Terry Francona knows how slight was the Boston Red Sox's margin of victory in October.
When the Red Sox manager looks back to the magical postseason, the first thing that comes to his mind isn't the World Series sweep over St. Louis. Nor Curt Schilling's heroics nor the Game 7 win in the ALCS at Yankee Stadium.
The first thing that comes to Francona's mind?
"If Dave Roberts gets thrown out in Game 4, we're sitting here and you're saying, 'How are you going to get over the hump?' '' Francona said.
And, man, was that a close play at second base.
Pinch running after Kevin Millar led off the ninth inning with a walk, Roberts needed only two pitches to steal second base. He slid in a split second before the throw from Jorge Posada. That put him in position to score the tying run on Bill Mueller's single. Three innings later David Ortiz hit a game-winning homer to give Boston the faintest glimmer of hope.
What if Mariano Rivera had been just a tick quicker to get the ball to Posada? If he had developed a pickoff move that Roberts respected, he would have been forced to break a fraction of a second later? If he had not been too proud to do what Schilling would have in the same situation, using a slide-step to get the pitch to the plate quicker, Posada probably would have had time to beat Roberts with his throw.
The Curse would have lived to haunt Red Sox fans for another year.
Huge games can turn on the tiniest of details, like the time it takes a pitcher to get the ball to home plate. That's often the difference between success and failure in shutting down an opponents' running game.
Some great pitchers survive without worrying much about runners. Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux, who have 633 victories between them, have permitted almost a 70-percent success ratio the last two years, allowing almost one stolen base per start. That's a lot in the modern era, when so many teams seem to be following the Earl Weaver "Three-Run Homer'' approach.
But some of the best pitchers are also the stingiest.
When Schilling allowed six stolen bases in 2004, it doubled the total against him from 2003. The White Sox's Mark Buehrle has one more pickoff (seven) than stolen bases allowed over the last two years.
Both get mention for being the toughest to run against -- Schilling for his slide-step, Buehrle for his pickoff move and quick-pitch mentality -- but the guy who coaches and scouts most respect for hanging out a stop sign is a surprise.
"Without a doubt, Bartolo Colon has the best slide-step in the game,'' says one scout. "Schilling is pretty darn close, but Colon is just amazing. He's fast to the plate anyway, and when he shortens up and uses the slide-step, he is so fast that teams don't even think about taking a chance against him. You've got a better chance of him throwing the ball to the screen than you do of stealing a base.''
Numbers bear this out.
With the White Sox in 2003, Colon allowed one stolen base all season; six of the seven runners trying to take a base were cut down. With the Angels in 2004, the big guy gave up three stolen bases; six of nine would-be thieves were thrown out. That's 4-for-16 over the last two years.
Who would have thought such a big guy could move like a cat?
Colon appears to have learned his lessons well when he was coming up with the Cleveland Indians organization. In addition to pitching coaches Mark Wiley, Phil Regan and Dick Pole, he was exposed to some great veterans.
During Colon's six seasons with the Indians, he worked alongside Orel Hershiser, Dwight Gooden, Chuck Finley, Charles Nagy and Tom Candiotti.
While many pitchers come out throwing their best fastball in the early innings, Colon has enough confidence to work into his. He'll often be throwing 91, 92 at the start of the game and then work into the mid-90s before popping a 98- or 99-mph heater when he really needs it. That also makes it tough for baserunners to time him.
Because he varies speed on his fastball throughout games, Colon does not seem to be thrown off by the shorter motion required with a slide-step. Many managers shy away from having their pitchers use it because they worry more about the extra-base hit than a runner stealing a base.
With the slide-step, there is no big leg kick. A pitcher raises his front foot just enough to move it toward home plate. There is a risk that the altered delivery will affect the velocity or command of the pitch. A common problem is that a pitcher's balance shifts forward too early, putting his arm behind in the motion. The result can be pitches that stay up in the hit-me zone rather than diving to the knees.
"I'm not a big proponent of the slide-step,'' White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said. "The first thing with pitching is you want to make sure that your guy has the best stuff, with movement, and location that he can have. The slide-step can compromise the stuff and location.''
The Florida Marlins certainly agree. Their starting rotation had a 4.49 earned run average in 2002 and won a World Series because they cut that to 3.91 in '03 -- in large part because the addition of Gold Glove catcher Ivan Rodriguez meant they no longer had to worry about opponents' running games.
"No slide-steps,'' A.J. Burnett said that spring. "Just concentrate on what we're throwing.''
When Cooper coached Colon, he often worried that he became too preoccupied with holding runners on base.
"Early in a game, I'd rather a guy settle in and find his rhythm,'' Cooper said. "Bartolo would throw over to first base one time after another. He never gave up stolen bases, but I would tell him to get the batter. It never really seemed to bother him, though. That is just the way he works. He takes pride in showing the other team, 'You're not going to run on me.' ''
They don't, either.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.