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Stolen glory in '04

The moment things turned around for the Red Sox: Bill Mueller singles off Mariano Rivera to tie Game 4 of the ALCS in the ninth. The moment things turned around for the Red Sox: Bill Mueller singles off Mariano Rivera to tie Game 4 of the ALCS in the ninth. (2004 file/Al bello/Getty Images)
By Bob Ryan
Globe Staff / October 14, 2011

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With all the turmoil surrounding the Red Sox, it is wise to remember there were some very good times recently.

Nothing in the fascinating history of the franchise equates to the phenomenal juxtaposition that took place in 2004, when, after losing Game 3 of the American League Championship Series to the Yankees by a humiliating 19-8 score to go down three games to none, they found themselves sipping champagne 11 nights later. That journey began seven years ago this Monday, as the Red Sox entered the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4, trailing, 4-3, with the great Mariano Rivera on the mound for New York.

What if?

What if Kevin Millar doesn’t draw that leadoff walk in the bottom of the ninth inning?

What if Dave Roberts doesn’t steal that base?

And the real jackpot question: What if Bill Mueller doesn’t drill that single to center, bringing home Roberts with the tying run in Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series?

Actually, we do know the answer.

“It would have been, ‘Eeeeeech,’ ’’ says Millar, who now works for MLB Network. “Gloomy. Cloudy. Talk shows go wild. Then it would be going back to the drawing board.’’

Of course, there would have been no American League pennant, no World Series victory, no end to The Curse, and a lifetime of hooting down from Yankee fans on the basis of a humiliating four-game sweep.

For his singular contribution, Dave Roberts has been practically canonized in this town. No comparable Boston sports hero stakes his claim to eternal fan gratitude on the basis of one act that encompassed about four seconds, give or take. (You could make a case for Bernie Carbo, except that the Sox did not win that World Series.)

Roberts has gotten his due, for sure. But has the time not come to salute the man who accomplished the real feat, which was getting a huge base hit off a prime-of-life Mariano Rivera? Getting to second base means a man is only halfway where he needs to be. Bill Mueller made sure Roberts got to the right place.

Mueller (pronounced “Miller’’). Five feet 10 inches, a sturdy 180 pounds. Switch-hitter. Built like a D-2 running back. Not that fast. Not that powerful. Not that anything. But he knew how to play the game.

“Just a baseball player,’’ recalls Jason Varitek. “A lot like Pedey [Dustin Pedroia]. Excellent hitter. Steady on defense. What we all call a ‘grinder.’ A baseball player.’’

The captain is one of three Mueller teammates left from that series. David Ortiz and Tim Wakefield are the other two.

“That’s a good dude, man,’’ salutes Big Papi. “Good people. A good teammate. You’re right. Nobody ever talks about who got that hit.’’

“It was a team full of ‘gamers,’ and he was at the top of the list,’’ says Wakefield, who famously left a bottle of champagne in Mueller’s locker the day Mueller clinched the 2003 batting title in St. Petersburg. “He was one tough out.’’

The manager at the time, of course, was Terry Francona.

“You don’t ‘manage’ Bill Mueller,’’ says Francona. “You write his name in the lineup. You give him a day off if he needs it. That’s it.’’

Unlikely batting champ

He was signed as a free agent on Jan. 14, 2003. It was one of Theo Epstein’s first major moves as general manager, and time has proven it to be one of his best. Injury had restricted Mueller to 181 games as a member of the Giants and Cubs in 2001 and 2002, but his universal reputation as a pro’s pro made him attractive to the Red Sox, who were seeking a third baseman to replace Shea Hillenbrand.

Batting seventh, eighth, and even ninth, he won that 2003 AL batting championship with a .326 average.

“Unbelievable,’’ says Mueller. “That’s one of those achievements you dream about as a little kid. Like winning the World Series. But it’s always some type of fantasy. You never think it can be a reality. To win it was an enormous thrill.’’

By the way, this would have been a major speech for Mueller during his playing days. While he was in uniform, he was polite but, shall we say, reticent.

“Some of it was insecurity, but I just felt more comfortable doing my business on the field,’’ he explains. “I was always more comfortable not revealing too much, because I never wanted that feeling that ‘it’s about me’ to creep in.

“I never wanted my accomplishments, bad or good, to be a factor, bad or good, for the team. People wanted me to talk about things, but I was never comfortable doing that.’’

He grabbed some headlines on July 29, 2003, when he became the first man in major league history to hit grand slams from each side of the plate, plus a solo homer, in the same game. He drove in those nine runs during a 14-7 win over the Rangers at Arlington, Texas. He tried to ho-hum it at the time, of course.

“Personal accomplishments during the regular season don’t register until later, when you’re done playing,’’ he points out. “Yes, that was just crazy. Who would have thought?”

