Close your eyes and it is 2004 all over again. Tom Brady is throwing last-second touchdown passes en route to a certain Super Bowl, David Ortiz is the greatest clutch hitter in baseball history, and the unwashed Red Sox are escaping from a hopeless deficit while Mayor Menino is pumping tires on the duck boats.
What might be the most exciting day in Boston sports history ended at festive Fenway Sunday night at 11:44 when Jarrod Saltalamacchia singled to left, scoring Jonny Gomes from third to give the Red Sox an impossible 6-5, series-squaring, come-from-behind victory over the stunned Detroit Tigers.
In the day of all days, the moment of all moments was the Ruthian sight of Ortiz crushing a first-pitch, game-tying grand slam off Tigers closer Joaquin Benoit in the eighth inning. As right fielder Torii Hunter flipped spectacularly over the bullpen wall in fruitless pursuit of the flying seed, a Boston bullpen cop signaled “touchdown” and Fenway came to life.
This was not a walkoff. This was a liftoff. Flat on the ground for almost 17 strikeout-filled innings, Boston’s championship hopes were launched into the airspace over the Back Bay as 38,029 fans rattled Fenway’s 101-year-old timbers.
As Ortiz has been known to say, “This is our [expletive] city!’’
“As we’ve seen, we’re going to play to the final out,’’ said Sox manager John Farrell. “David has come up big so many times in the postseason, none bigger than tonight. Just an incredible comeback here.’’
“We needed it, man,’’ said Ortiz. “I tried not to do too much. I wasn’t trying to hit a grand slam. Just try to put a good swing on the ball . . . I grew up playing with Torii. He’s one of the best outfielders I’ve seen in my life. I think the ball took a left turn while he was turning right. That’s Torii’s. He’s a trouper and he’s fun to watch . . . It was a changeup. I put a good swing on it.’’
It was a Fisk-like moment.
Incredible? Unbelievable? Cosmic? Epic? Go ahead. Choose your word. This was right up there with any of the thrills we’ve seen at the ancient yard over the last century. Dave Roberts was summoned for the ceremonial first pitch and the event unfolded in a fashion reminiscent of the comeback against the Yankees in 2004.
In Foxborough or at Fenway, this was not a day to leave early.
All hope seemed lost at Yawkey Way. The Sox were striking out at a record pace — 17 times in a 1-0 defeat on Saturday and 13 more times in Game 2 as they fell behind, 5-1, through seven innings.
We were set to bury them. The Sox managed only one hit over the first 14 innings of the series. It was time for the fuzzy fellows to get out the razors. They were about to go down, two games to none, and face Justin Verlander in Game 3 in Detroit Tuesday afternoon. After not losing four straight games all season, the Sox looked like candidates for a sweep in the ALCS. We were comparing them to the 1966 Los Angeles Dodgers, who were blanked (by the Orioles) for three straight games and 33 innings in the World Series.
“We felt we were going to break out of it,’’ said Saltalamacchia.
After Shane Victorino broke up Max Scherzer’s no-hitter in the sixth, Dustin Pedroia broke the interminable Boston drought with an RBI double to left. Pedroia is the guy who was still playing with a broken bone in his hand at the end of the hideous 2012 season. He was embarrassed by the franchise’s worst season in 47 years and he will never forget. Ortiz is the modern-day Bambino of this lovable nine, but Pedroia is the everyday player who sets the tone for the everyday miracles.
It was still 5-1 in the eighth when Tigers manager Jim Leyland got a little too cute and started a Joe Maddonesque parade of relievers. He wound up with big, nasty Benoit facing Ortiz with the bases loaded and two outs. Ortiz had already fanned twice on the night.
Papi struck on the first pitch. There was little doubt as his heat-seeking missile screeched toward the Sox bullpen. Hunter hit the wall at full speed and flipped as the ball soared beyond his reach. It was 5-5. It was already over.
“I know he has a good split-finger,’’ said Ortiz. “I faced him a couple of times during the regular season.”
Koji Uehara came on in the ninth and stuffed the already-beaten Tigers. Then Rick Porcello came in to play the foil. Gomes hit a grounder to the left side and made it all the way to second on a throwing error by former Red Sox shortstop Jose Iglesias. He took third on a wild pitch and scored when Salty cracked his single to left. There was Ned Martinesque “pandemonium on the field,’’ and the series was even.
“It’s playoff baseball,’’ said Leyland. “It looked like we had one in hand. We let one get away, no question about that, but these were two great games.’’
It cannot get better than this.