One swing away from going up 2-0 and suddenly down 2-1.
That’s October baseball. That’s the Red Sox 2007 ALCS summed up in a single statement.
But there’s more, much more, inside why the Sox are now facing an uphill battle in the playoffs for the first time since 2004. (Note: For the purposes of this column I am going to eradicate the Red Sox 2005 “postseason” from relevance in present matters. For the record, they were swept in the ALDS by the White Sox after trotting out Matt Clement in Game 1.)
The first explanation for this abrupt shift of Sox-momentum is the Angels. They were a banged up team that had no shot of beating the Red Sox, and they knew it, which only made it more painful. The trouncing the Red Sox finished in Disneyland on the 7th of October gave way to Game 1 of the ALCS, in which they pummeled Indians ace, C.C. Sabathia, the front-running candidate for the AL Cy Young. That’s reason number two: the Nation was immensely confident, and understandably so, after four successive wins out of the gate in October. Perhaps overconfident. The “humble pie” that’s been the Patriots fare of choice down the road in Foxborough definitely wasn’t being offered by the Fenway vendors before Game 2; just boiled franks, greasy sausages and lots of good October vibes on Lansdowne Street.
My buddy took me to the game, which marked my first appearance at a Sox playoff clash since Game 5 of the 2003 ALCS against the Yankees. It was a weird feeling; a pennant on the line without the Yankees. Since the playoffs expanded to eight teams in 1995, each of three Red Sox appearances in the ALCS has been against New York (1999/2003/2004). The acute queasiness in the pit of your stomach and typical angst of a Sox-Yanks series weren’t there. Those feelings were replaced by a giddy buoyancy, and inside the ballpark, the sensation was palatable.
Throughout the beginning of Game 2, which ended up becoming the most thrilling, punch-for-punch, see-saw (albeit anti-climactic) affair thus far in the playoffs, there was an electricity in the old ballyard that I had never felt. It wasn’t the normal “desperation buzz” that, for the last half-century, has characterized, defined, and enshrined Fenway as the ultimate October experience. No, this was different. The fans were enjoying themselves. Being situated in left field almost within ear shot of Manny, our section was obviously enamored with the aloof man of power as he defended the Great Wall of Fenway that loomed over his hulking shoulders. Shoulders which, of course, he chose to stretch out not during pregame warmups nor in the dugout before taking the field, but as Curt Schilling’s opening pitches were being thrown to Grady Sizemore. When Sizemore lined a ball to the left-center field gap and Manny “sprung” into action, it was evident that again he was arriving fashionably late.
However, no one even flinched when the Tribe jumped on Schil in the first for a quick run. In fact, two guys to our left, between participation in “Let’s Go Red Sox” chants, found time to muse about the TBS division series coverage of the Sox, which they rightly asserted was “intolerable” (or phonetically, “in-taw-lah-rubble”). Though they did point out that the new TBS late night show, Frank TV, looks “phenomenal” (“fah-gnaw-mun-al”). It was in this spirit that Game 2 played out; 38,000 wildly excited fans, having a ball watching their team exchange sucker punches with a formidable opponent, and merely waiting to see how an imminent victory would transpire. It would take an aligning of the stars or Terry Francona being out-managed to lose this one.
As it turned out, it was a little of each.
It wasn’t that Francona made the wrong moves, because he didn’t. He made the right move by bringing in Papelbon in a 6-6 game in the ninth. He made the right move by pinch-running Jacoby Ellsbury for Dustin Pedroia in the bottom of the ninth. Ellsbury stole second, which set the table for Kevin Youkilis to win the game with a hit and send the Sox to Cleveland with the assurance of the series returning to Fenway for Game 6 if necessary. Youk had an epic at bat against Rafael Betancourt, fouling off six 3-2 pitches, all with Fenway primed to explode, before sending a liner to center field that Sizemore had to slide to one knee in order to secure. And finally, Tito made the right move by sending Papelbon back out for the tenth with the heart of the Red Sox lineup due up in the last of that inning.
By the time Tom Mastny had retired Ortiz, Manny and Lowell in succession it was blatant that Francona had managed the perfect ten-inning game that was now going eleven. On the other side, you had two relievers (Betancourt and Mastny) who had played with Fenway-fire and miraculously, somehow emerged unscathed, and a manager (Eric Wedge) who ultimately managed a superior game simply by refraining from using his eminently-beatable closer (Joe Borowski). Certainly an odd juxtaposition of managerial maneuvering. And all this skipper-jousting came after Betancourt very nearly had his name stamped on the dubious list of those who have exited the wrong side of a postseason walk-off at Fenway. (Rich Harden, Jarrod Washburn, Paul Quantrill, Esteban Loaiza and Francisco Rodriguez would gladly welcome some more company.)
The great escape by Betancourt and Wedge’s calculated non-insertion of Borowski until the game was secured were the unique recipe for downing the Red Sox in Game 2. Granted, Borowksi did protect a two-run lead in Game 3 back in Cleveland, but the Sox laid a monumental egg in that contest, and all that matters now is one thing.
Get this series back to Fenway.
There’s a reason I’m writing just prior to Game 4, which has been billed by many as a “must win” for the Sox. It’s no coincidence that those same people have advocated starting Josh Beckett on short rest for Game 4. The reality is Tuesday is not must-win. The reality is one of these next two games is, and if the Red Sox have proven anything over their recent history, it’s that if you’re playing a five game series it’s the first team with three losses that’s eliminated, and if it’s a seven game series, you guessed it. Four losses and out.
The 2004 Red Sox did what we all know they did, under manager Terry Francona. They lost three straight to the Yankees, then won four one-game eliminations in a row and said good riddance to 86 years of baggage. Yes, only seven guys remain from that team, but don’t let “experts” and “analysts” undersell the Fenway-mystique, and how it has certainly transcended different Sox ballclubs over the last nine years.
Since 1999, the Red Sox have played eight elimination games at Fenway Park. They’ve won six of them (two against Cleveland in the ’99 ALDS, which led to a comeback from down 0-2; two against Oakland in the ’03 ALDS, which turned into another 0-2 comeback; and two against the Yankees in the ’04 ALCS, which were the first two blows in “The Comeback”).
That 6-2 record includes a loss in Game 3 of the now-eradicated 2005 ALDS against Chicago. The only other loss came at the hands of the ’99 Yankees, who were a vastly superior team and in the middle of a run of three consecutive titles. Of the six wins, three of them the Sox walked off. So I reiterate: Game 4 is not a must-win; it’s a should-win. What the Red Sox must do is get back to Boston, preferably up 3-2, but all that really matters is seeing more baseball in Beantown. The outcome of Game 2 has thrust that original “certainty” into short-term peril, but I can assure you the Red Sox players are not panicking, nor is their manager.
They’ve been here before.
Only seven of them of them were toasting at Yankee Stadium three Octobers ago, and only two (Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek) were there when Pedro Martinez led the waterfalls of Cristal at Jacobs Field five falls prior to that. But these Red Sox and these Indians alike know too well the mystique of Fenway; whether they’ve seen it on TV or felt it in the flesh, they are aware that baseball games become more when the Red Sox are on their last breath in their house.
For these Indians, they want nothing more than to exorcise the Red Sox ghosts from ’99, within the breezy confines of the Jake. For these Red Sox, they want nothing more than get this series back to Fenway.
And this time, instead of starting a comeback, it’ll be their chance to finish one.