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October 17, 2008

On the Beat

ALCS Game Five

by John Perrotto

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BOSTON-Tim Wakefield has seen just about everything during his 14 seasons with the Red Sox. The knuckleballer gave up the series-winning home run to the Yankees' Aaron Boone in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series. He was there a year later when the Red Sox avenged that ALCS loss to the Yankees and did what no other team in major league history had ever done, rallying from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven post-season series. Wakefield was also part of the dogpile a week later when the Red Sox reversed the alleged Curse of the Bambino by sweeping the Cardinals in the World Series, ending the franchise's 86-year title drought. Though most of the players from the 2004 team had moved on, Wakefield was still around last season when the Red Sox trailed the Indians in the ALCS three games to one and nevertheless came back to win that series, and then sweep the Rockies in the World Series.

Having been through all of this, Wakefield could put the stunning events of what happened last night at Fenway Park into perspective as he sat on a folding chair in the corner of the clubhouse, waiting for his teammates to finish dressing so they could head to the airport and catch a middle-of-the-night flight to St. Petersburg: "Just another typical October evening in Red Sox Nation," Wakefield said with a smile.

The Red Sox' 8-7 victory over the Rays in Game Five of the American League Championship Series will go down as one of the more stunning comebacks in baseball history. The Red Sox trailed 7-0 after B.J. Upton hit a two-run double high off the Green Monster in left field in the top of the seventh inning, and appeared to have no chance of winning, as starter Scott Kazmir had checked them on two hits through six innings before turning the game over to a Rays' bullpen that had a major league-best 15.24 WXRL in the regular season.

After an offday today, Game Six will be played Saturday night at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, with James Shields scheduled to start for the Rays as they try to close it out again, this time against Josh Beckett. The Red Sox are the undisputed kings of the post-season comeback in this decade, and an astounding 8-0 in ALCS elimination games since 2003, but the odds seemed to be astronomically against them this time. "I don't even know how to describe it," Red Sox outfielder Coco Crisp said, before pausing as he searched for the right words. "I don't know if incredible even does this game justice. I mean, we're down 7-0 in an elimination game against a team that's been playing great baseball. It didn't look good for us. Somehow, we found a way to battle back and do it. I guess you can call it an instant classic."

Indeed, what better way to describe this game? The Red Sox were dead, their hopes of winning three World Series in five years, a feat that would justifiably define them as a dynasty, gone. Even their hearty fans sat silently on this chilly evening as the Rays continued their amazing 2008 story, building their lead off of Daisuke Matsuzaka via home runs by Upton, Carlos Pena, and Evan Longoria. "It didn't look particularly good for us, that's for sure," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said.

Yet there is something about these Red Sox of the new millennium that makes all things possible. After years of being the team that was supposedly cursed, it now seems like everything goes their way. They came back against the Yankees in '04 and the Indians in '07, and they now seem poised to do the same against the Rays in the wake of their dramatic Game Five victory. "I think the biggest difference now that we've won a couple of championships, is that there is a quiet confidence," Wakefield said. "We're not an arrogant or a cocky team, but we don't panic. We've learned through experience that if you just keep playing the game, that anything can happen. Even when we were down 7-0, there was a feeling that if we could just get the bats going a little bit then we could put something together." "The one thing about our club is there is a lot of fight," right fielder Drew said. "We'll never quit."

Through the first six innings, Kazmir had made manager Joe Maddon's controversial decision to start the left-hander and push Shields, the ace of the staff, back to Game Six look brilliant. But in the bottom of the seventh, Maddon went to that drastically improved bullpen to close out the series and send the Rays to a most improbable World Series berth opposite the Phillies. The bullpen, though, transformed Game Five into Turn Back The Clock Night at the ballpark-all the way back to 2007, when the franchise was still known as the Devil Rays and they were baseball's not-so-lovable losers.

Grant Balfour came on to the start the seventh and gave up a leadoff double to Jed Lowrie. Following two fly outs, Crisp's single put runners on the corners, and Dustin Pedroia then singled in the first run. That brought up designated hitter David Ortiz, hero of Octobers past, but one who had not hit a post-season home run in his previous 15 games and 61 post-season at-bats. He was only 1-for-17 in this series, and appeared to be feeling the effects of the wrist surgery that had sidelined him for 45 games in the middle of the regular season. But on this night Ortiz belted a 1-0 pitch from Balfour into the right-field stands for a three-run home run. The Red Sox had quickly cut the deficit to 7-4, and the crowd became so frenzied that you could feel the momentum shift from the Rays' dugout on the third-base side over to the Red Sox in the home dugout. "I knew I had to do something right there," Ortiz said. "We needed some runs. I knew that was probably our one chance to get back into the game." As Drew later said, "Papi's homer was huge, because it kind of got everything steam-rolling."

