Tonight I saw the greatest game ever played in the history of Major League Baseball.
Two nights ago I received a message from my friend Joe Nolan to attend Game 5 of the American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays. Although we are polar opposites politically we both a share a passion for baseball, particularly the Boston Red Sox. Joe attended Game 2 of the 1975 World Series between the Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. When he lived in California, he would make a point of seeing the Red Sox when they were in town to play the California Angels as they were then known.
Since moving to Boston in 2000 I have attended 69 games at Fenway Park. But tonight marked the first time I had ever gone to a playoff game. While I was happy to go I had few illusions. After the Sox won Game 1 in Tampa Bay on a combined four hit shutout by Daisuke "Dice-K" Matsuzaka, Hideki Okajima, Justin Masterson and Jonathan Papelbon it had been all Tampa Bay Rays.
The Sox lost a heartbreaker in Game 2 by a score of 9-8 in 11 innings. A sacrifice fly by B.J. Upton off Mike Timlin even the ALCS at one game apiece.
The ALCS resumed here in Boston on Monday. The Rays pounded Jon Lester and Paul Byrd en route to a 9-1 victory in Game 3. Tuesday would fare no better for the Sox as the Rays decimated the Sox 13-4 in Game 4. Tim Wakefield surrendered three homeruns in less than 3 innings of work. The Red Sox had a much needed day off yesterday.
So going into tonight, the Rays were up 3-1 and a victory would have sent them to the World Series against the Phillies. As things got underway it appeared the Rays were well on their way to a rout of the Red Sox en route to a Fall Classic appearance. Dice-K was not effective in Game 5. He gave up a two run home run to B.J. Upton in the top of the 1st to give the Rays a 2-0 lead. In the top of the 3rd, Dice-K surrendered back to back home runs to Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria. The Rays now had a 5-0 lead. Dice-K would be lifted in the 5th inning.
Hideki Okajima pitched two innings of effective relief but the Red Sox offense was lacklustre against Rays starter Scott Kazmir. Originally James Shields had been slated to start Game 5 but Rays manager announced yesterday that he would start Kazmir in Game 5. In Game 2, Kazmir lasted four and one thirds innings and gave up five runs. He allowed three home runs, two of them to Dustin Pedroia and one to Kevin Youkilis although he didn't figure into the decision. Tonight, Kazmir was brilliant. In six innings of work, he gave up no runs and only two hits. While he did walk three batters he also struck out seven.
The Rays appeared to have broke it open in the top of the 7th. Manny Delcarmen began the inning by walking the first two batters he faced. Then Delcarmen appeared to be hurt and suddenly Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon was brought into the game. I know this because the Dropkick Murphys' "I'm Shipping Up To Boston" was played in its entirety during his warm up on the mound. Normally, Papelbon wouldn't be brought in with the Sox down five runs but this was the season right here and now. Papelbon gave up a two run double to B.J. Upton to make it 7-0 (the two runs were charged to Delcarmen.)
At this point, the only thing exciting the crowd was a portly middle aged man taking off his shirt and leading the crowd in cheers. I turned to Joe and said, "If I have children or grandchildren, I will not mention this game. Maybe except in passing."
However, after Papelbon intentionally walked Carlos Pena he then induced Evan Longoria to hit into a double play and Carl Crawford ended the inning by grounding out to third baseman Kevin Youkilis.
Enter the Rays bullpen. In years past, it was the team's achilles heel. This year they have the best bullpen in baseball. That is until tonight.
Australian Grant Balfour was brought in to pitch the bottom of the 7th. He gave up a lead off double to Jed Lowrie but retired both Jason Varitek and Mark Kotsay on fly balls to center fielder B.J. Upton. Then Balfour faced Coco Crisp. This might have been the at bat of the game. Crisp, who is the least popular Red Sox player because of his punch up with Rays pitcher James Shields at Fenway last June, kept fouling off pitch after pitch until he singled to make it first and third with two outs. Up came Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox Nation's favored candidate for AL MVP. Pedroia drove in the Sox first run. 7-1 Rays.
David Ortiz has been well known for his clutch home runs. But in this ALCS Big Papi was 1 for 14 with four walks. His one hit was a triple in Game 3. Big Papi isn't exactly fleet of foot. The only way he hits a triple is if it ricochets off the wall or takes a funny bounce. Indeed, I did see Ortiz hit a triple against the Toronto Blue Jays on September 14th. At that time, I was not expecting to see another game at Fenway until next April.
