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The Boston Globe

Sports

Bob Ryan

Big plays helped turned Red Sox’ season into a special one

These turns could easily be overlooked

Dave Roberts’ steal off Mariano Rivera in Game 4 of the ALCS helped propel the Red Sox into their historic comeback.

Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

Dave Roberts’ steal off Mariano Rivera in Game 4 of the ALCS helped propel the Red Sox into their historic comeback.

Everyone remembers the winning home runs by David Ortiz and Mark Bellhorn. Everyone will long remember the noble pitching efforts of Derek Lowe, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, and Keith Foulke. But for the true baseball aficionado, some of the great memories of this wild ‘n crazy October ride will involve situations that were not climactic, involving people who are not marquee players. And some of the great memories will involve things done by, or happening to, players on the other team. For people who love the sport, these are the moments that separate baseball from all other games.

Situation 1: Yankees Game 4, ninth inning.

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The Red Sox enter the ninth three Mariano Rivera outs away from being swept by the hated Yankees. It is 4-3, New York, but the Fenway crowd of 34,876 gains a bit of hope when Rivera commits the cardinal sin for all relievers: he walks the leadoff man.

Manager Terry Francona inserts Dave Roberts as a pinch runner. Roberts is a 32-year-old outfielder who is employed in Major League Baseball because of his legs. General manager Theo Epstein picked him up when the season was well in progress for just this reason.

What’s going to happen is no secret, not to the Yankees, not to the crowd, and not to the millions watching on television. Roberts will attempt to steal second.

Rivera is not easy to run on, and Jorge Posada has turned himself into a fine defensive catcher. When Roberts finally took off, it was on a 94-mile-per-hour heater up and away, allowing Posada the best opportunity to come up firing. The throw was a bullet, just a hair to the shortstop side of second. Roberts made it in, headfirst, under shortstop Derek Jeter’s tag. It was a great, and vital, piece of base-running artistry, something the Red Sox are not used to seeing.

”Dave’s one of the few runners in the league who can steal a base when everyone knows he’s going to try,” said Francona.

Half the job is done. Now the Red Sox must find a way to get him home. Bill Mueller hits one through the box. Rivera stabs for it, but the ball shoots into center field. The score is now tied at 4-4.

Three things were necessary for the Red Sox to create this vital run, a run that saved the series and the season. They needed the walk, the stolen base, and the base hit. Of the three, the toughest to get, and, from a Red Sox historical point of view, the most improbable, was the stolen base. It is already down as the most notable stolen base in Red Sox history.

Situation 2: Yankees Game 5, eighth inning.

This is a two-fer, a tale of Red Sox success and Yankee failure. Not surprisingly, it is not regarded in the same context in New York as it is in Boston.

Once again, the Yankees have a lead, this time 4-2. Miguel Cairo leads off with a double off Mike Timlin, bringing the Yankees around to the top of that formidable batting order. The batter is Jeter, and he drops a perfect sacrifice bunt. -- What? You exected something different? -- to put Cairo on third as the potential pad run with one out.

The next batter was Alex Rodriguez, who was not having a good series. This was an opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of the New York fans and an owner who is paying him about $25 million a year to be a stud. In baseball, one of the sacred things is getting a man home from third base with fewer than two outs. This is a treasured accomplishment. But A-Rod failed. He did not make a “productive” out. Timlin struck him out, on, as he explains, “a two-seamer upstairs” that just about attacked A-Rod’s hands.

Gary Sheffield was given an intentional walk and Foulke came on to retire Hideki Matsui on a fly ball. The threat was over and the Red Sox would win six innings later on an Ortiz single off Esteban Loaiza.

The fallout in New York was enormous. Many a pundit observed that Jeter bunting in that circumstance was folly, that it was silly to take the bat out of his hands and place it in A-Rod’s.

That will remain a New York issue. The Boston take is that Timlin got a huge strikeout when it was most needed. There was a lot of baseball to play in a game decided by a 14th-inning Ortiz single, but that eighth inning K by Timlin has had repercussions in New York that will resonate all winter.

There are two moments, but there have been many more. How scary was it in the ninth inning of Game 5 with the Yankees when Tony Clark hit a ground-rule double into the right-field corner with Ruben Sierra on first? That ball had no business going into the stands. The ball somehow crept up and over the wall. How? All we know is that if it hadn’t, Sierra would have scored to break a 4-4 tie.

There was Jason Varitek decoying Larry Walker in the first inning Tuesday night before blocking the plate and making a superb tag on the throw from Manny Ramirez. There was Matsui, with the bases loaded, hitting a vicious line drive off Pedro Martinez where Trot Nixon could catch it in the sixth inning of Game 5 against the Yankees. That was a three-run twist of fate.

There are situations and what-ifs only baseball can provide, and the Red Sox postseason has been loaded with them. And there are times when the men whose names are not normally in headlines rescue the team. To those people who truly care, what Roberts and Timlin did to help the cause are the things that make baseball special.

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