Mark down Oct. 18, 2004, in the baseball book of dates. Perhaps it will be a mere footnote. That's what the odds still say. But in 48 hours, it may be recalled as a date that is second to none in the game's postseason history for drama and impact.
If the Boston Red Sox become the first team in 101 years of postseason baseball to overcome a three-games-to-none deficit, and if they do it against the hated New York Yankees, then this one day, with their two wins in a span of 21 hours, a doubleheader sweep of a different species, may go down as New England's own Independence Day. Forget the Fourth of July.
Twice on the same day -- once at 1:22 a.m., then again at 11:01 p.m. -- the Red Sox beat the Yankees in sudden-death, extra-inning games with game-winning hits that ignited lunatic home plate celebrations and jubilation in the ancient stands that reached 100-year-storm proportions. David Ortiz ended Game 4 of this American League Championship Series with a 12th-inning homer for a 6-4 win. Then, about 21 hours later, Ortiz blooped an RBI single into center field in the 14th inning for a 5-4 victory.
Is it too late to rename the Ted Williams Tunnel? The Ortiz Overpass has a ring to it.
Twice on the same day, with the pennant sitting squarely on their plate, the Yankees handed the ball to their central heroic protagonist of the past nine seasons, reliever Mariano Rivera. Of all Manager Joe Torre's worthies, none -- not Derek Jeter or Bernie Williams -- has matched Rivera's October value. And twice, the mighty and usually perfect Panamanian blew those saves. Both times his flaws were almost minuscule. The second squandered lead was barely his fault. But the Red Sox had just enough.
Even one such blow to the Yankees' guts would do damage. But twice? One game took 5 hours 2 minutes. Then the next turned out to be the longest postseason game ever played -- 5:49. Who knows what aftereffects that produces? Perhaps it is a prelude to history. If not, we'll have time to shrug and say, "It sure was fun while it lasted." But if this series goes to a seventh game, America may be a nation totally inhabited by insomniacs by Thursday morning.
For those with an appreciation of the borderline magical qualities of baseball serendipity, the Red Sox' fortunes changed at exactly midnight as Oct. 17 turned into Oct. 18 in the ninth inning of Game 4. At that moment, as national TV showed the Fenway Park clock click from 11:59 to 12:00, Kevin Millar was at the plate with Rivera on the mound and the Yankees leading 4-3. In effect, the Red Sox were in the grave with the dirt shoveled on top of them except for their shoe tops.
But as soon as the new day arrived, the Red Sox' star-crossed luck in this ALCS switched utterly. Millar walked and eventually scored to tie the game and send the warriors into extra innings. Then, everybody came back for Game 5 and practically played a duplicate of the previous night's marathon masterpiece.
"It's Groundhog Day," Torre said after Game 5.
Asked what impact these defeats would have on his team, Torre said, "I'm not sure," and then began to cough. "There's not much left of my voice," he said. "Aside from being frustrated as hell, this doesn't change how we feel about ourselves."
Actually, Torre's first words were probably the most honest and appropriate ones: "I'm not sure." No one is. And that's what now makes this series suddenly as magnificent as it was always expected to be. Regardless of final results in New York, these were two of the most majestically competitive games ever played in the best of all rivalries in baseball annals.
Anyone who now doubts that there may be another ALCS Game 7 this season -- the rematch of rematches -- need only look at the starting pitchers for Game 6: New York's 14-game winner Jon Lieber against (yes, that's right) Curt Schilling. The same Schilling who, in his new high-top shoe, says his right ankle feels pretty decent, thanks. The same Schilling who has fanned 300 men three times and won 20 games in three of the past four years, including 21-6 this year. And, most of all, the same Schilling who, until his injury-marred loss in Game 1, had a dozen of the best postseason starts of any pitcher ever.
The team that has not truly atoned to its fans since 1918 now presents to its followers the pitcher who was acquired as a kind of multi-generational cosmic apology: See, we got you Schilling.
"The ballpark has just been electric the last two nights. I've never seen anything like it," Schilling said. "I'm just so proud to be a part of this team. It's been phenomenal two nights in a row. It's like Round 13 of a 15-round fight between two heavyweights."
"Schilling's pitch count may be 180" on Tuesday night, said Boston Manager Terry Francona, whose bullpen is, if anything, even more overworked than Torre's. "Everybody's pitching on fumes. You can't imagine how happy I am that Tim Wakefield was in there at the end of this one" to get the win.
If any pitcher has ever played Good Soldier and been rewarded, it is Wakefield. Normally a starter, he worked in relief in Game 1 to help save the bullpen work. Then he bailed out the bullpen again, even though he got shelled, in Game 3's 19-8 blowout. In fact, he even stood behind Francona and practically asked to be put in as a sacrificial lamb, since that was best for the team. Yet in this game, Wakefield took the mound for the last three innings with a knuckler so nasty he was untouchable.
For those who love and understand baseball, it would be impossible to overstate the impact on any team of losing back-to-back extra-inning games after saves were blown in regulation time. To do it twice with the pennant in your hands is unprecedented. Statisticians, and heaven knows this region is crawling with them, know that one particular play has the most impact within a game: ending an inning by having a runner thrown out at the plate. Thereafter, normal stats are distorted and the team that has defended its "home" has an inordinate probability of winning. In baseball, the psychology is real.
However, the event in baseball that has the most impact from one game to the next, which leads to streaks and slumps more often than should be statistically predictable, is the blown save. So how can we know how the odds of this series have just been skewed? But in baseball, some psychological events have real statistical implications.
In other words, if a team were going to do something that hasn't happened in 101 years, then winning two games in one day after a pair of blown Rivera saves would be the kind of almost unimaginable event that might ignite it.
Of course, there will be more than 55,000 people at Yankee Stadium with a contrary opinion and an 80-year history of rattling nerves, invoking curses and producing midnight magic of their own in October.
The Red Sox have enough late-inning heroes to stock a decade of "Survivor" episodes. In Game 4, Bill Mueller's ninth-inning RBI single back through the box off Rivera after he had allowed a leadoff walk and stolen base provided the vital game-saving run that forced extra innings.
In Game 5, Tom Gordon inherited a 4-2 lead in the eighth but allowed a solo homer to Ortiz, then issued a walk and single to Trot Nixon. So poor Rivera inherited a 4-3 lead with runners at the corners and nobody out. He escaped after permitting only a game-tying sacrifice fly to Jason Varitek. A good job, right? Not according to baseball scoring rules: blown save.
That was fitting in a game in which absolutely nothing was remotely close to normal. The height of the absurd may have arrived in the 13th inning when the Yankees' Gary Sheffield almost scored what would have been a pennant-winning run as a result of what would have been four passed balls by Varitek -- the first on a Sheffield strikeout.
However, with Sheffield at third base, Varitek barely blocked a Tim Wakefield knuckleball. Wakefield escaped as Varitek finally caught a pitch -- a third strike to Ruben Sierra. Thus was Boston spared what surely would have been the ultimate way to lose a pennant to the Yankees -- one on four passed balls.
On Oct. 18, 2004, however, no such thing was destined to happen. This was the day -- almost all 24 hours of it -- for Red Sox reprieves as well as the birth of comeback hopes that have gone from the almost impossible to the brink of plausibility.
"Now I have a chance to make up for Game 1 and to pick up my teammates," Schilling said. "I couldn't ask for anything more."
Nobody else can either. This is what everybody in baseball signed up for this season. And now it's here.