The transformation of the Red Sox is complete. Five years to the day after they endured one of the wrenching defeats in team history, the Red Sox underscored that they are defined by a new narrative in a new era.
Just minutes past midnight on October 17, 2003, Yankees third baseman Aaron Boone homered to banish the Sox from the American League Championship Series and end Boston’s season in startling fashion. Last night, the Sox were positioned to endure an echo of that disappointment, their season ready to expire in the same round, on the same day, at the same witching hour.
But where former Boston manager Grady Little worried about the members of his team who were haunted by the past, there was no such concern among this generation of Red Sox. Instead, one loss away from elimination and down by a colossal 7-0 margin to the Tampa Bay Rays in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the ALCS, the Sox drew upon an incredible era of success.
In the span of three innings, the Sox piled eight runs on the board, concluding in a walkoff 8-7 victory that sent the best-of-seven ALCS back to Tampa Bay. The Sox find themselves still alive, down 3-2 in the series, and incredibly confident that they can punch yet another ticket to the World Series.
“(There was) no doubt. We’ve done it twice before. Why would we have any doubt?” mused closer Jonathan Papelbon. “There was never a doubt in our minds. There really wasn’t. This is a comfort zone for us, and nothing seems to bother us.”
The Sox have now won eight straight elimination games in the ALCS, adding last night’s epic comeback to four straight victories after falling behind the Yankees 3-0 in 2004, and three straight after trailing the Indians 3-1 last year.
Overall, since the 2003 season, the team is now 12-2 when facing win-or-go-home circumstances. The ability to defy adversity has become habit and mindset forming.
“I don’t think,” said Sox catcher Jason Varitek, “you can take away belief.”
Perhaps it started yesterday with the rare pre-game meeting called by Red Sox manager Terry Francona. The skipper’s message, according to team members, was a simple reaffirmation of faith in the team, a reminder that good things would come to the club if it followed a familiar formula to “keep grinding it.”
Yet when the Sox went down by a 5-0 count after just three innings, that commitment easily could have wavered.
“It was really deflating,” said reserve Sean Casey. “We were probably 3¾ (games) down.”
The Rays were steamrolling the Sox. They jumped out to a five-run lead through three innings on the strength of homers by the familiar force of B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria. Tampa Bay then added a pair of insurance runs against closer Jonathan Papelbon, and led by an astonishing 7-0 count.
Some of the fans started making their retreat from the 2008 season. Yet while the faith of some fans wavered, the Sox remained resolute.
“There was definitely not any talk about going home or packing up,” said Sox outfielder Coco Crisp. “I’m surprised that it didn’t come up—down by seven against a team like this. But it didn’t come up.”
And why should it? The Sox have done so much in recent seasons to warp the laws of probability that they can now stubbornly cling to any shred of possibility. There is little doubt that what the Sox faced was even the case yesterday, despite a hole that seemed on the same—perhaps even a higher—level than what it stared down in ’04 and ’07.
Only once in playoff history had a team come back from as many as seven runs down. (The 1929 Philadelphia A's erased an eight-run lead in Game 4 of the World Series.) The Rays had gone 38-0 in games when they had a lead of five or more runs. The biggest Red Sox comeback win of the 2008 regular season was five runs. That was against the lowly Texas Rangers, a team with the worst pitching staff in baseball.
This was a more daunting task. The Sox had shown no life over the first six innings against starter Scott Kazmir. They were down by seven against a bullpen that not only finished the regular season with the second best ERA in baseball (3.55) but that had an unbelievable 1.46 ERA in the playoffs.
The offense, meanwhile, had no apparent pulse. Mike Lowell, the 2007 World Series MVP, was out, Jacoby Ellsbury was on the bench due to an 0-for-20 streak and designated hitter David Ortiz had been little better, going 1-for-17 (.059) against Tampa and without a single run batted in.
And yet the players found a switch to flip. A mantra echoed in the dugout as the team built the resolve to stage a comeback. The process would be crucial to produce a seven-run rally over nine outs. The team would have to grind at-bats to dust, fight every offering by the Rays bullpen.