Maddon next called on Dan Wheeler, the closest thing to a closer the Rays have with Troy Percival inactive, and Wheeler got Kevin Youkilis on a fly ball to right to end the inning. Wheeler had pitched 3 1/3 innings in Game Two, and Maddon was prepared to ride him out for the final 2 1/3 innings to close Game Five, but the Red Sox foiled that plan. Jason Bay led off the eighth by drawing a four-pitch walk, and Drew, whose availability for the postseason had been iffy after he had missed 33 games from August 18 to September 23 with lower-back soreness, hit a two-run homer to right. The Red Sox' seemingly insurmountable deficit was suddenly down to a very manageable one run.

Wheeler got Lowrie on a pop fly to left and struck out pinch-hitter Shawn Casey, but Mark Kotsay doubled to keep the inning alive. Crisp then battled Wheeler through a 10-pitch at-bat before delivering a single to right field, which scored Kotsay easily when Gabe Gross made a horrible throw that never came close to reaching home plate. Crisp was thrown out trying to advance to second to end the inning, but the damage had been done; with the score now tied at seven, there seemed no doubt about who was going to win. "That was the best at-bat Coco has had for us in the entire time he's been here," said Francona of Crisp, who was acquired from the Indians in a trade prior to the 2006 season. "One thought kept going through my mind that whole at-bat, and it was to try to do anything I could to keep our season going," Crisp said. "I don't think I've ever been more determined to get a hit or at least get on base in my life."

Maddon called on J.P. Howell to start the ninth, and he retired the first two batters, inducing Pedroia to ground out to shortstop, and striking out Ortiz after Big Papi tried unsuccessfully to drop a bunt down the third-base line to beat the defensive shift. Youkilis followed by hitting a grounder down the third-base line that Longoria made a beautiful back-handed play on before making a wild throw that wound up in the stands behind first base. Youkilis reached second on the single and error. Maddon then had Bay intentionally walked to set up a lefty-lefty matchup between Howell and Drew, and Drew hit a liner into right field that Gross misplayed as he came in on the ball and helplessly watched it sail over his head and bounce into the right-field stands, allowing Youkilis to score the winning run. Though the play would have been scored a book-rule double, Drew was mobbed by his jubilant teammates before he ever reached second base.

Thus, an unlikely comeback was capped by an unlikely player whose availability for October had been very much in doubt. "I was just in a situation where I was trying to get a ball in the strike zone that I could put a good swing on, trying to get some kind of rhythm going because I missed six weeks and I've gotten into a bad rhythm," Drew said. "I felt like I had some good at-bats, and I was able to get a couple of pitches in the middle of the plate and put some nice swings on them."

The Red Sox are still alive, and the Rays have to be wondering if their season-long magic may be wearing off, but Maddon was as relentlessly upbeat as ever following the game, even as he was grilled about the way he had managed the bullpen in the final three innings. "Listen, it is what it is," Maddon said. "I don't dwell on it. Nobody feels worse than the guys out in our bullpen right now. They've done a tremendous job all year. I thought we played a great game. The Red Sox just came back and beat us tonight. That happens sometimes. We're going to go home, take a day off and come back for Game Six. I'm a firm believer that the more you dwell on something in a negative sense, that it can permeate your whole existence, so we're not going to do that."

If Maddon were inclined to do some dwelling, he could mull a number of his late-game decisions, including not bringing in a left-handed reliever to face the left-handed Ortiz in the seventh inning to protect the 7-1 lead. Ortiz is 1-for-9 with one home run against Howell in his career, and 1-for-11 with one double and four strikeouts against Rays lefty Trever Miller, yet Maddon would not second-guess his decision to leave Balfour in. "We've been doing that all year," Maddon said. "Grant has really done well. He's been kind of like that middle-closer guy and I felt pretty good about it. Papi just got him."

For their part, the Red Sox bullpen was outstanding, for the most part. Hideki Okajima pitched two scoreless innings after Matsuzaka had allowed five runs and five hits in four innings. After Delcarmen had walked the first two batters to open the seventh, Francona went hard against conventional wisdom by bringing closer Jonathan Papelbon into the game with nine outs to go and the Red Sox down by five runs. Papelbon surrendered Upton's booming double to make the deficit seven runs, but that was the extent of the damage in his two innings, and Justin Masterson worked a scoreless ninth for the win. Papelbon had pitched two full innings only once in 67 regular-season appearances. "It was a situation where everybody truly laid it all out on the line for us because it's a game we had to win," Francona said. "Papelbon was gassed after his first inning, but he went back out there and found a way to get through a second inning without giving up a run. You can't say enough about the effort of our guys, but we've still got a long way to go."

The Red Sox do indeed still need to win two games in a row at Tropicana Field, where the Rays had a major league-best 57-24 record in the regular season and have gone 3-1 in the postseason. Even though there was a distinct vibe early Thursday morning when the four-hour and eight-minute game ended that the Red Sox were now in control of this series despite the Rays still holding the lead, the mood was joyful but not exuberant in the winning clubhouse. "The Rays have a heckuva team, and I don't think anyone can doubt them now," Crisp said. "They have a young team, but they've played like veterans in this series. I don't think they're going to roll over. We've got to keep playing down there like we did tonight, like it's the last game of the season, because there truly is no tomorrow for us."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  Boston Red Sox,  Red Sox,  Back,  Rays,  The Who,  Grant Balfour,  Red Sox Nation

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