a Game Seven (in The Yankee Years, Mike Mussina says the Yankees knew the afternoon of Game Seven they were toast because they had no faith in starter Kevin Brown).

But Foulke, running on fumes after throwing 72 pitches the previous two days and getting no favors from the small strike zone of home plate umpire Joe West, issued a leadoff walk to Hideki Matsui and a two-out walk to Ruben Sierra to bring up Tony Clark.

And it felt, as Clark ran the count full, that the rivalry would forever be defined by the result of this at-bat. Either Foulke would retire Clark and allow the Sox to send the Yankees’ empire toppling towards ruin…or Clark would homer to win the pennant, rob the Sox once again of blissful redemption and hand them a defeat inconceivable even by Boston standards.

I know the concept of a Curse makes Sox fans wretch, but had Clark homered, I imagine even the most rational Royal Rooter would have wondered if the Sox really were hexed. Aaron Boone was bad, but losing the pennant on a walk-off blast for the second straight year—this one off the bat of Clark, who hit .207 with three homers in 275 at-bats in 2002 for a Sox team that missed the playoffs by five games—would have been a devastating Job-like blow. How much suffering can one team and its fan base endure?

Somewhere inside Yankee Stadium, Theo Epstein was wondering the exact same thing. “I’m thinking ‘the guy basically ruined our 2002 season,’ now he’s going to ruin our 2004 season,” Epstein told WEEI in January 2005 (click on the link for more candid comments by Epstein). “After Aaron Boone the year before, I think that would have made me jump. But yeah, you figure you gotta throw him a fastball, he doesn’t have a good change-up, the strike zone’s really small. Clark, if he runs into one, is going to hit one out to end the season, and that would have been the worst possible way.”

Of course, it didn’t happen that way. Foulke, with his 100th pitch in a span of about 48 hours, struck Clark out swinging, and with Brown going for the Yankees in Game Seven, the Sox could have begun preparing for the Cardinals right then and there.

“That was probably the at-bat that I was the most nervous for during the year,” Epstein told WEEI. “And I still kinda cringe when I think about it, because I could just see him running into one and ending our season.”

Foulke doesn’t cringe when recollecting the at-bat, nor, in keeping with his uncomplicated approach to baseball, does he really recollect it at all.

“Nah, not really,” he said Monday when I asked him if he thinks about the pressure of the confrontation with Clark. “When you’re there and you’re working in it and it’s your job—fans see it a lot different [than] me. It was just exactly where I wanted to be, you know?”

And all he did was finally send the Sox exactly where they wanted to go.

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