ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – He's the perfect hero for this hastily repaired team and was once called "the smartest man in baseball," and for one night the craftiest. Craig Breslow, Red Sox long reliever and Game 4 winning pitcher, with his degree from Yale in molecular biophysics, stood in the stench of a Champagne-drenched visitors clubhouse Tuesday night and talked about the importance of chemistry.
[Photos: Boston Red Sox celebrate ALCS berth]
The Boston Red Sox, the most dysfunctional, embarrassing team in sports one year ago, now sit four wins away from the 2013 World Series.
"For 162 games, the only thing that mattered was winning," he said of his teammates in the moments after the Red Sox's American League Division Series-clinching 3-1 victory over the feisty Rays. "We had 25 guys who prioritized winning baseball games beyond any kind of individual achievement or accolade."
All 25, yes, but him, specifically, on this night, a lefty who hasn't been able to rack up strikeouts "since I was trying to get Harvard guys out." Breslow, who's floated from San Diego to Cleveland to Minnesota to Oakland to Arizona, was not supposed to have this crucial role in a playoff game; it was supposed to be Andrew Miller or Andrew Bailey or Joel Hanrahan. They are all dealing with injuries, and so it's him – it's Breslow, coming in for starter Jake Peavy and trying to quash the home team's momentum all by himself.
Breslow entered the game in the sixth with his team down 1-0. He struck out the first four batters he faced. He left the game an inning later with his team ahead to stay. The Rays, whose star pitcher, David Price, made headlines in Boston by referring to reporters as "nerds," were vanquished by baseball's nerd king.
You know the big names – we all know the big names: David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury. Those names are the marrow of baseball's highest scoring team. This series and this season, however, also belonged to some other names: Breslow, David Ross, Jonny Gomes, and Xander Bogaerts, a 21-year-old rookie who drew a walk that changed the clinching game.
Bogaerts wasn't around last year, the year of beer and fried chicken and gas. He came into this season hoping to work on his confidence and his patience at the plate. He had help from Gomes and Ross, guys who shared information rather than hoarding it. Guys who spread the wealth and never the blame.
"One of my favorite players is David Ross," Bogaerts said. "He's so loud, but in a good way. And Gomes always helped me with pinch-hitting. Those guys, the energy those guys bring …"
There wasn't much reason for Bogaerts to be calm in that moment, leading off the seventh against Jake McGee, who was throwing 96. He felt calm though, and he noticed "it wasn't looking like 96." He saw every pitch clearly, and when ball four left McGee's fingers, Bogaerts watched it all the way as if he was Miguel Cabrera. It was the first of two walks in the game for a guy who wasn't known for working counts. In the ninth inning he became the second youngest in history to draw multiple walks in one postseason game. The youngest was Mickey Mantle.
Ellsbury, arguably the biggest disruptor in baseball, singled Bogaerts over to third, and the rookie came racing home on a wild pitch. The blitzkrieg known as the Sox offense had only six singles in nine innings, and one of them was enough to tie the game at 1. Ellsbury came all the way to third on the wild pitch and scored on a groundout. That was the go-ahead run that gave the Yale grad the most important win of his life.
Breslow didn't want to say too much after the game. He said he only had "a second" for interviews, even though he could have answered questions for hours. It was telling that Breslow had a moment every ballplayer dreams of, at the apex of an uninspiring pitching career, and he only participated reluctantly.
"Nobody's trying to send a message through the media here," he said. "We're trying to get guys out."
He did that Tuesday, tying his career-high strikeout total. Manager John Farrell started to call Breslow the second most important reliever in the bullpen, then he backed up and told reporters to "strike that," because that's not how this team is. Now it's just 25 guys.
As the Sox whooped and hollered their way off the field here, they fled to the clubhouse and someone yelled for some music. Soon Ortiz was in the middle of it all, pouring booze and swaying to Drake:
Started at the bottom now we're here. Started at the bottom now the whole team's [expletive] here.
Started at the bottom now they're here: the old Sox and the new, the big names and the no-names. The 21-year-old who literally walked onto a stage few get to see in a baseball lifetime, and the Yale grad who didn't win a single major league game until he turned 28.
As he wiped the Champagne from his eyes, Breslow was asked about his old major. Does he ever think about molecular biophysics and biochemistry anymore?
He shook his head. No time for that. No time to watch "Breaking Bad."
"Make no mistake," he said, "about where my priorities lie."
No need to study chemistry anymore. He's part of it now.