BOSTON – The Boston Red Sox had been so precise, so clean, just so relentlessly capable.
Then the St. Louis Cardinals forced them to make a play. A couple plays. The Cardinals leaned forward off their heels, where they'd spent the better part of two games in the World Series, and forced the Red Sox to play them. To defend them. And in that moment the World Series actually began, 16 innings into it.
As a result, the regret the Cardinals carried out of Game 1, the Red Sox will take to St. Louis and Game 3.
They'd held a late lead. They'd worn down the prodigy. They'd followed the plan, rode John Lackey into the late innings, gone ahead on another David Ortiz home run, and presented that lead to what had been – what is – a very sturdy bullpen.
And suddenly the man behind the Monster was rifling through his placards, finding the "3", sliding it into its place in the top of the seventh inning, all as the Red Sox ran off the field and away from those terrible 15 minutes. They'd seen pitches off the plate, they'd seen a ball stuck in a mitt, and another in the grandstand, hoisted there by one of their own.
Two innings later, the Cardinals were 4-2 winners, the Red Sox throw-back-their-heads losers, and a day after the Cardinals had gifted the Red Sox Game 1, the Red Sox had handed back Game 2 Thursday night. The Cardinals, rightfully so, would view their seventh inning as the small acts of hardball that make their team go. The Red Sox would see a double steal against them, a shallow sacrifice fly, an off-line throw, a failed swipe tag at the plate, a loose ball gathered by reliever Craig Breslow from exactly where he should have been, and then the throw that would beat them.
"I still think it was the right play," he said while the clubbies vacuumed the carpet nearby.
Breslow is the 33-year-old left-hander, a journeyman and the thinking man's pitcher. He's grown a beard like the rest, but instead of looking like a rogue biker, Breslow comes across as the rogue biker's attorney. After eight years and six teams (and a career 2.82 ERA), he's pitching in his first postseason. Over seven appearances against the Tampa Bay Rays and Detroit Tigers, he'd pitched seven innings and hadn't given up a run.
So when two were on base and one was out in the seventh inning, that close to "Sweet Caroline" with a 2-1 lead, John Lackey left and Breslow came in to get the Red Sox to the eighth. It's what he's done and what he's been good at.
[Photos: World Series Game 2 highlights]
Going on two hours later, he stood at his locker. He was calm and analytical. He walked a handful of lingering reporters through the three runs that would score. He'd varied the looks he gave the Cardinals' baserunners – Pete Kozma at second base and Jon Jay at first. When he saw them bolt, he tried to feed catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia a head-high fastball, so Saltalamacchia could throw out the lead runner at third base. When he'd gone to a full count against Daniel Descalso, he'd tried to be smart with the last pitch, to get a strike out, and not walk him. And when Descalso had walked and Matt Carpenter came up with the bases loaded with one out, he'd thrown a pitch intended to get weak contact, which he got, and yet, well, all those fine intentions somehow ended up in the seats beyond third base.
"Nobody wants to unravel like that," he said.
The Cardinals, undoubtedly, would nod in their agreement. They'd come undone the night before in a humiliating loss but just one loss. This, then, would be their moment, in the seventh inning, they having pushed past Lackey and into the area before Koji Uehara.
So the fastball intended to give his catcher a greater chance at cutting down Kozma was perhaps too high, and Saltalamacchia went into his mitt twice for it, and both runners were safe. The cut fastball intended to strike out Descalso fell low. And the ball Carpenter fisted into left field, that Jonny Gomes caught and threw, that got past Saltalamacchia and into Breslow's hands. Breslow would cast long and hard over Stephen Drew's head.
"I knew it sailed," Breslow said.
He'd made throws of that distance thousands of times, though admittedly most at 4 o'clock in the afternoon in the outfield, just airing it out with a teammate. Home to third, that's not a throw pitchers practice a lot.
"It was difficult to gauge," he said.
It bounced once, cleared the short wall, the crowd went still, and the Red Sox were all but done. Jay was awarded home. Descalso was awarded third. The Red Sox were down, 3-2, and the next hitter – Carlos Beltran – lined a single to right field to make it 4-2, also against Breslow.
In 11 previous postseason games, the Red Sox had committed four errors. On the single play that ultimately beat them Thursday, they'd made two. Sometimes a game is so taut, so tense it seems it must break somewhere. The Red Sox had followed the game plan for six-plus innings. They'd taken at-bats with the long view of running Michael Wacha's pitch count, and Ortiz had gotten a changeup and hit it the other way over the Green Monster. That was the way it was supposed to go, until it didn't, and then the Cardinals had chased their plan with the same earnestness.
Breslow, the pro's pro, will go through it again, frame by frame. He'll seek the proper outcome in the video he'll watch. He'll hate that this happened, then show up in two days eager to have at it again. It's the nature of the game, even now, when the games can feel like seismic events.
"I feel like, you know, in its simplest form, in black and white, I didn't make pitches," he said. "As complicated and complex as this game can be, it can be incredibly simple."
Pick up a baseball, find the target, give a short crow hop, throw it 90 feet. That simple. Until it's not. And then it gets complicated again.