The Red Sox had clawed back from a 7-0 deficit in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series on Thursday night and were threatening to complete a historic comeback in the bottom of the ninth inning with the game knotted at 7.
Kevin Youkilis was on second base after reaching on an infield single and advancing on a throwing error by Rays third baseman Evan Longoria. Jason Bay was on first after an intentional walk. And Rays reliever J.P. Howell was trying to get one more out to stem the tide as the delirious Fenway Park faithful screamed in hope.
At bat was J.D. Drew, who helped spark the comeback with a two-run homer the previous inning that brought Boston within a run.
For the Rays in the field, the members of what many consider to be a top defensive unit, the focus was undoubtedly on what to do to prevent the runner on second from scoring.
Rays right fielder Gabe Gross had to find the right place to position himself. He needed to be shallow enough to have a shot at throwing Youkilis out at home if Drew pulled a grounder or dropped a bloop beyond the reach of the infielders. However, he also had to be positioned to track down a long fly in case Drew hit one on the nose. After all, Fenway may be known as a hitter's haven, but there's a lot of ground for an outfielder to cover right and center fields.
The ever-patient Drew ran the count to 3-0. Howell lofted a changeup over the plate for a strike. He then came back with the same pitch, but Drew was ready and smoked a screaming line drive to right.
Headed directly at Gross, it was the type of shot that's the most difficult kind for an outfielder to judge: It's nearly impossible to tell where the ball will be going. Is it sinking? Is it carrying?
|"I didn't think the risk was worth the reward."|
-- Gabe Gross on not|
diving for Dustin Pedroia's
RBI single in the seventh.
"I hit it really well," said Drew. "I thought [I hit] well enough to get it over his head, but it's so deep in right field here. [I] didn't know if he would catch it or not."
Gross initially broke in, then realized the ball was carrying over his head. He turned and gave pursuit, but it was too late. The ball skipped over the right-field wall and Youkilis was steaming home toward a mob of teammates. Drew was credited with a single instead of a ground-rule double because he ran only as far as first base.
"He just hit it very hard on a line," Gross said Friday from Tropicana Field, where the Rays were preparing to host the Red Sox in Game 6 on Saturday night. "I did not break back immediately. When I turned and recognized the ball, I actually thought I might have to come in on it and I very quickly realized that it wasn't going to come down anytime soon. I told some guys last night -- even my first couple of steps back, I still thought I might be able to have a play on it, and it just didn't come down."
In the end, the second-guessers will say that Gross was too shallow. Or that he could have made the catch if he reacted to the ball properly.
The reality, of course, is that these plays happen in a blink of an eye. We have the benefit of watching the replays over and over again, distorting the urgency of the situation. We're not the ones who have to judge a screaming liner off a bat and instantly determine if it's going to drop in front of us or carry to the wall.
And sometimes, you just have to give credit where credit is due. Drew tattooed a pitch that caught way too much of the plate, delivering another big hit to add to his burgeoning postseason resume. And the Red Sox as a team showed once again that they simply cannot be counted out, no matter how bleak things look.
Gross was the center of attention on two other key plays late in Thursday night's 8-7 Red Sox win. With two outs in the bottom of the seventh and the score still 7-0, Dustin Pedroia took a Grant Balfour pitch to right field for a single, a ball that fell just in front of Gross, scoring the first Boston run. One batter later, David Ortiz hit a three-run homer and, all of a sudden, the Red Sox had life.
"I thought about laying out for the ball," Gross said. "But if I thought I could have got there, I would have laid out of it. In fact, I even went to B.J. [Upton] the next inning and asked him if I take another step and dive, do I have a chance, and he said he didn't think I did. That was just really where I was.
"I didn't think the risk was worth the reward. I didn't feel like I had a really decent chance of catching that ball. And of course, if it gets by me, there's 40 acres behind you there at Fenway for it to roll. If I felt like I could have caught that ball, I would have laid out."
Pedroia concurred with Gross's thinking.
"Right field at Fenway is a big yard," Pedroia said. "When I hit it, I thought it was down, for sure. I haven't looked at the replays. In that situation [in a 7-0 game], you don't want to dive and let the ball get by you. Obviously, you play with the percentages."
Between Pedroia's hit and Drew's game-winner, Gross had to field Coco Crisp's game-tying single to right field in the bottom of the eighth. His throw home was well off target as Mark Kotsay scored.
"It was a perfect ball to make a throw on -- a line drive that hopped up and hit me right on the chest," Gross said. "[I] felt like I was going to have a good chance to throw him out. My left foot came down to plant and it skidded about a foot and a half. It's something during the course of a year, it may happen to me two or three times. I see it happen from time to time with guys. Wet grass, and the length of the grass at Fenway probably helped that a little bit. But that's just what happened. I don't feel like I had too much control of that. Like I said, I planted to throw, but it just wasn't there.
"... The grass was a little moist. But it wasn't like it was sopping wet. The playing conditions were fine."
The Red Sox were expecting a close play at the plate.
"He [Crisp] almost hit it too hard," hitting coach Dave Magadan said. "It was looking like there was going to be a play at home. Thinking back, I know when [Gross] fielded the ball, Kotsay was just touching third. I was surprised but happy for it."
"My concern was that Kotsay wasn't going to score," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "We thought about [pinch-]running Ellsbury. ... And our thinking is the only ball they're going to throw him out on is a ball that's rifled into right, and there we have it. But if we use Ellsbury then, we're done doing anything [with the bench].
"We think Kotsay is a good runner. But there was a gasp when that ball went out there. I was glad to see that ball come in with not as much on it as it could."
Tim Ott is a reporter for MLB.com. Reporters Ian Browne, Bill Chastain and Jason Beck contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.