Red Sox

Retro Recap, 2004 ALCS Game 5: Another Papi Walkoff, and the Best Game of Varitek’s Life

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Sox win Game 5, 2004 ALCS in a walkoff

Over the next few days, in appreciation of a certain anniversary, I am re-watching each game from the 2004 American League Championship Series, when everything about being a Red Sox fan changed. Then I’ll come over here and write about all that was memorable, and all that we might have forgotten too.

No, the dates don’t quite match up, and reliving this magical nine-day stretch isn’t the same as living it in real-time. But damn, if anything in Boston sports history is worth reminiscing about at any opportunity, isn’t it this?

Let’s go back to October 18, 2004, when David Ortiz did it again and the comeback became a very real possibility …

Because we remember this game first and foremost as another amazing comeback — and it was — it’s easy to forget that the Red Sox took an early lead. Four of the first five batters reached against Mike Mussina. David Ortiz drove in Orlando Cabrera with a single, and Jason Varitek walked with the bases loaded for a 2-0 lead. Mussina escaped further damage by whiffing Bill Mueller with the bases loaded for the third out, and the Yankees got one back in the top of the second against Pedro Martinez when Bernie Williams hit a solo home run. The score remained the same until the top of the sixth, when Derek Jeter roped a two-out, bases-loaded double to right field, scoring three and putting the Yankees up 4-2. The joy of the previous night — the first moments of this same morning, actually — felt fleeting. But Ortiz got a run back in the eighth with a solo home run off Tom Gordon, and Varitek’s sacrifice fly off Mariano Rivera tied it. The teams traded brilliant pitching and blown opportunities until the bottom of the 13th, when Ortiz drove in Johnny Damon and joy engulfed Fenway:

We got into all of the Who’s-your-daddy stuff after Game 2, but it is jarring to be reminded of how much Pedro struggled against the Yankees later in his Red Sox career. In five starts in 2004, he was 1-3 with a 5.29 ERA … Started this one well, though — he whiffed Jeter on three pitches, including a 90 mph fastball for a swinging strike three. He also struck out Gary Sheffield in the first … Fox’s camera’s catch a few fans in the early innings wearing “Why Not Us?” t-shirts. First time we’ve seen them on someone other than Curt Schilling and his teammates …


Damon entered the game 1 for 18 in the series. He ended it 2 for 24. Man, he was lined up to be one of the more prominent goats. For some reason, no one seems to remember that now, eh? Yeah, for some reason … Manny Ramirez gets some lingering grief for not having an RBI in this entire series, but by no means did he have a bad series. Because of Damon’s struggles, he just didn’t have many baserunners on when he came to the plate. Still, he was a subtle but crucial contributor in Game 4, and in Game 5 he had a first-inning single in the middle of the two-run rally against Mussina, and in the 14th, he walked before Ortiz’s walk-off … Switch-hitter Varitek batted righthanded against the righty Mussina. In a related note, he entered the game as an .083 hitter lifetime against the Yankees starter …

For a guy who had 114 career saves — including 46 with the ’98 Red Sox — Tom Gordon looked rattled in the eighth inning even before he gave up Ortiz’s solo homer to cut it to 4-3. Torre did not want to go to Rivera for two full innings in this game, but in hindsight, he should have recognized after Gordon walked Kevin Millar following Ortiz’s blast that he needed to go with the pitcher who was capable taking the mound without needing to hyperventilate into a paper bag. Rivera came in a batter later, after Trot Nixon hit a rocket to center with pinch-runner Dave Roberts on the move, which put runners at the corners. The first batter Rivera faced, Varitek, hit a sacrifice fly to get the tying run home …


I’ve watched it five times in the last few minutes, and I still have no idea how Tony Clark’s ground-rule double with a runner on in the top of the ninth off Keith Foulke did not stay in play. To that point, it might have been the most fortuitous bounce the Red Sox have ever received … Foulke was brilliant. So was losing pitcher Estaban Loiaza for the Yankees. But does anyone remember that Bronson Arroyo came on for the 10th and got Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield in order, whiffing the last two batters? … At the 3 hour 15 minute mark of this clip, Tim Wakefield, Derek Lowe, and Schilling stroll to the bullpen, just in case they’re called to duty. It’s one of the unsung chill-inducing scenes of the series …

Ortiz has to be the only player in history to deliver consecutive walk-off hits on the same day. I tell you, you relive the ’04 stuff, and look at the career numbers, and remember what he did in the postseason just last year, and you realize it’s going to be very difficult to keep him out of Cooperstown.

