There were collective whispers about next year, about who would be leaving and who might be coming and where this team could turn after having been thoroughly dismantled by a dynamic young Rays squad. Fenway Park had found raw truth where idealism meets reality, its faithful dizzied by a back-to-the-drawing-board déjà vu that reconnected them to 86 years of trials by fire.
For the Red Sox themselves, the déjà vu was more immediate, more palpable, than it was historic or emotionally regressive. In the series' first two games at Fenway, Boston had stumbled to the tune of a 22-5 drubbing on its home turf, having mustered just two runs to the Rays' 11 in pre-seventh-inning play.
"That's what's been killing the Red Sox, it's the Rays' offense," said TBS studio analyst and Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. "They had to stop the offense."
But such a formula would not solve Boston's woes in this one, as Thursday's contest followed suit with almost seamless precision: Tampa Bay charged to a 7-0 lead behind long balls from B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena, and stayed firmly in command thanks to a two-hit gem from starter Scott Kazmir. Nine outs away from a somber news conference and a sleepless six-month hiatus, Boston appeared pitted against a force too big -- too determined -- to be deterred.
"For most of this game, the Rays just seemed like that team of destiny," said Chip Caray, the lead play-by-play announcer for TBS' postseason coverage. "They were just so clearly in control."
|Biggest deficits overcome in postseason history|
|Red Sox||Rays||10/16/08||ALCS 5||7||8-7|
That control had been born of a metronomic rhythm established by Kazmir, whose exit from the contest brought with it a minute, but barely perceptible shift, in the home team's spirit. The chances were nearly as slim, the odds almost equally unfavorable, but Tampa Bay had given Boston a sliver of hope in the form of Grant Balfour. Balfour threw hard and Balfour threw strikes, but Balfour was not Kazmir. For a club so fatally close to collapse, that was enough -- because it had to be enough.
And then, bit by bit, the pieces fell into place for something historic. The Red Sox put runners on first and third -- marking the first time they'd moved a runner past second base on the evening -- with two men out in the seventh.
Up came Dustin Pedroia, the 5-foot-9, 180-pound sparkplug by whose heartbeat the team -- and the city -- have been pulsed all year. The scrappy second baseman battled Balfour, then muscled a base hit to right field that brought the crowd to its feet as if a 7-1 deficit was code for an 8-7 victory.
"It was Pedroia's hit, a little single from 'El Caballito,' that really got things going," said Caray. "You think about moments in Red Sox history: Dave Roberts' stolen base, Curt Schilling's bloody sock. Dustin's single has to be spoken of along with those. It broke the shutout and catalyzed what came next."
What came next is done justice by video alone. Two on, two out, six-run game. David Ortiz at the dish. But not really, not exactly, because this was not the Ortiz who for so long had carried the Red Sox on his shoulders throughout the postseason. This was a slower Ortiz, a weaker Ortiz, an Ortiz who'd gone 15 games and 61 straight playoff at-bats without hitting a ball out of the yard. This wasn't Big Papi.
But then, in one swing, it was. The call from Caray is enough to render goosebumps; a thing of poetic perfection: "Swing and a drive, deep to right field, if it's fair, it is ... way outta here!"
And then silence from Caray, a moment too big for play-by-play as Fenway shook in its foundation with the thunderous indication of collective rebirth. With one swing, they were back in it, back in the hunt for a series that had seemed all but decided just minutes before.
"One big three-run pop from Big Papi started to light this crowd up," said Ripken, "and I think we just felt it was going to happen."
So it did.
The eighth inning rolled in as if prewritten, as if the baseball gods had reconvened and decided that this one would be Boston's. From the stands, the progression went something like this:
Jason Bay walks. Stand up. Rally time. Three-run game, not there yet. Here comes Drew. Drew can do this. Fastball, strike, 0-1. Find your pitch. Wait for yours. There it ... no ... there it goes! Again? Again! Again!
And again, and again, and again, for Sox fans reliving the memory of what rapidly had become a one-run game.
"J.D. Drew's homer, that's the big one in my mind," said Caray. "That brings it within one, and you can see just how close they are to tying the game."
Close enough, in fact, that Coco Crisp would make it a reality just four batters later, slapping an RBI single to right field on the 10th pitch of a gritty at-bat against Dan Wheeler. It was a moment constructed on the wheels of organic magic, the culmination of an absolutely improbable battle back from the depths of disaster. As Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" blared across the diamond and out onto Yawkey Way, the stadium hummed with the near-fictitious quality that had made it famous in 2004.
So it was with an air of not-quite-realness that the ninth inning began, and with a sense of predestination that Boston put runners on first and second with Drew coming to the plate. And again, in the fashion of the fairy-tale weaver, came the voice of Caray: "The 3-1 ... swing, line drive, right field ... we're going to Tampa!"
And then only the roar, the roar that will last until 8:07 p.m. on Saturday night, when TBS presents "SNL: Six Next Live," and Caray takes his seat behind the mic once again.
Corey Gottlieb is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.