One strike away from victory three separate times, it simply unraveled for the Red Sox, who were swept out of the postseason in the most stunning way possible.
Closer Jonathan Papelbon had been the king of the postseason, being unscored on in 26 career innings entering Sunday. But in that top of the ninth, the right-hander lost his invincibility, and with it went Boston's 2009 season.
"We're all shocked," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "It's a tough way to lose. We fought the whole day, but they put some good at-bats together at the right time."
Vladimir Guerrero capped the almost surreal rally in that top of the ninth, producing a two-run single to right-center -- a looping liner that center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury couldn't quite get to. With that, the Angels had their first lead of the day. This, in a game the Red Sox led 5-1 after four, 5-2 after six and 6-4 going into the ninth.
"I think things happened quick, more than anything," said Papelbon. "I wasn't able to stop the bleeding. Your team fights and puts you in that situation and they call upon you, and you let them down. Your team expects you to pull through and preserve that win for you and then you don't, it's definitely not a good feeling."
There was little warning that the unthinkable was about to occur. Not only were the Angels down by two runs and down to their last strike, but they had nobody on base.
Papelbon had an 0-2 count on Erick Aybar, and then bad things started happening. Aybar kept the Angels alive with a single. Chone Figgins worked a seven-pitch walk. Bobby Abreu, who tormented the Red Sox throughout the series, put the Angels in position for their memorable comeback with an RBI double off the Green Monster, putting the tying run at third and the go-ahead run at second.
|1988||ALCS||A's||L, 10-6||Lost, 4-0|
|1990||ALCS||A's||L, 4-1||Lost, 4-0|
|1995||ALDS||Indians||L, 8-2||Lost, 3-0|
|1999||ALDS||Indians||W, 9-3||Won, 3-2|
|1999||ALCS||Indians||W, 13-1||Lost, 4-1|
|2003||ALDS||A's||W, 9-3||Won, 3-2|
|2004||ALCS||Yankees||L, 19-8||Won, 4-3|
|2005||ALDS||White Sox||L, 5-3||Lost, 3-0|
|2009||ALDS||Angels||L, 7-6||Lost, 4-0|
With first base open, Red Sox manager Terry Francona opted to intentionally walk Torii Hunter, who was 3-for-8 in his career against Papelbon. Guerrero had been 2-for-12 lifetime vs. Papelbon.
"It's tough to walk the bases loaded," Francona said. "But Pap throws strikes and he had had a lot of success against Guerrero. I think Hunter was probably [3-for-8], with a homer. I guess, put it in a nutshell, we thought it would put us in a better chance to win. It didn't work."
It didn't work because Guerrero wouldn't let it. The right-handed slugger jumped on Papelbon's first pitch, a 95-mph heater, and placed it in just the right spot, much to the chagrin of Ellsbury.
"First couple of steps, I thought I might have a shot," Ellsbury said. "You're trying to do everything possible. You're trying to maybe make a dive or something. It was a soft line drive. I had no shot at the play. I was hoping they'd hold [Abreu] at third. But he gets a good secondary [lead] and was scoring easy on that."
A hush came over Fenway, as Francona went out to get Papelbon. Hideki Okajima got the third out, and the Red Sox hoped for a last-ditch rally in the bottom of the ninth.
But Angels closer Brian Fuentes pitched a 1-2-3 ninth, officially ending the Red Sox's season when Pedroia popped out, fittingly to Aybar, who had started the game-changing rally.
"About as tough a loss as you can have," said Ellsbury. "I guess you have to give it to them. They were the better team this series. That's the last thing anybody expected to happen. But until you record that last out, you never know what's going to happen. We've won a lot of games like that, too."
The Red Sox had gone 13-3 in potential elimination games since 2003, and were hoping there was some more October magic on the way. Jon Lester, Boston's ace lefty, was primed to pitch Monday night's Game 4 on three days' rest. But Lester and his teammates now have a lot more time to rest than they wanted.
"We felt pretty good about ourselves when we got our bullpen guys in there," said Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. "They had done the job all year. Two outs, 0-2 count, you're feeling pretty good. It happened pretty quick. It's almost better getting [blown out] like 15-4. That would be easier to swallow. It just seemed like the momentum would have been on our side if we won this game, and Jon throwing tomorrow. Things could take a different twist. Yeah, this one hurts down deep. It's pretty hard to swallow."
Early on, the Red Sox had some life to them and looked like a different team than the one that scored a total of just one run over the first two losses in Anaheim.
With some pep back in their offense, Boston rode a two-run double by Pedroia and a two-run homer by J.D. Drew to a 5-1 lead through four innings against Angels starter Scott Kazmir.
"That felt like a big swing at the time," said Drew. "I stayed inside the ball and put a good swing on it. I was definitely going to be ready to battle again tomorrow, but it didn't work out."
Clay Buchholz performed well for Boston, allowing two runs over five-plus innings. Daniel Bard, the nerveless rookie, inherited a bases-loaded nobody out jam from Buchholz in the sixth and allowed the Angels just one run, scored on a 5-4-3 double play grounder by Juan Rivera.
The Angels simply wouldn't go away. Down by three entering the eighth, Abreu doubled against Billy Wagner. With one out, Guerrero drew a walk. After Wagner retired Kendry Morales on a groundout to second, Francona summoned Papelbon.
In an early sign it wasn't going to be the closer's day, Rivera greeted him with a two-run single to right, making it 5-4. Both of those runs were charged to Wagner.
It seemed the Red Sox, however, would still survive, especially when Lowell created some insurance by slapping an opposite-field RBI single with two outs in the eighth to make it a two-run game.
But on this day, nothing was enough.
"I felt good, I did," said Papelbon. "I wasn't able to really locate when I needed to and it proved to be costly."
The Red Sox weren't interested in Papelbon taking the blame for the loss, or for that matter, the series.
"For us, it was unfortunate that we didn't get enough run support," said Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis. "Jonathan, unfortunately, people are going to say stuff about him not closing out the game. There was a lot more that all of us could have done offensive and defensively to win this game."
"When we win, it's a team win," Ellsbury said. "When we lose, it's a team loss. We didn't take care of business the first two games. That's what can happen if you put yourselves in that situation."
It was an unfamiliar feeling for the Red Sox, who had beaten the Angels in the ALDS in 2004, '07 and '08, taking nine out of 10 games.
"Personally, I feel good for our guys, because it was important for them, not only to beat Boston, but to beat a club of their caliber," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "I think the way we did it in the sweep certainly in Game 3 on the road with two outs in the ninth has to give us a lot of momentum."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.