CHICAGO -- They've been tested before, these cartoon characters from Yawkey Way. Over the last three years, the Red Sox have routinely performed magic while feeling the love of our region like no team in the long history of Boston sports.
And now they are up against it again, staring into the face of elimination in the wake of one of the most gruesome postseason losses since . . . there is simply no other way to put this . . . the Bill Buckner game.
This one goes down as the Hub's little Amityville horror. The Red Sox were leading the White Sox, 4-0, in the fifth inning last night of a proverbial must-win game when the White Sox rallied to score five times en route to a 5-4 Game 2 victory. Chicago's winning runs came on a two-out, three-run homer by Tadahito Iguchi moments after a potential double-play grounder skipped through the legs of Sox second baseman Tony Graffanino, who was born in Amityville, N.Y.
And now the Red Sox trail the best-of-five series, two games to none, and must win three straight -- starting tomorrow at Fenway at 4 p.m. -- to extend this title defense into the second round.
''The comfort I have is our ability to play," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. ''I know that we will show up and play the next game, and that's what gives us the most comfort."
They've certainly been here before. Two years ago the Red Sox lost the first two games of the Division Series in Oakland, but recovered and won three straight to advance to the American League Championship Series. In 1999, the Sox lost the first two games to Cleveland, but came back and won the series. Most famously, last year they trailed the Yankees, 3-0, in the ALCS, then did what no team in baseball has done: They won four straight and took the series.
Members of the 2005 Red Sox have been quick to remind everyone this team is not the same as that team and there's concern throughout the Nation that Boston's mediocre pitching and suddenly stale offense might finally have met its match.
''It's not a pattern you want to fall into," said general manager Theo Epstein. ''Our backs are truly against the wall. It's the personality of this team to not do things easily."
After being held to two runs Tuesday, the Red Sox got David Wells four runs in the first three innings against Chicago lefthander Mark Buehrle. Johnny Damon led off the game with a single to left, Edgar Renteria followed with a double to left, and both scored on a hard single to left by Manny Ramirez. Buehrle had only thrown 13 pitches and he was down, 2-0.
In the third, Damon singled, took third on a double by David Ortiz, and scored on a single to right by Jason Varitek. Trot Nixon plated Ortiz by grounding into a force play and Wells had a 4-0 lead. That was it. Buehrle, the American League's All-Star starter (and winner) this season, settled down over the next four innings before handing the ball over to rookie fireballer Bobby Jenks.
Meanwhile, Wells cruised into the fifth with a two-hit shutout. It looked like this would be a victory for deep dish over thin crust, a win for burly over Buehrle. Channeling his hero, Babe Ruth, who once pitched a World Series shutout for the Red Sox on the same patch of land, Wells smothered these White Sox, who hit five homers and scored 14 runs in Game 1.
Then came the Amityville horror. Old friend Carl Everett started the trouble (we've written that before) with a single to right and scored on a double to left by Aaron Rowand. Rowand came home on a single to center by Joe Crede.
Suddenly, Wells was struggling. His pitch count was in the mid-60s and he was having trouble putting hitters away.
No. 9 batter Juan Uribe fouled off several pitches, then hit a grounder in the direction of Graffanino. It might have been a double-play ball. Maybe not. With Crede streaking toward second, Graffanino appeared to lift his head just as the ball reached him. When it scooted between his spikes, the White Sox had runners on first and third with one out and new life. Graffanino made only three errors in his 51 games with the Sox after he was acquired from the Royals July 19. The play was remarkably similar to the infamous grounder that skipped between the legs of Buckner to hand the Mets a victory in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.
''I think we'd have had a chance at it [the double play]," said Francona. ''He tried to be too quick."
Graffanino, giving new definition to the term stand-up guy, took on wave after wave of reporters after the game and made no excuses.
''I just missed it," he said. ''Any time you get a ground ball like that you try to get the double play and get out of the inning. I took my eye off it and missed it. That's a ball you need to catch."
After the error, people started to get loose in the Red Sox bullpen and pitching coach Dave Wallace visited the mound. Graffanino also visited Wells and the pitcher gave the chagrined infielder a playful pat on the back with his glove. Wells got Scott Podsednik to pop to third and it looked like he might be out of trouble.
Enter Tadahito Iguchi. The rookie second baseman crushed Wells's 1-and-1 pitch deep to left for a three-run homer and a 5-4 lead. US Cellular Field erupted.
Before the homer, certainly before the error, there was a feel of inevitability about this one. The resilient Red Sox were going to show the ChiSox who was boss and come home with a split. But all that positive energy was drained out of the Boston dugout when Iguchi rounded the bases.
Jenks came on in the eighth and pitched hitless ball until Graffanino -- attempting to atone for his error -- cracked a double to left with one out in the ninth. With a chance to tie it, Damon popped to the catcher on a full count and Renteria grounded to short. Fireworks exploded in the South Side sky as 40,799 sang, ''Hey, Hey, Na, Na, Kiss Him Goodbye."
The shocked Red Sox retreated to the clubhouse, desperate to find the magic that marked their dramatic comebacks in 2003 and 2004 -- days that now feel like a couple of lifetimes ago.