BOSTON – They've learned a lot here since Oct. 17, 2003, at 12:16 a.m., the night Aaron Boone hit the home run that crushed another Boston Red Sox season. They've learned that the Sox can win a championship, two in fact, and that there is redemption, and that fate always comes along for the ride.
And that is why Oct. 17, 2008, at 12:16 a.m., they should have known, every person in Fenway Park, that misery always gets its bookend, that for every time Aaron Bleeping Boone and the New York Yankees get one up on the Red Sox, they'll eventually get one back somewhere else.
It was to the minute. The minute. J.D. Drew stepped into the batter's box, worn from nine intense innings in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, and he worked the count to three balls, one strike, and it was 12:16 a.m., the date of Aaron Bleeping Boone, when he swung and ended one of the great games in postseason history.
Of course, the Red Sox's 8-7 victory against the Tampa Bay Rays, which saved Boston's season and sent the series back to Florida with the Rays holding a 3-2 advantage, needed to end with Drew's smash bouncing over Gabe Gross' head, with Kevin Youkilis steaming home to score the winning run, with the most epic postseason comeback in almost 80 years.
If the last five years have taught the Red Sox anything, it is that when they seem stripped naked, devoid of hope, they are at their finest.
"You can't take away belief," said their catcher and captain, Jason Varitek.
Never again. Not with what the Red Sox have done since Boone's 11th-inning home run in Game 7 of the ALCS.
One year later, they overcame a 3-0 deficit to the Yankees in the ALCS and won their first championship in 86 seasons. Last year, they thumped Cleveland after falling behind 3-1 in the ALCS and won another championship. And if the Red Sox can muster the same this year, winning two games at Tampa Bay's cacophonous Tropicana Field and then taking out Philadelphia in the World Series, it will prove the greatest of the three, a reckoning fortified by three incredible innings on a Thursday that bled into Friday.
This was not Carlton Fisk waving his arms like an air-traffic controller or Dave Roberts' thievery of second base. This was a novella, each character with a role that led to an incredible denouement.
"A miracle, I guess you can say," Red Sox outfielder Coco Crisp said.
Close enough. The Rays entered the game having scored 31 runs total over three victories, and after the top of the seventh inning, they led 7-0. B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria each had homered, their eighth, ninth and 10th combined in the series, and already the Rays had set an ALCS record with 13 home runs. Their starter, Scott Kazmir, had thrown six shutout innings. Fenway was a morgue.
Then it started. A hit, rookie Jed Lowrie's double. Two outs came before another, Crisp's single to left field. And one more, Dustin Pedroia's single to right field, scoring Lowrie, giving the Red Sox a run, a jolt, a chance.
"I think there's a sense of, hey, we've got our backs against the wall, this is looking pretty bleak," Drew said. "But we knew if we got something rolling … "
In the dugout, Pookie Jackson started to yell. No one understood what he was saying. They usually don't. The Red Sox's assistant equipment manager, an omnipresent figure around the clubhouse, always was the most fervent in the dugout in dire times. Others followed. Keep grinding it out. Keep going.
David Ortiz stood in the on-deck circle. The din cascaded. Even though he was in the midst of a miserable series, a miserable month, Ortiz always would be Big Papi, the man born to thrive in these moments.
"I'm part of the soul of this ballclub," Ortiz said.
He dug in against Grant Balfour, the Rays reliever who throws nothing but fastballs. Ortiz took one pitch to see its speed: 97 mph. The next came just as hard, on the inside corner and at his knees, right where left-handed hitters love it, and Ortiz unloaded it deep into the New England night and the right-field bleachers.
"Papi just got him," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
Not just Balfour. Everyone. Ortiz got his own team to believe, and those remaining of the announced 38,437 in Fenway to awaken, and the Rays – the ones seven outs from the World Series – to start bending.
The Red Sox squeezed the vise in the eighth against Rays closer Dan Wheeler. Jason Bay led off with a walk, and Drew followed with a home run. Seven-zip had become 7-6. At-bats sizzled with intensity. After Mark Kotsay doubled to center field, a shot that caromed off Upton's glove, Crisp worked a 3-2 count on Wheeler.
He pumped a fastball. Crisp fouled it off. He stepped out of the box and said a prayer: Please, Lord, have my back.
Another foul ball. Another prayer.
They repeated the drill for four pitches until Crisp lined a single into right field, scored Kotsay and knotted the game 7-7.
"That's what the playoffs are, man," Pedroia said. "Every at-bat is the game."
Inside Boston's clubhouse, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Manny Delcarmen sat on a leather couch in front of a plasma TV. They couldn't witness this. Their teammates wouldn't let them. Matsuzaka had started the game and retreated to the locker room, and Delcarmen, a relief pitcher, had joined him. They watched the seventh inning on the TV, hearing the crowd rumble before the three-second delay showed what had happened, and did the same in the eighth.
"They told me not to move," Delcarmen said, and he and Matsuzaka stayed put, lest they spit at superstition.
In the ninth inning, they sat next to each other, nervous, excited, tangles of conflict, when Longoria picked a slow chopper from Youkilis and skipped a bad throw into the stands. Youkilis took second base. All of Fenway lifted to its tiptoes. The Rays, who had their championship T-shirts ready and their lockers covered in cellophane and their bubbly chilled, sulked.
The Rays didn't know, but they knew. Games have feelings, and this one felt like it was Boston's, and so it happened at 12:16 a.m., Drew connecting with a J.P. Howell changeup, the roar thundering, the Red Sox emptying onto the field, Matsuzaka and Delcarmen rescued from jail, fans taking pictures of one another using cell phone cameras with timestamps to prove they really, truly were there.
"You can get the bottles ready, but it just goes to show you, don't get too high," Rays designated hitter Cliff Floyd said. "Never get too high. It stings and it burns as bad as it can sting and burn."
Not since the 1929 World Series, when the Philadelphia A's overcame an 8-0 deficit to beat the Chicago Cubs 10-8, had a team so clawed back in the postseason. There had been epic comebacks since, a few this decade in Boston, and yet none with the gravitas of the one that ended early Friday morning.
"There's no time to connect anything except figuring out what we're going to do going forward," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "There will be time. Hopefully, we can sit back and think this is what got us over the hump. But we're still climbing."
Maddon tried to put the evening into perspective. "It's one game," he reasoned, and sure, it was. The Rays would jump on their charter, fly back to Tampa and try to forget their ambitious failure. Because they had to.
Boston, meanwhile, would celebrate. The Sox and the city. Outside of Fenway, along Van Ness Street, an hour after Drew's game-winner, more than 200 fans waited for a glimpse of the Red Sox leaving the parking lot and driving to their airplane, which would run an hour or so late. They cheered everyone. Because everyone deserved to be cheered.
The clubhouse nearly had emptied by then. General manager Theo Epstein left with a cell phone pressed to his ear and a briefcase still in hand. He had work to do.
Just before them, Drew had slipped on his suit and picked up his 2-year-old son, Jack, a precocious little blonde. Jack noticed the crowd that kept surrounding Drew, and his curiosity took over.
"What'd you do?" he asked his dad.
Exactly what he was supposed to.