Baseball is a game of stats, percentages, probabilities, and luck. Last night was a reminder not to ever discount that last element. Going into the bottom of the eighth inning, the Red Sox only had a 4 percent chance of winning. The overwhelming weight of odds and percentages were in the Tigers' favor. The pressure was on, for sure, but the pressure was on the Red Sox, not the Tigers.
In order for the Red Sox to win last night, a lot of things had to go their way, and rather inexplicably, they did. In the wake of a sucker-punch loss like that, we tend to want to analyze it, pin-point exactly what went wrong, assign blame if necessary, and at all costs try to make some logical sense of what just happened. That's human nature, of course. In the face of some unthinkable situation suddenly becoming reality, we have to make sense of it, or else embrace the madness of total chaos and randomness.
It's not so easy, though. Luck exists (or "chance," if you prefer), and not everything can be sorted out into logical categories. Here is just a partial list of variables that could have gone either way last night. Welcome to the madness of chance ...
Jose Veras only threw three pitches
His first pitch resulted in an out. His second pitch, to the next batter, was a ball. His third pitch resulted in a double. That was the end of his night. We'll never know what might have happened if he had been allowed to continue pitching. Ellsbury, the next batter, has only had three career at-bats against Jose Veras, and the last one came in 2009. In those three at bats, he struck out twice, and got one hit. Even if in the worst-case scenario, if he had faced Veras last night and hit a two-run home run to make the score 5-3, the next two batters were Victorino and Pedroia, both of whom went down on strikeouts when facing Veras the night before.
Drew Smyly only threw six pitches
With one out and a runner on second, Smyly was brought in to execute the lefty-on-lefty match-up against Ellsbury. He threw six pitches and gave up a walk. That was the end of his performance. What if he had been left in to face Victorino? The two have only matched up twice in Smyly's career, resulting in a 1-2 performance with a Victorino double. Smyly does have some variation in his platoon splits, but they're not terrible overall. Right-handed batters have slashed .242/.295/.404 with three home runs against him this year, but he also has a 29 percent strikeout rate. The chances of him striking out a right-handed batter are basically equal to the chances of that batter getting on base. Again, if the worst had happened, and Victorino had hit a home run, then the score is 5-4 and Smyly is still in the game to face Ortiz, who he had just faced the night before and retired with a fly ball. He could also have easily induced an inning-ending double-play against Victorino. There are a lot more ways for Victorino to fail than there are for him to succeed.
Al Alburquerque only threw eight pitches
After striking out Victorino on six pitches for the second out of the inning, Alburquerque threw two fastballs to Dustin Pedroia, the first for a called strike, the second for a single that loaded the bases. That meant David Ortiz would come to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded. Platoon splits are almost immaterial here, because Jim Leyland didn't go for a lefty-on-lefty match-up, he brought in another right-handed pitcher in Joaquin Benoit. But it might be worth considering that left-handed batters slashed .195/.301/.243 against Alburquerque, with a 43 percent strikeout rate and a home run rate of 1 percent. Against Benoit, left-handed batters slashed .219/.302/.374, with a 28 percent strikeout rate and a home run rate of 4 percent. The home run rate may be a minimal advantage for Alburquerque here, but the strikeout rate isn't. It's a huge "what if," but we'll always be left to wonder what might have happened if Alburquerque had been left alone to deal with Ortiz, saving Benoit for the ninth inning.
Torii Hunter almost caught the ball
You've probably seen the screen capture images. Hunter was inches away from robbing Ortiz of the grand slam. What if Hunter had read the ball a little better? What if he'd been positioned just a step or two closer to the right direction? It's chance and it's luck, and we'll never know.
David Ortiz was expecting the breaking ball/offspeed pitch
However you classify the pitch that Benoit threw to Ortiz, it wasn't a fastball, and Ortiz wasn't expecting a fastball. That's chance and luck at work. If Benoit had thrown the fastball, Ortiz would have swung late and either fouled it off, or missed it completely, and Benoit would have been ahead in the count. If Ortiz had been expecting the fastball, he would have swung early and probably missed the pitch, and again, Benoit would have been ahead in the count. It's hard to fault Benoit's pitch selection. With the bases loaded, he didn't really have the luxury of wasting a garbage pitch and getting behind in the count, and leading off with a fastball to a guy like Ortiz in that situation seems like the height of insanity. But what if?
From here, we go to the ninth inning, and things get even more random.
Rick Porcello came on in relief
Joaquin Benoit had only thrown eight pitches. Was this the time to remove him from the equation and go to Porcello? Even assuming extra innings, why not get another inning of work out of the best man in the bullpen, especially with a day off coming up? He may have retired the side in order, and given Cabrera, Fielder, and Martinez a chance at getting the lead back.
Iglesias threw it wild
In retrospect, Iglesias probably should have held on to that ground ball from Gomes. It would have made for a spectacular play, but he wasn't going to get it, and if he'd held it, there would be a runner at first with double play possibilities. Perhaps the infield would have been positioned differently for Saltalamacchia's next ground ball.
Prince missed the hop
There's very little to say here. He could have blocked the throw from Iglesias a little better, and even if he hadn't caught it, even if he'd gotten some "skin" on it, there's the possibility that the ball wouldn't have gotten far enough away to allow Gomes to advance to second. What if?
Prince didn't catch the foul ball
It didn't look like a clear-cut case of fan interference to me. Prince's reach wasn't over-extended, and the ball actually hit his glove. He had a chance to catch that ball, it would have been the first out of the inning, and perhaps there would have been a chance to intentionally walk Stephen Drew and set up Middlebrooks for an inning-ending double play. With a ground-ball pitcher like Porcello on the mound, it's not far from the realm of probability. Who knows?
Rick Porcello threw it wild too
There's just no accounting for this. If Avila had managed to catch that pitch, or block it better, Gomes wouldn't have advanced to third, and may not have scored on Saltalamacchia's base hit. There's just no telling.
That's a lot of "what if's" in the span of two short innings. The odds were overwhelmingly in the Tigers' favor until the grand slam. Even with Ortiz coming to the plate, the odds had shifted to 97 percent in the Tigers' favor. The pressure was entirely on the Red Sox, and a lot of things needed to line up in order for them to win. Somehow, all those things lined up.
That's baseball. That's chance, and that's luck. Sometimes, there's just no making any sense of it, no matter how hard we try.