Red Sox Back From the Dead

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008

BOSTON, Oct. 16 -- There was still a faint, beating heart somewhere deep down in the Boston Red Sox' beat-up body Thursday night, and history has shown such a thing to be ever dangerous. Even when the number of outs between themselves and oblivion, at the unsteady sword of the Tampa Bay Rays, had dwindled down to a precious few, as long as there was the slightest pulse of life, the Red Sox could never be said to be vanquished.

The New York Yankees learned it the hard way in 2004, and the Cleveland Indians again last fall. And Thursday night, in an astonishing Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, those long, drawn-out lessons were condensed into a brutal, sudden, three-inning stretch, in which the Red Sox, facing elimination, erased a seven-run deficit and stormed back to take an improbable 8-7 win.

It ended dramatically, walk-off style, on J.D. Drew's line drive over the head of Rays right fielder Gabe Gross with two outs in the ninth inning. It came off Rays lefty J.P. Howell, and it scored Kevin Youkilis, who had started the rally by reaching on an infield single, moving to second on a botched throw by Rays third baseman Evan Longoria.

After the Rays chose to walk Jason Bay intentionally, Drew, whose two-run homer in the eighth had pulled the Red Sox to within one run, launched his searing rocket to right -- technically a single, though it reached the wall on one bounce -- and sent the joyous Red Sox streaming out of their dugout for a raucous celebration.

"That was pretty magical," Red Sox Manager Terry Francona said. "I've never seen a group so happy to get on a plane at 1:30 [a.m.] in my life."

Game 6, which for six innings Thursday night seemed certain never to be played, will be Saturday night in St. Petersburg, Fla., with Rays ace James Shields -- the scheduled starter for this game until the Rays made a much-dissected switcheroo -- facing Boston's Josh Beckett.

"Of course we're upset," Rays Manager Joe Maddon said. "But to dwell on it does no good. The more you dwell on something in a negative sense, the more it can permeate your entire existence. So we're not going to do that."

When they trailed the New York Yankees 3-0 in the 2004 ALCS, then-Red Sox first baseman Kevin Millar famously warned, "Don't let us win one." The Yankees did, and sure enough the Red Sox also won two, three, then four -- completing their historic comeback.

This time, the mantra seemed to have been altered to: "Don't let us score one." Because once the Red Sox scored one, they scored four. And once they scored four, they scored six, then seven, then eight.

"I think there [was] a sense of, 'Hey it's looking pretty bleak,' " said Drew, who was just 2 for 13 with no extra-base hits and no RBI in the series before Game 5. "But we knew if we got something rolling -- let's see what happens."

It was Boston's eighth straight win in an LCS when facing elimination, including the four straight wins to complete a historic comeback against the Yankees in 2004, and three more last year against Cleveland.

"We did some unbelievable things," Francona said.

The Rays were up by seven runs, nine outs from an easy stroll into the World Series, when Maddon pulled starter Scott Kazmir, summoned his bullpen and gave the Red Sox their opening. Grant Balfour entered and gave up four hits in the seventh, capped by a dramatic, majestic three-run homer by beleaguered Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, his first homer of the postseason and first RBI of the series.

The same Fenway crowd that had booed Ortiz earlier in the game, as he failed to get a ball out of the infield in three trips to the plate against Kazmir, suddenly exploded.

"This place," Francona said, "came unglued."

Maddon has two lefties in his bullpen -- including Howell, one of the most effective southpaw relievers in the league this season -- but neither was warming up as Ortiz's spot in the order approached. It was as if Ortiz, slumping so badly he bordered on irrelevance, wasn't worth wasting the Rays' best lefty on.

"We've been doing that all year long," Maddon said of the decision to stay with Balfour against Ortiz. "Grant's been very good in that situation. . . . We felt pretty good about it. Papi just got it."

The eighth inning was Dan Wheeler's inning, but the Rays' ersatz closer gave up a four-pitch leadoff walk to Bay, followed by a two-run homer to right by Drew. It was 7-6.

Four batters later, with two outs and the tying run on second, Wheeler found himself locked in a mortal duel with Coco Crisp -- who finally, on the 10th pitch of the at-bat, singled sharply to right. Mark Kotsay, on second following a double, rounded third and sprinted home, scoring easily ahead of a weak, bouncing throw from Gross in right field.

It was a tie game.

Francona, meantime, managed as if his team were one step from the abyss, which, of course, it was. Down 5-0 in the seventh and with two more Tampa Bay hitters on base, he called upon closer Jonathan Papelbon. Although Papelbon gave up a two-run double to B.J. Upton -- the fly ball, an out in 29 other stadiums, hitting softly off the Green Monster -- he succeeded in stabilizing the game and giving his team a chance.

And a chance, no matter how fleeting or feeble, is all the Red Sox ever need. If anyone had forgotten that, they were reminded again Thursday night.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company