Now, who wins a batting title hanging out in the bottom third of the order?

“That had a little something to do with the lineup he was in,’’ says Francona.

There were mashers up and down the order. Manny Ramirez (37 HRs, 104 RBIs, 1.014 OPS) was in his glory. Nomar Garciaparra knocked in 105. Millar had 96 ribbies. Trot Nixon had 28 homers and 87 RBIs. Varitek went for 25 and 85. Todd Walker - remember him? - had 13 and 85. Oh, and Big Papi had his breakthrough year with 31 and 101 after not getting into the lineup until June.

The stealthy Mueller hit .326 with 19 homers, 85 RBIs, and a robust .938 OPS. No one could ever say he didn’t get a good pitch to hit in every at-bat.

“It really didn’t make any difference to me where I hit,’’ he says. “The big thing to me was, ‘How can I help the team?’ Lower third? No problem.’’

Postseason stage

Mueller was front and center in the most important regular-season game of the 2004 season. That would be the Saturday afternoon affair July 24, when the Red Sox beat the Yankees in a game that featured ejections, the memorable sight of Varitek shoving his catcher’s mitt into the face of Alex Rodriguez, and lots and lots of runs, the last two of which came on a one-out, ninth-inning homer by Mueller off Rivera that give the Red Sox an 11-10 victory.

He missed 37 games that season because of arthroscopic knee surgery, but he did hit .322 over his final 44 games and thus entered the 2004 postseason on a personal high.

As the AL wild card, the Red Sox dispatched the Angels in three games, winning Games 1 and 2 in Anaheim and closing out the series with an 8-6, 10-inning triumph in Game 3 when Ortiz, his legend in ascent, hit a two-out, two-run homer over the Wall off Jarrod Washburn.

So Red Sox fans would get their most cherished wish: an ALCS with the Yankees.

Through three games, it was a be-careful-what-you-wish-for scenario. Curt Schilling was slapped around in Game 1 (Yankees 10, Sox 7). New York’s Jon Lieber was too much in Game 2 (Yankees 3, Sox 1). And everything fell apart in Game 3 (Yankees 19, Sox 8).

No team in baseball history had come back from a 3-0 deficit in a postseason series. Even baseball players, notoriously ignorant on the subject of baseball history, were aware of that fact.

But this was a hard-headed, loosey-goosey bunch, and it was led by Kevin Millar.

“The next morning, I wake up and I’m thinking, ‘The time is tonight,’ ’’ Millar says. “If they’re gonna close it out, it had better be tonight, because after that, the pitching matchups are in our favor.’’

Mueller was bemoaning a lost opportunity for his team.

“It wasn’t so much the 19-8, or even being swept,’’ he says. “It was more disappointing, because we all felt we had a better team in ’04 than in ’03. It was, ‘Gosh, we’ve let ourselves down, because we should have done better than this.’

“But I think Millar created an atmosphere for us. He was saying, ‘Don’t let us win Game 4, because then we had the Big Three going.’ ’’

That would be Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, and Game 4 starter Derek Lowe.

Facing down Rivera

In Game 4, the Yankees took a 4-3 lead into the eighth, and manager Joe Torre, as he did so often, summoned the great Rivera for a six-out save. Ramirez singled to start the eighth, but Ortiz fanned and both Varitek and Nixon grounded to first, leaving the Yankees three outs away from a sweep and another trip to the World Series.

In the top of the ninth, Sox reliever Alan Embree retired the side easily after walking Derek Jeter, so here were the Red Sox, three outs away from humiliation.

The leadoff man was Kevin Millar.

“I enjoyed facing Mariano Rivera,’’ maintains Millar. “I think at one point in my career I had the highest batting average off him of anyone.

“But did I want to face him at that moment? No.

“I was looking for something middle in I could pull. Mariano made mistakes to righthand batters. I was pretty confident that if he made one, I could get it.

“At 1-and-0, I tried to home in on a pitch to hit one out and I lined it near their dugout. Then it went ball, ball, ball, and I was on.’’

Dave Roberts had been preparing for this moment for years. In a 2005 interview, he revealed, “Maury Wills once told me that there will come a point in my career when everyone in the ballpark will know that I have to steal a base, and I will steal that base.’’

Roberts had been picked up by Epstein at the trading deadline, July 31. Few paid attention to the transaction because that was the day Epstein traded Garciaparra to the Cubs. Roberts had gone from being a starter with the Dodgers to a reserve outfielder/pinch runner with the Red Sox, but he never uttered a peep.

“I had talked to Dave Roberts in the tunnel,’’ Francona says. “We went over the inning. When Millar walked, he knew he was in.