“We said, ‘Let’s win every pitch,’” said Crisp. “Everybody got into it. We got on a roll.”
The uprising started inconspicuously enough. Jed Lowrie doubled to lead off the seventh, but a pair of flyouts just as quickly made it seem as if the threat would be extinguished. Back-to-back singles by Crisp and Dustin Pedroia, however, sustained the inning for an October great who had not yet lived up to his reputation.
Though David Ortiz had struggled during the playoffs, however, the Sox could convince themselves that they could get back in the game. With runners on the corners and now 7-1, that once-foreign sense of conviction settled upon the team.
“You could feel it when he stepped up there, knowing it was a big spot, knowing—hey, this is do-or-die here. We need a big hit. That was it, man. He’s come up with a ton of those in his career,” said Casey. “(Ortiz) came up and we said, ‘Okay, there’s hope here.’ Then, boom—he crushed that ball. And we went, ‘We’ve got a lot of hope. We’ve got a lot of hope.’”
The surge was in motion. Rays reliever Grant Balfour hadn’t given up a single homer to a left-handed hitter all year. When Ortiz deposited a ball in the right-field grandstand, the Sox had shaved the lead to 7-4.
The homer served as a rebuttal to the days of wondering where Big Papi had gone during the playoffs.
“I hope I can come in and produce like that. I know this ballclub counts on me a lot,” said Ortiz. “(There has been) a lot of blame for Papi because Papi hasn’t been hitting. But it’s not like Papi is going to hit every time like that.”
Yet he does have enough of an October track record—most memorably, in the form of three walkoff hits, the most in major-league history—that there is an expectation that Ortiz will do something remarkable in those situations.
So, too, is there an expectation of what the Red Sox might do when confronted with extinction. The three-run eighth that followed—keyed by a J.D. Drew two-run homer and Crisp’s phenomenal 10-pitch at-bat that concluded with a two-out, game-tying single—made it 7-7.
Drew’s two-out walkoff hit in the bottom of the ninth, his first game-ending hit as a member of the Sox, inspired a familiar sense of bedlam in the stands at Fenway Park and a familiar swagger in the Boston clubhouse. This is the culture to which Red Sox newcomers are welcomed, an organization that can draw upon a rich reservoir of incredible victories.
“I’ve only been here since last year, so I don’t know if I can be the one to say that this is a traditional strength of the Red Sox, to win in these elimination situations,” said Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka. “But we all felt we couldn’t let it end here tonight, and we all believed we could come back tonight.”
“It’s unbelievable how we came back in this game,” added Kevin Youkilis. “It showed the determination and hard work that guys put in. The never give up attitude all these players have. It’s awesome.”
The Rays, meanwhile, find themselves in a position that was once familiar to the Red Sox, but that is now experienced chiefly by Boston’s postseason opponents. A Tampa Bay team that seemed ready to make history of its own by barging into the World Series is now left to insist that it will not crumple following a devastating defeat.
“If we had won it, we'd be in the World Series by now. We'll just have to wait one more day, hopefully, to get that done,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon. “The more you dwell on something in a negative sense, the more it can permeate your whole existence.”
That was a notion that was once painfully, excruciatingly familiar to members of the Red Sox. No longer.
Now, the experience of a franchise manifests itself another way. The Sox are familiar not merely with a rabbit-from-a-hat victory that changes the tide of the series, but also the acts that must follow.
It is one thing to forge a historic comeback in a single game, quite another to sustain it for a series win. And so as they prepared to fly to Central Florida, the Sox were more interested in putting their Game 5 win into context, rather than dwelling on a singularly exceptional victory.
“Hopefully,” said Sox manager Terry Francona, “we can sit back and think this is what got us over the hump, but we’re still climbing.”
Can they do so once more? The championship-winning identity of this Red Sox club suggests as much. Pessimism has been replaced by a profound sense that anything is possible.
“When you have somebody down, you can’t let them breathe,” said Ortiz. “But we just don’t give in. We’ve come from behind a lot of times.”
Alex Speier is a Senior Writer for WEEI.com.