Before the Red Sox could complete their baseball miracle in the 2004 ALCS, a bit of a medical science miracle was needed. As satisfying as it was to avoid being swept with two heart-stopping, extra-inning wins at Fenway Park, it could have very easily ended in Game 6 at Yankee Stadium with a gimpy Curt Schilling on the mound.
It's easy to look back now and think that, of course, Boston would win that game with one of the great postseason pitchers of all time on the mound. But think back to Game 1, when Schilling pitched through a torn tendon sheath and was shelled for six hits and six runs over three innings.
It was fair to wonder how things could change. A day before Game 6, the Red Sox's medical team came up with a radical procedure in which team doctor Bill Morgan would suture Schilling's loose ankle tendon back into the skin. To be sure, Morgan first tried the somewhat barbaric procedure on a cadaver.
Nobody outside of the Red Sox's clubhouse knew about the impromptu procedure, so it was easy to think the worst when there was visible blood on Schilling's sock that surfaced early in Game 6. In actuality, it was just a byproduct of the stitches pressing against the tendon. Not only could Schilling pitch, but he came out pitching well in Game 6, showcasing a nasty splitter.
"And it wasn't overblown," remembers outfielder Gabe Kapler. "When there was all that talk about, 'Was that really blood?', not only was it really blood, but what he endured and mentally overcame the way he did may never be done again. I don't know that there's ever going to be a procedure like that to get a guy ready to pitch again. It was a little bit, like, science fiction-y."
There was a pitch very early in Game 6 that told Schilling he was right where he needed to be. Two batters in, he fired one high and tight to Alex Rodriguez, reminiscent of the pitch Pedro Martinez threw to Hideki Matsui one day earlier.
"I felt like that's a hard pitch to command and I threw it exactly where I wanted it," said Schilling. "And I felt like, 'OK, if I can do that, there's not a whole lot I can't do tonight'."
Schilling was locked in, but so, too, was Yankees right-hander Jon Lieber, who had outdueled Martinez in Game 2 and took a shutout into the fourth inning of Game 6.
But after Jason Varitek gave the Sox a 1-0 lead in that frame with an RBI single, Mark Bellhorn came up with a three-run homer off the chest of a fan wearing a black pullover in the left-field seats that was originally ruled a double. Back in those days, there was no instant replay. The umpires huddled, however, and got it right.
Third-base coach Dale Sveum had a perfect view, and was adamant in making sure the umpiring crew reversed the call.
"I had a horrible view, but Dale Sveum had a great view," Francona said. "By the time I got out there, he's like, 'Tito, you have to stay out here.' And the umpires did a great job."
The first time it felt like the Yankees might actually come back and win Game 6 was in the bottom of the eighth, just after they had clipped the deficit to 4-2. With Miguel Cairo on second and Derek Jeter at first and nobody out, A-Rod hit a tapper to the right side of the mound, toward the first-base line. Reliever Bronson Arroyo picked it up and went to tag Rodriguez. Suddenly, the ball traveled all the way down the right-field line and it looked like Cairo had scored, with Jeter roaring to third and A-Rod taking second.
But plenty of people -- including most of the umpires -- saw what actually did happen. Rodriguez, in a pure act of desperation, flat-out swatted the ball out of Arroyo's hand as he went for the tag.
"I ran from Tito's office to the clubhouse and yelled at Dave Roberts to tell Tito how clear it was on the replay," said Theo Epstein, the Red Sox's general manager at the time. "But Tito was already on his way sprinting out of the dugout."
"I actually had a real good view, and I got out of there as quick as I could, which wasn't really quick," said Francona. "Joe West was the home-plate umpire, and whatever he said put me at ease."
Just like the Bellhorn play earlier in the game, the call was correctly overturned.
There would be one more adventure for the Red Sox to get through before becoming the first team in history to force Game 7 after trailing 3-0 in a series. Keith Foulke, running on fumes, had to get through the ninth.
With two on and two outs, and Tony Clark representing the winning run at the plate, Foulke at last ended Game 6 with an elevated 88-mph fastball for a strikeout on a 2-2 pitch.
The pitch was Foulke's 100th in a span of three days, and the normally stoic right-hander pumped his fist in triumph.
"After that, I was pumped," said Foulke.
So were the Red Sox, who needed just one more win to complete the miracle.