“I kind of winked at him as he was going up the steps. I wanted him to know, ‘Hey, you can do this.’ ’’

Not up there to bunt

When Roberts got to first, there was immediate confusion. First base coach Lynn Jones apparently thought he had seen third base coach Dale Sveum give the bunt sign. Roberts assured him that was not the case.

Roberts had stolen a ninth-inning base off Rivera on Sept. 17, and he knew one thing for sure.

“I discovered his biggest defense mechanism was holding the ball,’ Roberts notes. “Hold . . . hold . . . hold. It’s like an eternity.’’

Rivera threw over three times, and with each throw, Roberts became more relaxed. After the third throw, he knew there would be no pitchout.

“I took my standard 3 1/2-step lead, and I took off,’’ he says. “I got a great jump.’’

Catcher Jorge Posada made a great throw. Roberts went in headfirst, Jeter made a patented swipe tag . . . and umpire Joe West gave the safe sign.

From his vantage point, some 127 feet 3 3/8 inches away, Mueller wasn’t sure what the call would be.

“It was darn close,’’ he says. “You hold your breath and wait for the umpire’s call. Then it’s, ‘Ooh, he’s safe.’ ’’

“He got a good jump, but when we saw it on tape, we couldn’t believe how close it was,’’ Francona marvels. “It was the best throw the guy has ever made.’’

“Bam-bam,’’ says Millar. “What a great throw.’’

But Roberts was safe, and now the attention had shifted back to the batter-pitcher duel between Rivera and Mueller.

“With Rivera, you’re just trying to survive,’’ Mueller says. “Any time you face a guy that talented, you just hope for a mistake.’’

Specifically, a lefthanded batter is looking for something on the outer half of the plate. Life is no fun when that notorious cutter is bearing in on you at 95 miles per hour.

“I had a special bat I used only for Rivera,’’ Mueller reveals. “Instead of my usual 31.5- or 31.7-ounce bat, I used one that weighed 30.9 or 31. And I choked up a little, which I did not do against anyone else. In order to get at that cutter I needed to cheat a little.’’

He had “cheated’’ his way to four hits in 10 at-bats that season against Rivera. Remember that July 24 homer?

“He was a good hitter and he was very good that year,’’ Rivera says. “A good player. Very aggressive hitter.’’

Rivera wasn’t sure of Boston’s intentions.

“I was surprised they didn’t bunt,’’ he says. “One-run game. Man on second. None out.’’

But that wasn’t going to happen.

“You don’t give up an out against Mariano Rivera,’’ Francona explains.

Rivera threw, and Mueller’s wish was granted. The ball was too much out over the plate. Mueller lashed a hard shot directly at Rivera.

“I’m surprised it didn’t hit me,’’ Rivera recalls. “I thought I had a chance.’’

Rivera lunged at the ball.

“He looked like a hockey goalie trying to make a kick save,’’ says Roberts.

“He was doing the goalie thing,’’ echoes Francona.

The ball got by Rivera, but Mueller wasn’t getting cocky just yet.

“It had enough topspin to get past Rivera,’’ he says. “But then you’ve got Jeter back there, and I’m hoping he isn’t going to make another great play. I don’t need to see Derek Jeter that night on ESPN.’’

That didn’t happen. The ball rolled into center field.

“I was thinking he would yank something to the right side,’’ says Roberts, “but when the ball got through, I said, ‘I’m gonna score.’ I wasn’t stopping at third, even if there was a stop sign.’’

Bill Mueller had come through.

“Right man at the right time,’’ Roberts says.

An honorable career

The inning wasn’t over, but Rivera wasn’t going to allow any more damage, eventually leaving the bases loaded by getting Ortiz on a pop to second.

What Red Sox fan doesn’t know The Rest of The Story? The Ortiz 12th-inning game-winner off Paul Quantrill. The epic 5-hour-49-minute, 14-inning triumph in Game 5. The Bloody Sock in Game 6. The Game 7 rout. The sweep of the Cardinals.

In an 11-day period, the Red Sox had gone from the hurt of 19-8 and the threat of a sweep to their first world’s championship in 86 years. And it all happened when they were just three outs away from defeat.

Bill Mueller’s career ended two years later, his body just too battered to allow him any chance to play. He finished with 1,229 hits, a career batting average of .291, and one championship ring.

It was not a Hall of Fame career, but it was an honorable career. He left with the respect and admiration of every teammate he played with and every manager he played for.

And he left us with the image of an at-bat that saved a series and set in motion forces that resulted in the Red Sox winning two World Series and challenging for more.

“Those three years in Boston kind of defined my career,’’ says Mueller. “And helping break that curse was the most meaningful thing that occurred during my short career.

“You never know how your career will be defined, or even if there will be any definition to it. I just played because I loved the game. To put this next to it is a tremendous accomplishment.’’

Based on what we saw last month, the 2011 Red Sox sure could have used a few Bill Muellers.

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