It was over. We were getting ready to lower the storm windows and put baseball to bed for the long New England winter.
And then the reeling Red Sox dug down and found the lost magic of recent Octobers. They recovered from a 7-0, seventh-inning deficit to stun the Tampa Bay Rays, 8-7, in the fifth game of the American League Championship Series. It was as wild, wacky, and wonderful as anything that’s happened at Fenway Park in this century. Which is saying a lot.
In the proud tradition of the Cowboy Uppers, Idiots, gypsies, tramps, and thieves who carried this team to a couple of world championships, the 2008 Sox staved off elimination with one of the great comebacks of October lore.
The Sox won in the ninth at 12:16 this morning when J.D. Drew roped a single over the head of Rays right fielder Gabe Gross with two on and two outs. It was the 11th walkoff win in Red Sox postseason history: The first in which the Sox trailed by seven runs in the seventh.
”I’ve never seen a group so happy to get on a plane at 1:30 in the morning,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “In the first six innings we did nothing. They had their way with us in every way possible. And then this place became unglued and we’ve seen that before ... That was pretty magical.”
The series resumes in St. Petersburg, Fla., tomorrow night with the Sox still trailing, three games to two, but the catatonic Rays have to be doubting themselves after watching their World Series tickets dissolve in Fenway’s midnight madness. If you are a Rays fans, you have to worry. The young bucks choked the way few have choked before. They were inches from a clean getaway, a Fenway sweep that would have embarrassed the defending world champs and elevated the Tampa team to elite status. And they coughed it all up in three ridiculous innings.
“Nobody feels worse than the guys in our bullpen,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon. “It’s one game, it’s a loss. Obviously we were in pretty good position and we gave it up. Of course, we’re upset and we don’t like losing that game. But to dwell on it does no good whatsoever.”
The comeback came out of nowhere. The Sox trailed, 7-0, with two outs in the bottom of the seventh and appeared to be rolling over like obedient canines. Going back to Game 3, they’d been outscored, 29-5, in three games at their ancient yard. It looked as though it was going to be an embarrassing finish.
Then things started to happen. The Rays couldn’t close the deal. Dustin Pedroia cut it to 7-1 with an RBI single to right. That seemed harmless enough until David Ortiz got the joint rocking with a three-run homer to right. Ortiz was 1 for 17 in the series prior to the homer. After Jonathan Papelbon smothered the Rays for a second inning, the locals tied the game with three in the eighth. Drew’s two-run homer made it 7-6 and with two outs, Coco Crisp capped a masterful 10-pitch at-bat with an RBI single to right. It was 7-7 and there was bedlam in the Back Bay.
”Coco’s at-bat was probably the best at-bat he had as a Red Sox,” said Francona.
Then came the ninth. With two outs and nobody aboard, it was Kevin Youkilis’s turn for a 10-pitch at-bat. His reward was a grounder down the third base line. Evan Longoria made a nice stab, then threw wildly past first. The ball careened into the seats, putting Youk on second.
After an intentional walk to Jason Bay, Drew hit his rope to right for the winner. It was Boston’s only lead in 27 innings of ALCS play at Fenway against the Rays.
”In the last at-bat I was able to get a ball in the middle of the plate and put a good swing on it,” said Drew. “We didn’t want to go down, 7-0. There’s a lot of fight in that dugout.”
The omens for the finale were not good. The Citgo sign caught fire Wednesday morning while the region was still getting over the shock of the Sox’ 13-4 loss in Game 4. The Citgo sign is to Red Sox Nation what the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg were to the Great Gatsby. The notion that this Fenway icon would be threatened and defaced on the day before an elimination game was not comforting.
Next came the Game 5 ceremonial first pitch. The Sox turned to the inimitable Blowhard himself - Mr. Big Game Bloody Sock - Curt Schilling. It was somewhat amazing that the Big Lug was available since the presidential election is less than three weeks away, but Schill strode out to his old mound of glory and bounced a pitch 6 feet in front of catcher David Ross. That’s what the Red Sox got for their $8 million this year - one pitch, in the dirt.
Daisuke Matsuzaka wasn’t much better. He gave up three homers in the first three innings. Red Sox starting pitchers in the last four games of the ALCS surrendered 11 home runs in 16 2/3 innings. Josh Beckett gets the ball tomorrow night for Game 6.
Looking back, it’s hard not to return to the observation of Ortiz after the Sox won the first game of the series, 2-0. “I saw faces tonight different than what I see in the regular season,” said Big Papi. “It’s a lot of pressure out there right now in this game.”
For the next three games and six innings, Ortiz was the symbol of Sox frustration. But he’s the one that launched the comeback with his three-run homer and now the young Rays have to be wondering if they can finish the job.