Jorge Posada, who was such an arch-enemy of Pedro that he allegedly went to Yankees management and asked them not to sign him as a free agent before the 2005 season, leads off with a one-hopper that bounces in front of the plate and bounds over Pedro’s head for a cheapo infield single.

It was impossible not to think at this moment of his game-tying flare to center in the cataclysmic eighth inning of Game 7 the previous October, and it brought back that old familiar sense of dread.


As it turned out, this baseball horror proved the inverse of what happened in that fateful inning in ’03. Then, it was Jeter starting it with a one-out, Nixon-rain-dance-aided double, and Posada finishing it.

This time, Posada started it, and Jeter stuck in what sure felt like a dagger in the sixth inning. After Ruben Sierra doubled and, one batter later, feeble Miguel Cairo got hit with a pitch (a sure sign Pedro was losing it), Jeter poked the Sox starter’s 100th pitch down the right field line.

Posada scored. Sierra scored. Cairo scored, beating Nixon’s zeppelin of a throw. Jeter stood on third base, clapping, chomping his gum, and so casually blowing bubbles.

Any shot at an unprecedented comeback felt lost. Gone. It was familiar, and it was awful.

It seemed agonizingly inevitable. Jeter would win again. Pedro would end his Red Sox career without pitching in a World Series. The Yankees would win in five for sure.

Who knew then that the ballgame had three hours and 7 1/2 innings left to go.

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In part because of the Red Sox’ success during his tenure, and in part because he was damn good, Varitek built as many lasting memories as any catcher in franchise history, Carlton Fisk included.

Varitek had one three-homer game in his career, and 10 two-homer games. He caught four no-hitters, and he introduced Alex Rodriguez to the delicious mitt-burger.

But I’m serious when I say that he may not have had a better — or certainly more important — performance than the one he submitted in Game 5 of the 2004 ALCS.


In the first inning — again, batting righty against the righty Mussina — he worked a walk to plate the second Red Sox run, the first time in the series that the Red Sox scored first.

I don’t know if he ever had a better at-bat than his turn against The Great Mariano in the eighth, especially considering the circumstances, pressure, and need for a specific difficult situational outcome. With one out and runners at the corners, Rivera entered the game to face Varitek with a one-run lead. Against Rivera and that buzzsaw cutter, you expected the worst almost as much as you feared it: a double play.

Varitek grounded into 11 double plays during the 2004 regular season. He had one sacrifice fly. The odds were not in his favor of getting a second here. But there he was, flipping a Rivera cutter deep enough to center field to score Roberts without a throw. (Thank you, noodle-armed Bernie Williams.)

Now, perhaps the unfamiliar and uninformed might look at the box score from this game, notice that Varitek had three passed balls in a single inning, and wonder how we could praise his performance so definitively. But you know why, don’t you? He was catching knuckleballer Wakefield — a very rare assignment for him even though they were teammates for 15 seasons — and Wake had the knuckleball dancing like a disco queen on this night.

I’m not sure there has been a tenser half-inning in Red Sox history than the top of the 13th in this game.


That’s when Varitek permitted — or more accurately, was the hapless victim — of three passed balls. So when the third passed ball — it simply ricocheted off his glove — allowed Yankees baserunners Hideki Matsui and Posada to move up to third and second base respectively with two outs, you couldn’t help but fear the inevitable fourth, which would have given the Yankees the lead.

After Wakefield started out Ruben Sierra with two strikes, Varitek stabbed at his next pitch, a ball that fluttered into the lefty batter’s box — it appeared for a brief moment as if the catcher had to check the glove to make sure it was there. After a Sierra foul ball, Varitek again boxed the next pitch to the ground. And the next, ball three, also popped out of the mitt, but didn’t stray from his side.

At this point, Varitek had to be considering an innovative approach — ditching the glove altogether and letting the ball hit him in the chest protector, then picking up the ball, which would hopefully come to a stop somewhere in front of him.

You think I’m being facetious, yeah? Watch from the 4-hour, 24-minute mark forward, then get back to me:

On the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Sierra swung and missed by a foot. Varitek, who missed a couple of baseballs by a foot himself that inning, caught it as cleanly as he would have a Curt Schilling fastball. And all of New England exhaled at once.


Is this … is this what hope feels like? Hell, yes. This comeback no longer felt like a dream based on reality, but reality based on a dream. We’ll see you in New York for Game 6 …

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