CLEVELAND (AP)—These were truly sacrifice flies.
Swarming bugs, millions and millions of them, bombarded the New York Yankees at the worst possible time Friday night, covering and rattling rookie reliever Joba Chamberlain and helping the Cleveland Indians to a 2-1 win in 11 innings and a two-game lead in their AL playoff series.
“It’s like somebody let them go,” Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. “Just when you think you’ve seen it all—that’s home-field advantage.”
Midges 1, Yankees 0.
Where was the Sultan of Swat when they needed him?
Travis Hafner hit a bases-loaded, RBI single with two outs in the 11th to score Kenny Lofton as the Indians, who trailed 1-0 before the flying pests invaded in the eighth inning, won a game their fans will never forget.
Unreal. Surreal. Hitchcockian. Call it whatever you’d like. October baseball has rarely witnessed something like this.
At times, it was like watching a low-budget, late-night horror flick: “The Bugs Who Ate The Yankees.”
And for some reason they feasted on Chamberlain, who stood on the mound struggling to see catcher Jorge Posada’s target as the tiny pests buzzed around his head. As some of them stuck to his muscular, sweaty neck and back, Chamberlain threw a wild pitch in the eighth that gave Cleveland the tying run.
Three innings later, the Indians won it and swarmed Hafner like their little helpers did to the Yanks.
“They bugged me,” Chamberlain said. “But you’ve got to deal with it.”
Umpire crew chief Bruce Froemming said he never considered stopping the game, which will surely go down as one of the strangest in postseason history.
“It was just a little irritation,” he said. “We’ve had bugs before. I’ve seen bugs and mosquitoes since I started umpiring. It might not be a perfect scenario. Within about 45 minutes, basically they were gone.
“There was just about a 10-minute period where everybody was lathering up,” he said.
By the end of the night, the Indians were celebrating and heading to New York looking for a sweep.
“I don’t feel safe at all, though,” first baseman Ryan Garko said. “I mean, it’s the Yankees.”
Lofton, a gnat-like nuisance to the Yankees—one of his many former teams— so far in this series, walked on four pitches to lead off the 11th against Luis Vizcaino. Franklin Gutierrez failed twice to get down a sacrifice before hitting a single.
Casey Blake moved the runners up with a bunt before the Yankees walked Grady Sizemore to load the bases. Rookie Asdrubal Cabrera missed his chance at being a hero by popping up right in front of the plate, but Hafner, who has struggled all season, delivered.
Cleveland’s designated hitter lined a single on a 3-2 pitch to right-center — making the Indians just 2-for-18 with runners in scoring position—and was mobbed by his teammates as an exhausted crowd of 44,732 towel-waving fans celebrated a win they’ll talk about for years to come.
New York finished with just three hits, all off Carmona during his nine spectacular innings. Rafael Perez went two innings for the win.
Until the first pitch, everyone will talking about the bugs.
“It was like blankets of stuff out there,” Yankees manager Joe Torre said.
Chamberlain, the wildly popular 22-year-old, came in for Pettitte in the seventh with runners at first and second. He struck out pinch-hitter Gutierrez and got Blake on a soft fly to right to keep the Yankees up 1-0.
That’s when everyone started buggin’ out.
Chamberlain needed to be sprayed with repellant before taking the mound in the eighth as the pesky insects descended upon the ballpark on another muggy fall night. Chamberlain wasn’t alone, either, as Alex Rodriguez, Jeter and the rest of the Yankees infielders fanned their gloves and waved their caps to keep the little critters off.
Chamberlain walked Grady Sizemore to open the eighth and threw a wild pitch before asking for another dose of spray. Plate umpire Laz Diaz, who also was under attack, consented and watched as Chamberlain held out his arms as if he was going through an airport security scan as a trainer sprayed him down.
“There’s not much you can do about it,” Torre said. “He was having trouble seeing out there. Unfortunately, it was a bad time.”
Cabrera sacrificed before Hafner lined out to first. Then, on a 1-0 pitch to Victor Martinez, Chamberlain uncorked another wild pitch that went all the way to the backstop before caroming directly to catcher Jorge Posada.
With Sizemore barreling down the line, Posada quickly shoveled the ball to a charging Chamberlain, who was upended at the plate by the Indians leadoff man, a former high school football star.
Seconds later, with Chamberlain spitting out the critters like they were sunflower seeds, the giant scoreboard flashed: Bug off Yankees!
“It’s a shame that had to happen in such a pressure-packed situation,” Pettitte said. “I’m not trying to make an excuse for him, but it affected him.”
The pests have visited before, usually earlier in the summer.
They’re called midges. They’re scientific name is Chironomus plumosus (Linnaeus) or Chironomus attenuatus Walker.
The Yankees—and their hardcore fans—will forever call them something much less polite.
Yankees fans probably aren’t too thrilled with Rodriguez, either.
A-Rod went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and is now 4-for-47 with zero RBIs in his last 14 playoffs games.
For seven innings, in a white-knuckle game as tight as October can offer, Pettitte masterfully worked his way out of jam after jam.
Pitching in his record-tying 35th postseason game, Pettitte gave the Yankees 6 1-3 shutout innings.
After Pettitte walked Lofton on four pitches in the seventh, the left-hander was pulled for Chamberlain, the flame-throwing righty who has become a New York cult hero in less than two months. But before Pettitte left the mound, several of his infielders tapped on the chest with their gloves, their tribute to a job well done.
Carmona, making his playoff debut, was even better.
The 19-game winner allowed one run—Melky Cabrera’s third-inning homer— and two singles in nine innings. He kept Cleveland close enough to eventually pull off its 45th come-from-behind win and the Indians’ 18th in their final at-bat.
But they got this one with help from some little, flying creatures who came unannounced and just in time.
Clemens is 27-8 lifetime against the Indians. … Scruffier than usual, Indians manager Eric Wedge denied growing a playoff beard. “Just every now and again I decide not to shave,” he said, smiling. “Nothing more than that.” … The Yankees are batting .121 (8-for-66) in the series.