How could you, Cowboy Joe?
You could hear it from the crowd and all but read it on the lips of the Red Sox. As the Sox traipsed between the batter’s box and their dugout after striking out 17 times against Anibal Sanchez and his bullpen mates in a 1-0 loss to the Tigers in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, a lot of folks wanted to blame a bunch of the whiffs on Joe West, the plate umpire alternately known as Cowboy Joe.
Or, Evil Joe, to hear some of the fans reacting to his interpretation of the strike zone.
One Sox player after another exhibited body language that screamed they were wronged by some of West’s interpretation of the strike zone. Dustin Pedroia, his mouth wide open in shock, perhaps summed up their unspoken feelings best after he took a called third strike from Jose Veras in the eighth inning.
The scene at times took on the aura of a script written by Sox super fan and horror master Stephen King.
But much of the blowback may have been overblown, a few Sox players indicated after the defeat. Among them was Shane Victorino, who fanned three times, twice against Sanchez before Veras got him swinging in the eighth.
Victorino had words during the game with West, who is no stranger to Sox controversies.
“On a couple of pitches, I was wrong,’’ Victorino said afterward. “I didn’t think they were strikes, but I came back and looked at the tape. I was wrong. They were strikes.’’
Growing increasingly irritated with the line of questioning, Victorino eventually tried to close the book on his thoughts about the matter.
“It’s part of the game,’’ he said. “It is what it is.’’
When that didn’t suit the inquiring postgame masses, he said, ``Hey, let’s not stir the pot. I’m not a rookie.
The first six batters in the Sox order combined for 14 strikeouts, with Victorino, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Mike Napoli each whiffing three times. David Ortiz and Daniel Nava each went down twice on strikes.
“I can’t say there was an issue with the umpiring,’’ Sox manager John Farrell said. “That would be taking away from the talent their pitching staff had.’’
In the same breath, he added, “But there might have been a couple of pitches that were pitcher’s pitches that seemed to go against us. But to say the umpiring was the reason why we didn’t get a hit until the ninth inning, that would be a little shortsighted on my part.’’
Nor could the Sox complain about West after some of their swings that resulted in strikeouts. Ellsbury, for example, swung and missed at a high and inside 95-mile-an-hour fastball from Sanchez to end the fifth inning. The pitch was all but unhittable.
And Victorino reached base in the first inning after he struck out swinging at a slider in the dirt from Sanchez that turned into a wild pitch.
David Ross and Will Middlebrooks were the only Sox starters who did not strike out.
“I’m not going to talk about the umpires,’’ Ross said, when asked about the team’s frustration with West. “The umpires do their jobs the best they can. I don’t think the strike zone won or lost us the game, I’ll tell you that.’’
West was the umpire who delighted Sox fans in the 2004 ALCS when he called New York’s Alex Rodriguez out for trying to swat the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove as Rodriguez ran to first base.
West also capped Clay Buchholz’s no-hitter in 2007 at Fenway Park by calling a Buchholz curveball a strike to end the masterpiece.
Still, there was not a love for Cowboy Joe as the Sox considered the prospect of facing Detroit’s leading Cy Young candidate, Max Scherzer, in Game 2 Sunday.
Ortiz, for one, wanted nothing to do with discussing the circumstances that led to the defeat.
As reporters descended on him, he bolted for the door, saying only, “I’m out.’’
Indeed, he was.