Funny thing about perfection. Sometimes it works in mysterious ways.
Curt Schilling strived for it yesterday, pitching his heart out before he lost his bid for a perfect game with two outs in the sixth inning. Keith Foulke also tried mightily to extend his perfect streak of 24 straight saves, only to have his magical run blow up on him in the eighth inning like a trick cigar.
But when Red Sox manager Terry Francona gambled that David McCarty could do something special with one majestic swing on a 3-0 pitch with one out in the 12th inning from Seattle's J.J. Putz, everything worked out just perfectly.
In a perfect ending to a memorable struggle on a glorious day in the Fens, McCarty swatted a 90-mile-an-hour fastball into the bleachers in dead center for a two-run, walkoff homer that lifted the Sox to a 9-7 victory before a delirious 35,046 who celebrated to the rocking rhythm of "Dirty Water." McCarty's blast made the Sox a perfect 8 for 8 with four doubles, two homers, and 10 RBIs this season on 3-0 counts when they have put the ball in play.
"It feels good," the reserved McCarty said of his biggest hit in 52 games since the Sox claimed him off waivers last August from the A's. "I don't know if I've ever had a walk-off home run."
The first walk-off shot in McCarty's memory vaulted the Sox back into first place in the American League East and capped a battle of attrition that ultimately left the injury-riddled Sox fielding a team that looked more like the best of Triple A Pawtucket. McCarty knocked in Jason Varitek, who reached when Putz plunked him with a 72-mile-an-hour curveball.
"I just think it was important we were able to come back," Varitek said, "with so many people contributing."
Notable among them were recent alums of the PawSox: Andy Dominique, whose first hit in the majors was a run-scoring single in the eighth that helped to nullify Foulke's blown save in the top of the inning; Kevin Youkilis, who went 3 for 5, was hit by a pitch, and scored three runs; and Anastacio Martinez, who stymied the Mariners in the 11th and 12th innings to pick up his second win. They finished the game for the Sox along with the likes of McCarty and Cesar Crespo.
"I am not putting anybody down, but that was a team we ran out there a lot at the end of games down in Fort Myers," Francona said. "That says a lot for the guys we have."
They helped to stage the 13th come-from-behind victory of the season for the Sox in a game that earlier seemed completely in Schilling's clutches. Known by some as the new sheriff in town after he helped Westwood police last week nab an alleged drunken driver, Schilling made his quest for perfection under the gaze of the nation's top law enforcement official, US Attorney General John Ashcroft, who watched from a rooftop suite.
One after another, the Mariners faltered against Schilling, who retired 17 straight batters before Randy Winn looped an opposite-field single near the line in left with two outs in the sixth. Until then, the crowd and Schilling's defense hung on every pitch, and no one was more anxious than Youkilis, the rookie third baseman who had played behind Bronson Arroyo when he fired a perfect game last year in Pawtucket.
"It's an unbelievable feeling," Youkilis said. "You're out on the field and the pitcher's not as nervous as you are."
By the eighth inning, though, Schilling was steaming. With the Sox leading, 5-1, he opened the inning by walking John Olerud on a 3-2 fastball. Schilling believed at the time the pitch was a strike.
"He made a real good pitch to Olerud," Francona said. "I don't know if it affected him or not."
Schilling said, "I was a little upset about it, but going back and looking at it, it was a ball."
He said he also misplaced a few more pitches in the inning, which ultimately forced him out of the game. In all, Shilling was charged with surrendering three runs in the inning, letting the Mariners cut the lead to 5-4. Seattle touched Schilling's relief, Alan Embree, for a single before Raul Ibanez ruined Foulke's streak by clubbing a three-run homer into the Sox pen, putting the Mariners up, 7-5.
As always, Schilling took the blame, saying it was his job to protect the lead. That left him with mixed emotions about his bid for perfection.
"It was fun," he said. "A lot of that loses its lasting effect when you finish up the way I finished. But it was a good win, a fun win."
He could largely thank McCarty and Varitek, who also helped erase the 7-5 deficit in the bottom of the eighth. First, Varitek singled leading off against Shigetoshi Hasegawa. Then McCarty boomed a double off the Monster, sending Varitek to third. On came pinch hitter Johnny Damon, who launched a sac fly to score Varitek before Dominique drove in McCarty with his first hit in the bigs to tie it.
"I was grateful the manager had the faith in me to go up and do something positive," Dominique said. "It's something I'll never forget."
From there, Foulke flummoxed the Mariners in the ninth before Mike Timlin blanked them in the 10th and Martinez took care of business in the 11th and 12th, setting up McCarty's shot. It ended with the Sox jumping in unison at the plate, with McCarty in the middle of the scrum, and a sellout crowd rejoicing. It seemed as perfect as it gets.
"People are out on the streets partying instead of moping around," Damon said. "That's definitely a great feeling."