Sunday, July 13, 2008

Game 96: Gods For a Day

Final Score: Boston Red Sox 12, Baltimore Orioles 1

That's a little more like it! .300 team hiding in the corpse of a .400 team indeed.

Look over the headlines today and Kevin Youkilis' first grand slam is at the top of every story, which put me in a contemplative mode about the nature of grand slams. Statistically, knocking in four runs with one swing gets different results depending on your metric: batting average goes up two points, on-base percentage not at all, slugging percentage - the measurement of hits expanded to include total bases per hit - up a more appreciable eight points. If in the unlikely chance that the next ten years or so sees Youkilis hit a large number of grand slams - enough to catch up Manny, for example - history will mark this first fully-loaded moonshot as the start of a rare accomplishment whose category leaders stand in the middle twenties.

But some percentage increases and membership in a club of fortunate home run hitters just about sets the limit on the scope of the statistical value of a grand slam, and there's only so much value we can assign to a hit that we couldn't even tease out of a stat line in fifty years. To take the argument one step further, the grand slam didn't even score Boston's winning run: Manny's two-run homer in the first took the honors by striking what eventually became the fatal blow.

Psychologically, however, a grand slam is huge; a multi-faceted event that can momentum in an instant. Remember the grand slam Vlad Guerrero hit in the last game of the 2004 ALDS? That one hit recharted the course of the game, knocked the Sox off of their cruise control to series victory and gave the Legend of David Ortiz a huge boost. Another example: last fall's $14 millon grand slam, the most memorable moment of the American League playoffs. 50 years from now, mention the 2007 post-season and J.D. Drew's untimely hit will come to mind - and that hit was only a contributor to a non-clinching win. We love our grand slams: they encapsulate moments of sometimes surpreme tension, validating the risk of loading the bases without scoring runs, granting the sublime pleasure of big gifts in big packages. We hate it when the opposing team hits a grand slam: those same moments of tension reversed, hoping and praying that our pitcher can escape the jam with little or no damage. When the big hit comes and the runs score, it's a gut punch, creating what feels like an insurmountable lead out of nothing in course of a couple of seconds.

But most of all we love our grand slams for the instant hero status they grant the men who hit them. Legendary batsman or journeyman stick handler, these men not only accomplished the difficult feat of hitting a baseball several hundred feet out of the confines of a field, but did so with the added pressure of potential runs waiting for the chance to come home. Achieving the mental focus to ignore that pressure, focus on their task, and find the right mistake to drive up and away
gifts these men with the halo of clutch hitting, makes them gods for a day. Not too bad for a guy who happened to be at the right place at the right time.

Julio Lugo: out four to six weeks with a torn quadriceps. Note to Jed Lowrie: many a ballplayer has jumpstarted a career out of opportunities like this one.