After Dustin Pedroia's laser-drive single to short-right field last night loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth—and Will Middlebrooks slammed on the brakes rounding third—I turned to the guy sitting behind me in Section 14 at Fenway Park for a very brief conversation as David Ortiz stepped to the plate.
"I wonder if they should have sent Middlebrooks?" I asked.
"No, you don't want to take the bat out of Papi's hands," the guy said.
"But he hasn't been hitting this series."
"Maybe, but there are two outs. You don't want to make the last out at home plate down four runs. We only have four outs to go in the game,"stated the man.
He was right from a baseball strategy point of view, of course. But after watching the Red Sox record 1 hit and strike out 29 times over the first 16 2/3 innings of the ALCS against Detroit , I have to admit I wasn't even sure Big Papi could bail us out of this one.
I should have known better.
On the very next pitch—the first he saw from Tigers closer Joaquin Benoit—Ortiz hit a bullet to right field that just made it over the glove of a leaping Torii Hunter and into the Red Sox bullpen. Just like that, a 5-1 deficit had become a 5-5 tie, and a two games to none series deficit heading to Detroit was no longer a near certainty.
The Red Sox were alive in the game, and an inning later—when Jarrod Saltalamacchia singled home Jonny Gomes—they were very much alive in the ALCS. "Love That Dirty Water" started playing, cell phones started ringing (and serving as cameras), and I high-fived the guy behind me. Perhaps, if he reads this, he'll email me his name.
So ended one of the most incredible nights in Fenway Park's long postseason history, a night the Red Sox turned the tables on the Tigers with one swing and left fans feeling that this very likable, hairy team might just have the mojo to go all the way.
Seldom do emotions switch as dramatically as they did in this contest. The good karma started well before the first pitch, when fans arriving at Fenway were treated to a wonderful last-second comeback by Tom Brady and the Patriots down in Foxboro, courtesy of flat-screens throughout the ballpark.
When my wife Michelle and I ran into Nancy Wall Farrington, our regular season weekend seat mate, we thought it was another good sign. The Sox almost never lose when we see each other in Section 30, so maybe seeing each other in the Gate A concourse would work as well.
After slipping our lucky $1 into a Jimmy Fund collection box (an every-game ritual), we settled into our seats just as the pre-game ceremonies were wrapping up with 2004 ALCS hero Dave Roberts throwing out the first pitch. (Shameless promotion: Roberts was my favorite interview for my upcoming book, "Miracle at Fenway," in which you'll learn just what he was thinking before the biggest stolen base in Red Sox history.)
Because this was a "date night" with my mom babysitting the kids, I promised Michelle I would not keep score and instead focus completely on her (and the game, of course). This felt as uncomfortable to me as showing up in the fifth inning, as we did at our son Jason's first game, because she thought he'd never last nine. (The game went 14, and we stayed, so he saw his 9).
Still, I kept the pen in my pocket. I've survived 14 years, 11 months, and 6 days of marriage by knowing when to let things go, so I wrapped my arm around my bride and settled in to watch Clay Buchholz and Max Scherzer do battle.
Over the next five innings, the game took on an almost uncanny resemblance to the previous night's Jon Lester-Anibal Sanchez affair. The Red Sox could not record a hit or even get much wood on the ball over the first five innings, with Scherzer recording nine strikeouts, but a strong performance from Buchholz was keeping Boston in the game. My buddies "The K Men" were pretty busy with six cards posted for Clay through five.
The lady in front of us was keeping score, which naturally had me longing to have a pen and program in my own hands. Before the top of the sixth, with a 1-0 Detroit lead and tension in the park building, I told Michelle I couldn't take it anymore—and flipped to the scorecard in the center of my official ALCS program. I needed to keep busy, and she understood.
After filling in the names and writing in an "8" for the first out of the sixth (fly to deep center by Torii Hunter) I quickly began questioning my decision. Double, home run, double, single, and home run were the next five entries on my cardboard grid, as the Tigers chased Buchholz with four more runs.
When he was lifted for Brandon Workman, I was among many fans giving Buchholz a standing ovation as he walked off the field. "You had a great year, Clay!" I yelled, fearing it very well might be the last time I'd cheer him or any Sox starter at Fenway this season.
Boston did break its 16-inning scoreless drought in the bottom of the sixth when a Victorino single and Pedroia double off the Wall made it 5-1, and the fans came to life as Ortiz stepped in with two outs. Scherzer blew him away with a 96-mile-per-hour fastball, however, and silence quickly returned.
By the end of the seventh, with the help of the Jumbotron, I had completely caught up on my scorecard and was thinking ahead to whether John Lackey had any chance against Verlander in Game 3. I'm not a doubting man by any means, especially having lived through 2004, but I can guarantee there were not 1,000 people among the 38,000-plus at Fenway who figured the Sox had any chance in this one.
Then, with blinking lights flashing, one of my newest Fenway friends surprised me by showing up to say hello. Lynne Smith, aka the Fenway Park Hat Lady, sat down beside Michelle and quickly started gabbing about Detroit (where they are both from). I interviewed Smith for "Miracle at Fenway" a couple weeks back and we've become Facebook buddies—but this was our first time connecting for more than a quick wave at a game.
Apparently it did. Papi and the boys staged their great comeback, my phone died immediately after I took a picture of the Jumbotron flashing "RED SOX WIN," and I had to ask a couple other fans to take our picture with the Green Monster scoreboard behind us.
Where does this game rank with my best ever seen at Fenway? Well, nothing can top Game Five of the '04 ALCS and Game Six of the '75 World Series, but this is right up there with the Trot Nixon Game in the '03 ALCS, the 14-inning Father's Day win (Jason's first game), and the Opening Day ring ceremony of 2005.
For games with "The Reluctant Fan", however, it's tops. I'm betting next time she leaves the book at home...