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About last night . . . and tomorrow

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  October 16, 2008 11:50 PM

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Suddenly, the Sox, to a man, stopped punting away at-bats and trying to hit seven-run homers. Actually, let's take that back: Dustin Pedroia always tries to hit the seven-run homer, bless his enormous heart, and it was only appropriate that Pedey, the best and brashest player on this particular baseball team, knocked that big, ugly "0" off the Red Sox' side of the ledger with an RBI single in the seventh.

Then, a few batters later, came the blow that made you believe there might be some magic left in the Fenway night after all. As we've said countless times during his sadly ineffective postseason, all we needed was one mighty swing from Big Papi to make the world right. At last, it happened. One vintage, majestic blast off of Tampa Bay nutjob Grant Balfour, and the margin was a seemingly manageable three. A very important lesson . . . is to never give up. The only question was whether the Sox could string together another rally before they ran out of outs.

Enter J.D. Drew. In the past five years, we've been blessed with a fan's lifetime's worth of postseason heroes. None is as puzzling as this peculiar new Mr. October, whose two-run homer in the eighth, which pulled the Sox to within 7-6, will go down as merely his second-greatest highlight of the night. Drew remains the ultimate enigma, making the game look so fundamentally easy when he's going well (have you ever seen a more flawless short swing?) and he does it all with the passion of someone in the midst of clipping his toenails. I'll never get him, but I'm damn sure glad he's here.

Drew, of course, became the game's First Star in the bottom of the ninth, rocketing a laser over the head of beleaguered Rays right fielder Gabe Gross to score the winner, an inning after Coco Crisp -- so selfless all season and so deserving of this moment -- culminated one of the best at-bats you will ever see with a screaming single to right to tie it. And when it was all said and done . . . well, I believe the old familiar phrase "Pandemonium on the field!" still fits just fine. What a comeback, what a team, what a night.

Okay . . . I think our giddy rehash is complete, and now we can move on, or at least attempt to. Putting all sentiment and the shaky concept of momentum aside, common sense suggests this series is still the Rays' to win. They are probably the superior team, and they are certainly the healthier one. They're going back to their bizarre home, where they need to win just one of two to achieve the goal that cruelly eluded them last night. They'll have all of their shiny new fans clanging their cowbells and doing all they can to restore their young heroes' shattered confidence. It'll be their kind of scene.

Further, they have their ace, the alleged "Big Game" James Shields, rested and ready for Game 6, while the Sox, for the time being, are countering with a pitcher who actually has earned such a moniker, Josh Beckett. But of course, we know there's a catch -- Josh Beckett isn't Josh Beckett!!! right now, and the naked eye tells you what the Red Sox refuse to confirm: he's hurt, and it's affecting not only his performance, but his legacy as one of the greatest postseason pitchers of any era (he was 4-0 with a 1.20 ERA last October).

I would never bet against the bullheaded Beckett in any big moment, even in his current condition, but the numbers do not lie: he has allowed 12 earned runs in 9 1/3 innings this postseason -- including five home runs -- and he's being hit at a .400 clip. I can't help but think it is a strategic mistake -- and yet another resulting from Terry Francona's blind loyalty -- to resist flipping Beckett and Jon Lester for Games 6 and 7. Lester, whose Game 3 struggles have to be considered nothing more than a hiccup -- he had not allowed a run in 14 1/3 previous postseason innings -- would be pitching on regular rest, and the Sox would have all hands on deck should Beckett falter in Game 7.

But that's a matter for tomorrow. Today, we're still cherishing yesterday. And remembering yet again that it's never a bad idea to take Big Papi's words to heart.

* * *

As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

The Rays' unlikely relief ace (well, until last night) didn't look quite so menacing in his Twins days, did he? (Check out those ERAs before this season. Huh.)

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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