Another great escape for Red Sox
Facing elimination, the Red Sox were down 7-0 with seven outs left in their season
The comeback exposed the first real cracks we've seen in the Rays in postseason
How the shell-shocked Rays handle this new adversity could determine the series
BOSTON -- It was 10 minutes until 1 in the morning, and the Red Sox were, somehow, alive. Coco Crisp stood at his locker in the Boston clubhouse -- still in full uniform, down to his dirty pair of cleats -- with the look of a man who had just been through one of the most incredible, unlikely, stupefying comebacks of anyone's baseball-playing career. Which, in fact, he had.
Thanks in large part to Crisp, the Red Sox pulled out a jaw-dropping 8-7 victory (Recap | Box Score) Thursday in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, staving off elimination and sending the series back to Tampa Bay for Game 6 on Saturday. Down 7-0 with seven outs left in their season, the Sox rallied for the biggest postseason comeback in 79 years, denying the Rays a win in their first try at the World Series and sending the crowd at Fenway Park into a delirium. J.D. Drew provided the pièce de résistance, punching a 3-1 pitch from J.P. Howell over the head of right-fielder Gabe Gross for the game-winning hit.
"What more can you say?" said Boston third baseman Kevin Youkilis, who scored the winning run. "It's a lot better than going home."
Game 5 was, for most of seven innings, alarmingly one-sided, much like the ALCS to that point. But with a rousing return to form -- Boston does comebacks better than Michael Jordan ever dreamed of doing them -- the Red Sox shaved the Rays' lead in this best-of-seven series to three games to two. The win also gave Red Sox Nation some hope by exposing the first real cracks we've seen in the Rays in this, their first postseason; some shoddy work by their usually steady defense, an implosion in their formerly bedrock bullpen and even the first daffy decision from their mad genius of a manager, Joe Maddon.
In all, this was the kind of win that postseason histories are built on. If, that is, the Red Sox can make good on it by winning two games down in St. Petersburg this weekend. "Both teams know what lies ahead," said Boston's first baseman Mark Kotsay. "We know our challenge, and they know as well. I wouldn't say it was a statement game by any means. The pressure is still on us."
Whatever the statement, or not, the way this game unfolded certainly reaffirmed to everyone that the Sox are not a team that rolls over easily. After early home runs by Tampa Bay's B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria knocked out Daisuke Matsuzaka, and after the Rays got to reliever Jonathan Papelbon in the seventh with Upton's two-run double off the Green Monster -- Papelbon, the team's closer, made his earliest postseason appearance since his first one, back in 2005 -- the crowd was uncommonly silent, the Rays were laughing in the dugout and the Sox looked dead. "I would say," said Boston's Jason Bay, "we were basically percentage points from going home."
But with two outs and a man on second, Crisp singled (the first hit by a Boston leadoff hitter in this series), Dustin Pedroia followed with a single to bring in Boston's first run and David Ortiz -- who had one hit in the series to that point -- stepped to the plate. It was a perfect time to bring in a left-hander to face the lefty-swinging Ortiz, but Maddon elected instead to stick with fastballing Australian Grant Balfour, a right-hander.
With the count 1-0, Ortiz blasted a fastball into the right-field seats and, suddenly, the Tampa Bay lead had been chopped to 7-4. "We've been doing that all year," Maddon said of his decision to stick with Balfour. "Grant has been very good in that situation, actually. [Ortiz] just got him tonight."
Drew smashed a two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth off Dan Wheeler to get the Sox within a run, and then the fun started. Kotsay drove a pitch to center that could have -- maybe should have -- been caught. But Upton was not playing deep in the traditional "no-doubles" defense, instead playing way up, which he often does.
Upton got a good jump on the ball and glided back -- something he also often does -- but the ball nicked off his glove for a double. That brought up Crisp for what might have been the at-bat of the game. Maybe the at-bat of the season.
Crisp worked through nine pitches against Wheeler -- all of them fastballs -- before poking a 10th pitch to right field to score Kotsay with the tying run. "It was a battle. I stepped out every time and I was praying," said Crisp. "Just, 'One time, let me come through for my team.'
"He had my back this time."
In the ninth, the lefty Howell retired the first two batters, but Youkilis -- after a 10-pitch fight --hit a bouncer to third. Longoria made a nifty pickup, but his throw to first bounced high off Pena's glove and ended up in the seats, putting Youkilis at second base. (It was scored a hit and a throwing error.) After an intentional walk to Bay, Drew lined a 3-1 pitch over the head of Gross, who had broken in on the shot. Youkilis scored the winning run.
The Sox gathered in the middle of the field and the crowd screamed as Howell, head down, walked slowly to the Rays' dugout.
"We just put some good at-bats together, the momentum shifted and we just kind of fed off each other," said Kotsay. "That was one of the most exciting games of my career."
Kotsay is new to the team, but this is nothing new to the Sox, who have made a habit of coming back in the postseason. They bounced back from a 3-1 deficit in 1986 (against the Angels) and last year (against the Indians). And in 2004, of course, they became the first (and, still, the only) team to win a series after falling behind 3-0 when they beat the Yankees in the ALCS.
Whether the Sox can manage something like that again will depend in large part on their starting pitching, which has abandoned them in this series. Every starting pitcher for the Sox -- Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Tim Wakefield and, on Thursday, Matsuzaka, -- has been racked by the Rays. In Game 6, the Sox will go with Beckett. James Shields will start for Tampa Bay.
But the rest of this series, too, will depend on how the Rays handle this new adversity. With a nailbiting win in Game 2 and easy wins in Games 3 and 4 -- after cruising through their division series against the White Sox -- the Rays looked destined for the World Series. Now, at least in some minds, there's a question as to whether they can rebound from such a devastating loss. It will certainly take all the motivational magic that Maddon can muster to get the Rays back on track.
"I don't think it'll be that tough, actually," Maddon said. "If you dwell on something like that and you permit your mind to dwell in that negative mode, then nothing good can happen after that."