Well, Big Papi hit a three run home run and the Rays lead was cut to 7-4. The Sox were back in the game.
Papelbon came back out to pitch the top of the 8th. He retired all three hitters and struck out Manny Aybar and Gabe Gross. Papelbon might not have recorded a save in this game but he surely saved this game with his pitching.
Between innings, "Sweet Caroline" by Neil Diamond was played over the PA as it of every home game in the middle of the 8th. Joe excused himself from the proceedings.
Rays reliever Dan Wheeler began the inning by walking Jason Bay. During Bay's at bat the Fenway faithful began chanting, "Wheeler!!! Wheeler!!!" in mocking unisom. Wheeler then surrendered a two run home run to J.D. Drew. The Rays lead was now cut to 7-6. The chanting became deafening by this point.
Wheeler did retire Jed Lowrie and pinch hitter Sean Casey but Mark Kotsay lined a double to keep the inning alive. The chanting was getting to Wheeler and I wondered why Rays manager Joe Maddon hadn't thought to remove him. Once again, Coco Crisp had another good at bat fouling off pitch after pitch until he a solid single that allowed Kotsay to score. The game was tied 7-7.
I should note that Crisp was thrown out at second when he tried to stretch the single into a double. But no one seemed to care. It went from 7-0 to 7-7. Victory was within sight.
Justin Masterson was brought on to pitch the 9th inning. Masterson was brought up from Pawtucket in mid-season and has both started and relieved. He's a young kid but isn't fazed by pressure. Masterson gave up a single to Josh Bartlett to begin the inning. He did retire Akinori Iwamura on a fly ball but then walked B.J. Upton. But no problem. He bore down and got Carlos Pena to hit into an inning ending double play. It was the second double play the Rays hit into in three innings.
Lefty J.P. Howell was brought in to pitch the bottom of the 9th. Dustin Pedroia hit a ground ball that took a tricky hop but third baseman Evan Longoria picked up the ball and threw out the hustling Pedroia at first. Howell then struck out Big Papi. That left things to Kevin Youkilis.
Now the worst that could have happened was the game would have gone to extra innings. But Youk wanted to end things then and there. He fouled off pitches and took pitches just outside the strike zone. He eventually hit what appeared to be weak ground ball to Longoria but he hesitated with this throw and the ball hit the bag and went into the stands for a throwing error. Youk was awarded second base.
Jason Bay had an opportunity to show the world why the Sox rid themselves of Manny Ramirez. But the Rays had other ideas. Howell intentionally walked Bay so he could face J.D. Drew who homered the previous inning. By this time, the fans were chanting "Howell! Howell!" although it didn't have same ring as Wheeler.
This was my 70th game at Fenway Park. The Red Sox were down 7-0 and had tied the game 7-7. It was all up to Drew whose number on the back of his uniform is, what else, 7.
Drew hit a drive that surged over the head of Rays right fielder Gabe Gross and Youkilis made a mad dash for home. Red Sox won 8-7. I screamed myself hoarse in a way I haven't done in years. Rarely I have ever experienced such pure unadulterated joy.
Not only was this the greatest game I had ever witnessed either in person or transmitted by television or radio but it was the greatest game ever played in the history of Major League Baseball.
Remember what I said about not telling any children or grandchildren I should ever about this game? I take it back.
Joe and I were meant to be at this game to witness this miracle. Was it sparked by the fat man who removed his shirt? Or by the fans who chanted, "Wheeler!" "Wheeler!"? Yes and by a thousands of other things in the stands, on the field and beyond.
In 2004, the Red Sox won the ALCS after being down 3-0 against the New York Yankees and went on to win their first World Series in 86 years. In 2007, the Red Sox won the ALCS after being down 3-1 against the Cleveland Indians and went on to win another World Series. Can they do it again?
As Joe said, "Summer is still with us." The Red Sox will travel to St. Pete to face the Rays in Game 6. The odds of winning two straight at Tropicana Field are against them but they have survived worse odds. Such as being down 7-0 in the 7th inning.
Even if the Sox don't prevail we will always have Game 5 and I will always have my memories witnessed first hand.
If no one understood why I love baseball so much I think you will all understand now.
Sleep peacefully. Goodnight.