ST. LOUIS – Jonny Gomes swings a baseball bat with a brief and heaving hack, as if his body were entangled in baling wire. In left field, he's slightly less graceful than that. He's a sight.
There's this saying, though. It goes, "They don't ask how." And Gomes is beautiful enough in his rolling, tattooed, bewhiskered simplicity, how he attacks the whole game with a thick, barreled-out body and eyes alight with the opportunity. Man, he loves to win. To be around guys he likes and then to win. Then sometimes it seems enough just to try, and Lord knows he's done plenty of trying in plenty of places. It's worked and it hasn't, depending on the time and place, and then depending on who believed with him, or in him, and who didn't, and in the end there was Jonny, finding the best of it and probably having a laugh and maybe already off looking for the next chance.
So it came to be that he'd stand in the on-deck circle Sunday night with what seemed like the World Series on the line. Nothing would be won or lost, necessarily, but Gomes' Boston Red Sox had gone down painfully the night before, and weren't hitting, and were down in the series, two games to one. They'd have to fight now to return the series to Boston, against the momentum of the St. Louis Cardinals.
In a 1-1 game with two out and two on in the sixth inning, Gomes would bat against Seth Maness, a right-handed sinkerballer he didn't know. He walked to the plate. He set his back foot, then the front. He drew his hands near his right ear, the bat high. Maness threw him four pitches, all of them sinkers, all of them near Gomes' knees, and the count stood at 2-and-2. Dustin Pedroia led off second base, David Ortiz off first.
At that moment, Gomes was hitless in eight at-bats in the series. The Red Sox were batting .184. If something was going to happen, it would be there and then.
[Photos: Best of Game 4]
In the bullpen, out beyond the left-field fence, the veteran Ryan Dempster sat bundled up on a bench against the back wall. Craig Breslow sat beside him. He'd tucked his baseball glove behind him.
Dempster turned to Breslow and said, "I should probably grab my glove in case I have to catch this."
Breslow nodded. Dempster retrieved his glove and started to stand up.
In the dugout, behind Gomes from the batter's box, Jake Peavy sat beside Jarrod Saltalamacchia. He turned to the catcher and said, "I will take this guy in any situation, really in life, but in any baseball situation at any point in any game. Give me Jonny Gomes and I'll take him."
Gomes raised his bat again, and sat heavy into his legs, and readied that swing that could only be his.
"He has no follow-through," catcher David Ross said. "Like the little guy in the pinball machine."
A rookie who hadn't given up an earned run in seven playoff appearances, Maness threw a fifth sinker to Gomes. This one was not at the knees, however. It rode up higher, maybe overthrown in the moment, and it was slightly in, and there is maybe nothing in the world Gomes likes better than to turn on a 90-mph fastball.
"It's a heavyweight fight," Gomes would say, "and you have to win as many rounds as you can."
His bat barrel struck the ball clean, and the sound stunned the Busch Stadium crowd into silence, and then a gasp. Matt Holliday turned and quickly sidled to the warning track, then the fence. Dempster took a couple more steps forward, out of the darkness, then stopped. Between Dempster and the fence, John Lackey was warming up. "I didn't want to take a fastball to the chest," he said. Peavy's and Saltalamacchia's heads turned with the ball, following it toward Holliday and the fence and the bullpen. Holliday took one last step and threw himself into the air. His body hit the wall and, as it did, his glove whiplashed back and forth.
The ball hit the bullpen grass on the fly. Dempster caught it in his glove on one hop. Gomes howled and pounded his chest and carried that big ol' square body around the bases, Pedroia and Ortiz somewhere out in front of him. The Red Sox had taken a 4-1 lead, on their way to a 4-2 win and a World Series tied after four games. Gomes had learned half-way through batting practice that he'd even play in Game 4, and then only because starting right fielder Shane Victorino was suffering from a sore back, and starting left fielder Daniel Nava would move to right field, leaving Gomes to left.
A couple hours later, teammate Mike Napoli had a fistful of Gomes' beard, and Dempster had the ball, and wouldn't you know that this series would find Jonny Gomes.
For a guy who seems a little out there, he is quite taken with how well the game has treated him. He's had to work at it, and he's toured five big-league organizations in a decade, and he's just so thankful to be here. When the Red Sox were still smoldering from 2012, Gomes was a player they sought, because he could play some and because he would fight a lot.
Now he'd stood out there in an emergency start, not manager John Farrell's first choice, and hit the home run that might have changed the World Series. Like they say, "They don't ask how."
"This is how my baseball path has been written," Gomes said afterward. "How my life has been written. … It's been a grind, you know? But I'm definitely cut out for that."
And it seemed especially sweet coming from a man who'd shaved his head and let his beard go, who honestly looks a little scary, what with all the ink and the hard eyes and that short, violent swing of his. That's the guy who won a World Series game. That's the guy who held up two signs during the Stand Up 2 Cancer moment Sunday night, one for his high school baseball coach and the other for a little kid up in Boston. That's the guy, all right.
In the din of the postgame clubhouse, Gomes was surrounded by cameras and recorders, and he was telling his story again. Someone shouted his name, and it was Dempster, and he threw something at Gomes, who missed it.
"That's the ball you hit into the bullpen," Dempster announced, and then squirmed through the crowd to give Gomes a hug.
Gomes grinned like it was all a little surreal. It would have been, too, if he hadn't tried so hard to be this guy on this night for so long.
"I'd probably screw it up or mess if up if I tried to put it into words," he said.
He was just a man in a T-shirt pulled tight around his arms and shoulders and gut, his baseball on the floor somewhere, his team back in this World Series. Days don't come much better. Maybe swings do, but days don't. Not that it matters. Though, you know, there was one question he never answered.
"How'd you do that?"