Champions won't go quietly
The Red Sox are the defending champions. They always come to play nine innings, and if it takes the greatest postseason comeback in 79 years to stay alive, then they will give you the greatest postgame comeback in 79 years.
Got that, Rays?
The Red Sox came back from 7-0 down last night with four in the seventh, three in the eighth, and, in their typical M.O., a winning run with two away and no one on in the ninth, capped by a base hit by J.D. Drew. It was the greatest postseason comeback since the 1929 Philadelphia A's, trailing the Chicago Cubs, 8-0, won it with 10 runs in the seventh. And unlike the '29 A's, the Red Sox didn't benefit from a fly ball lost in the sun.
What they did benefit from were such things as a three-run, seventh-inning home run by the previously dormant David Ortiz; a two-run, eighth-inning home run by Drew; a clutch 10-pitch Coco Crisp at-bat that culminated in a tying line single to score Mark Kotsay; a nine-pitch Kevin Youkilis at-bat that resulted in a combo infield single/Evan Longoria throwing error; and, after an intentional walk to the righthanded-hitting Jason Bay, the Drew line-drive winner over the head of right fielder Gabe Gross, who appeared to be paralyzed by a screamer hit directly over his head.
They also got two innings of relief from Jonathan Papelbon, who, after giving up a two-run, Wall-job double that brought the final two Tampa Bay (inherited) runs, shut them down in the eighth. Finally, they got another clutch pitching performance from 23-year-old Justin Masterson, who got out of a ninth-inning jam by getting the very dangerous Longoria to bounce into an inning-ending, 4-6-3 double play.
It all added up to an utterly improbable victory that really and truly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and now sends them back to St. Pete for more baseball.
"I've never seen a group so happy to get on a plane at 1:30 in the morning," said Terry Francona.
Yup, it was 7-zip Rays after six innings, and the joint was downright funereal. The Red Sox, down, three games to one, to the Rays in this American League Championship Series, were nine outs away from a sad, embarrassing end to the season. Once again a starting pitcher had given them nothing. The folks up in the press box were totaling up both the wondrous Tampa Bay offensive stats and the shameful Red Sox stats. The Rays were going to the World Series, and that was that.
"In the first six innings, we did nothing," Francona said. "And they had their way with us in every way possible. Then this place came unglued. I've seen it before. Because of the situation we were in, it was pretty magical."
For every dramatic comeback winner there is a dramatic comeback loser. And if the Red Sox somehow manage to win Games 6 and 7, the Rays will have to live with the memory of a major lost opportunity. They will be part of baseball lore, and not in a way anyone wants.
Joe Maddon now has a little fatherly work to do with his young Rays.
"Of course, if we had won it, we'd be in the World Series by now," he said. "We'll just have to wait one more day, hopefully, to get it done. Listen, it is what it is . . . But you can't dwell on it. Again, we'll lose for a half-hour or so, and then we'll move on. We have another game to play."
The flip side may be more meaningful. The Red Sox needed a pick-me-up. Until Dustin Pedroia drove in the first run off Rays reliever Grant Balfour with a single to right in the seventh, the Red Sox had been outscored, 29-5, on their own field in this series. But now they've had some positive reinforcement. They've had some great at-bats and Big Papi has hit his first postseason home run in 15 games. They feel about a million percent better about themselves than they did 24 hours ago.
It did not start well.
Down, 3-1, the Red Sox were asking Daisuke Matsuzaka to save them. Six days earlier, he had pitched a very classy and efficient seven innings of four-hit, shutout ball at The Trop. But it was foolish and unreasonable to think he could do it again. After all, during the regular season he had only pitched seven innings in consecutive games once (Aug. 9 at Chicago and Aug. 14 in Fenway). It had been the flimsiest 18-win season imaginable.
It took him nine pitches to fall behind. Akinori Iwamura began the ballgame with a single to right. Three pitches later, emerging star B.J. Upton hit his sixth home run of the postseason (accomplished in the span of 27 at-bats) into the first row of the Monster Seats. This was not the start Francona had in mind.
He allowed Dice-K four innings, plus one batter, of work. He pulled him after he walked Iwamura to open the fifth. He was trailing, 5-0, having given up back-to-back, third-inning homers to Carlos Peña and Longoria, whom Sox pitchers have turned into the Ruth/Gehrig or Maris/Mantle of the early 21st century. Longoria has hit four home runs in this series and Peña three. After being shut out in Game 1, the Rays smashed an ALCS-record 13 homers, breaking the seven-game record in just four.
Up there in Broadcast Heaven, Ned Martin was pouring another Scotch and muttering "Mercy!"
Here's a question now that the Red Sox have worked this series back to St. Pete: Have the starters gotten all the bad stuff out of their systems? In Games 2-5, no Boston starter made it out of the sixth. Beckett, Jon Lester, Tim Wakefield, and Dice-K worked a combined 16 2/3 innings, giving up 28 hits, 23 runs, and 11 home runs. It would take a lot of three-run bombs to make up for that.
Yeah, well, OK, that stuff doesn't matter now. Josh Beckett gets the ball tomorrow night. The season ain't over till it's over, and the Red Sox are still the champs until somebody beats them four times.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.