David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
'What an idiot!"
Those words came from Mike Napoli, heard loud and clear Saturday night on the Fox broadcast moments after his bullet line drive barely cleared the rightfield wall. For the winning home run. With two strikes.
And Napoli was talking about Masahiro Tanaka.
Why was he calling Tanaka a not-so-nice name on national TV, you might ask?
Well, Napoli was the only one saying it for a worldwide audience. Plenty of others, including you at home, sitting on the edge of the living-room sofa, probably screamed it out loud, too.
A few more, including some wearing pinstripes, definitely thought it.
Really? A fastball? With the bases empty, just one strike away from taking a 1-1 tie into the bottom of the ninth?
Anything but a fastball. Bounce a 50-foot splitter. Sling one of those nasty Frisbee sliders that worked so well earlier in the game.
That's what Brian McCann had in mind. He called for both of those pitches once Tanaka got the count to 1-and-2 against Napoli.
In Napoli's two previous at-bats, he struck out each time -- on splitters.
Tanaka should have had the hat trick, because here's the thing: you can't sit on a splitter. If the pitch is executed correctly, it looks like a fastball right up until the hitter decides to swing.
As soon as that happens, the ball dives and the bat connects with nothing but air.
Yet somehow pitch No. 112 was not a splitter.
"The sign was for a breaking ball," Tanaka said through his interpreter. "I actually wanted to go hard outside there with my fastball. That's why I shook him off. The fact is I missed my spot."
He did go hard. That fastball was 96 mph. Obviously, it wasn't outside enough. Just within the reach of Napoli's bat. And if not for the short rightfield porch, the ball was hit with such force that Napoli likely would have been held to a single if it had ricocheted off the wall.
"We have a rather small stadium," Tanaka said, "so that can happen."
Unlike at that other ballpark across the RFK Bridge, moving fences isn't an annual discussion in the Bronx, so Tanaka will have to get used to it.
Maybe next time he'll just take his catcher's advice. For all of Tanaka's talent, he's still a rookie. McCann is a 10-year vet. He's been at this a while.
Not only was McCann smart enough to call for the right pitch -- twice -- he refused to throw Tanaka under the bus. Defending his staff is an important part of a catcher's job, too. So McCann went to the mat for him. Over and over.
"There is no wrong pitch with Tanaka," McCann said. "Every pitch he throws is the right pitch. He throws it with conviction. That was the right pitch."
Deep down, McCann can't possibly believe that. Not after watching the Red Sox flail away at Tanaka's splitter all night. If that fastball to Napoli was the "right pitch," we'd like to see where the wrong one would have landed.
Pushed further for an explanation, Tanaka said he wanted to set up Napoli for the splitter on the next pitch. But that wasn't necessary. Even if Napoli was expecting the splitter, as he later said he was, he wasn't very optimistic about hitting it.
"Well, the splitter was working for him," Napoli said. "He was getting me out on it. In that situation, I was just looking for something up and something I could get the barrel on."
Think of how Napoli's eyes must have popped during that split-second when Tanaka released the fastball. Could it be? No way.
"At the end of the day, that was 96 on the black," McCann said.
Sure was. It also was in a place where Napoli could hurt Tanaka. And the Yankees, which he did with that stunning homer.
Maybe at another point in the game, that fastball would have been the perfect pitch. But not then. Not in that situation, when the game was riding on one swing.
"It was the worst thing I could have possibly done," Tanaka said.
On a number of levels. But we'll leave the name-calling to Napoli.