Thursday, October 16, 2008

A magical night at Fenway, but Rays remain in control


Terry Francona said it best in his postgame news conference:

"That was pretty magical."

Indeed, it was. What transpired in Boston Thursday night was almost surreal, like one of those dreams that you never want to wake up from. As the Red Sox continued to bite into Tampa Bay's seemingly insurmountable 7-0 lead, I almost expected to wake up to reality.

But there was nothing fake about it. And if Boston can somehow turn it into two wins in St. Petersburg followed by four victories over the Phillies, Oct. 16, 2008, will go down in Red Sox lore along with those incredible nights in mid-October 2004.

I, for one, don't see that happening. Despite the devastation the Rays must be feeling right now, despite the absolute collapse by their usually stout bullpen, how can they not still feel good about themselves?

It might not feel this way, but the Rays are actually up 3-2 in the best-of-seven series. And they're going home to their cowbell-banging fans in Florida. You can add to that the fact that their No. 1 pitcher, James Shields, will start Game 6 Saturday night.

I liked the Rays before Thursday's game to win the series, and I still think they'll close out the defending champions. I give them a 75 percent chance.

But back to the magic. Late Thursday night was why I watch sports, why I never turn off a game prematurely, why most goosebumps I've experienced in 24-plus years are a direct result of moments like David Ortiz's three-run, seventh inning home run to slice the Rays' lead to 7-4...

And J.D. Drew's two-run shot in the eighth to narrow the gap to 7-6...

At that point, it didn't matter that I wanted the Rays to win the series. For a few spine-tingling innings, I joined Red Sox Nation. And when Coco Crisp fought off so many 3-2 pitches that my phone died as I talked with Dad — in the middle of the crucial at bat — I knew the magic wasn't gone.

A few seconds later, Crisp drilled the baseball into right field, tying the game 7-7. I got goosebumps for the third time of the night and called Dad back. It was a moment, a game, a comeback to share with others.

At that point, I almost felt as if the comeback was complete. The Red Sox might have felt the same way, considering there was a minor ninth-inning letdown. Two Rays runners reached base, and suddenly the thought occurred to me that everything accomplished the two previous innings could instantly be for naught. A Carlos Pena base hit could give the lead right back to the Rays.

But it simply wasn't meant to be. This was the Red Sox's night — like so many have been the past three years. When Pena hit a groundball directly to second baseman Dustin Pedroia, setting up an easy inning-ending double play, the outcome became clear to me.

What followed was almost anticlimactic. Tampa Bay threw the home team a bone when third baseman Evan Longoria threw away Kevin Youkilis' two-out grounder up the line. Two batter later, Drew sent the Fenway fans — those who remained in the stadium, at least — home delirious with a final base hit, one last RBI.

The magic show was over. And what a show it was.

Consider just how badly the Rays had dominated Boston for two straight games plus six innings Thursday (all at Fenway): They'd outscored the Red Sox 29-5; they'd fooled Boston's big hitters — Ortiz, Pedroia included — into looking meager; they'd pounded pitch after over or against the Green Monster.

There was no reason — none at all — to expect anything out of Boston after the seventh-inning stretch. Even when Pedroia plated a run with a single to make the score 7-1, the only notable was that Boston wouldn't be shut out in a home playoff game, continuing some streak that I can't even remember.

Heck, Tampa hadn't given up more than a three-run lead all season.

But when "Big Papi" jacked the homer into the right-field stands, the impossible suddenly became quite plausible. Just like that, with one swing of the bat.

Isn't it amazing how 7 seconds, or so, can alter the course of history?

Considering the magnitude of the game, at this moment I'll call it the greatest comeback I've ever watched. This opinion will change, of course, if the Rays close out Boston Saturday or Sunday. If that's the case, this story loses much of its luster.

But at least for two days, what the Red Sox did Thursday night in one of two great ballparks left in the country — and we all know the stigma the other park carries — should be embraced as nothing short of remarkable, as one of the great feats in American sports history.

And in an ironic twist of fate for Red Sox Nation: Drew's game-winning hit occurred within a minute of the five-year anniversary of Aaron Boone's walkoff homer that sent the Yankees to their last World Series and Boston fans weeping and cursing the Bambino.

Since that moment, all the magic's been on the Red Sox's side.


OldEnglish said...

I cannot believe I missed this one. I was too tired to stay awake any longer at 11:00, and went to bed. I didn't write the game off as over, in fact, I was derisively noting the fair weather Red Sox fans leaving, but I could not keep the eyelids open. Regrets, I've had a few...

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