'Tis the season

Feels like autumn in New England

BOSTON -- There is nothing like a September night of drama ended by a walk-off home run that travels about as far as the imagination will take it.

Unless, of course, it is an October night of drama, etc. But this was playoff baseball advanced a month. You have waited since the beginning of April for exactly this sort of thing. It turns out that the wait was worthwhile.

"I thought that ball barely went out," David Ortiz said with a smile. Yeah, it barely went out -- of Massachusetts.

The Boston Red Sox won Tuesday night over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, 3-2. Ortiz, just as he did at the end of the 2004 American League Division Series, beat the Angels with a walk-off homer. This one, by conservative estimate, went 430 feet, before it was halted by a railing between the box seats and the bleachers in right. If it doesn't strike an object, it goes at least 450 feet. And by the time it settles fully into Red Sox lore, it will go at least 550 feet.

What a night. One ballpark, less than one month to go in the regular season, two first-place teams and about as many postseason permutations as the mind could handle this soon after the long Labor Day weekend. This is ball, as the days grow shorter and the pressures grow geometrically.

It is tense, it is dramatic, it is even something of a pitchers' duel in Fenway Park. And then David Ortiz sends the ball off on its sub-orbital path and the Red Sox win and Angels lose. It was 3-2, but you know, it seemed closer than that.

Tim Wakefield fluttered the knuckleball at the Angels for all nine innings. "When you have a guy like Wakefield out there pitching the way he did tonight, you want to do something for the guy," Ortiz said.

Well, that home run was the gift that kept on giving. Ortiz has hit four walk-off homers for the Red Sox. What makes him thrive in the clutch like this?

"I think he thrives all the time," manager Terry Francona said. "He doesn't have to do anything special. He doesn't have to reach for more. What he has is good enough."

The Red Sox played a terrific game. It wasn't a typical Red Sox home game with just those five runs on the scoreboard at the end. The Red Sox all by themselves average 6.4 runs per game at Fenway this season. But it was pitching and defense until Ortiz took over the script. Wakefield kept the Angels from doing major damage and John Olerud made outstanding plays at first base.

But it takes two to make a classic. And the Angels are, after all, the leaders in the AL West. They came back from two runs down in this game. Over the last four seasons, if it comes down to a battle of the bullpens, their chances have been exceptionally good.

But here, Scot Shields, who has been working Ortiz away, away, away, comes in with a fast ball on a 3-2 pitch. It is not an unreasonable intention, even though the execution is not perfect. Ortiz has been telling anybody who will listen, and on this night this is just about everybody, that the Angels pitch him about as tough as anybody. "He's got a good fastball," Ortiz says of Shields. "The guy's a good pitcher."

True enough. And that brings us to the other good news for baseball in general. This is just the beginning of the whole September deal. Tuesday's night's event, with its powerful ending, had the feel of a third act to it. But it was merely the opening scene for the stretch run.

This week, the Angels play only first-place Sox on the road; first Red and then White. The Red Sox face the Angels, which is a serious enough test, and then must make the journey to the Bronx for the renewal of their seemingly eternal struggle against the Yankees.

This is the time of the year when rest is a concept for the past and the future, not for the present.

"There's no need to rest now," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, "because you're not saying: 'Well, we've got some big games late in November.' "

Said Francona: "The need to rest is there, but this is a veteran team, and they know. They're veterans and they understand that this is why you play, to get into a position like this."

It really beats the alternative. Francona, who managed some Philadelphia teams that were out of contention early and often, relishes the difference.

"September on a losing team, I can't tell you, it's awful," Francona said. "Sunday day games, look across the bench, the other team's tired, but they're nervous. And we're out there playing a couple of kids. It was the worst feeling. Of all the feelings, that was the worst. But strapping it on now, man, every game means so much, it's great."

It was great Tuesday night; happier for Red Sox Nation than for Angels fans, but a performance that lived up to the time of the season and the stature of both clubs. And it was, as these stretch runs go, only the beginning.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.