ANAHEIM, Calif. – They stand at the end on weary legs, rubbing fatigue from their eyes, 54 outs from when it all began.
They make a couple more plays, a few more pitches, and barrel up one more fastball.
They play the fourth hour on the third day of October like it's the first inning of the first day of April. Better even.
The Boston Red Sox have all that talent, but their true advantage is they leave not an ounce of it in the dugout.
They win – and, yeah, lose – at the very end of their potential, it seems. Maybe it's all those marathons with the New York Yankees over the years, how they eventually became like the Yankees, pushing plate appearances and games and seasons just as far as they would go. Maybe it's those world championships they won, when they wouldn't let October end without them.
Now they have the better team – the Los Angeles Angels – on a five-hour flight bound for elimination.
Because J.D. Drew came off the disabled list and stretched and creaked and hit a ninth-inning home run off the guy who saved 62 games in the regular season, and three Angels didn't get the ball out of the infield in the ninth inning off Jonathan Papelbon.
Because Kevin Youkilis, a Gold Glove first baseman, made two golden plays – at third – when the Angels were trying to push their plate appearances and game and season as far as they would go.
Because they've done all this before when it's mattered even more, back when they were cursed and no one believed and it was just them and their idiot teammates and their need to do something really special.
The Red Sox beat the Angels 7-5 on a Friday night when the air was playoff thick in Anaheim. The Angels played desperately. They played someone else's game, even, taking pitches and turning hitters' counts into walks and straining for a single run at a time. Their starting pitcher failed them early and Francisco Rodriguez failed them late, both advantages on most nights, and 3½ hours after they fell behind, they pulled even.
Yet they go to Boston early Saturday morning having lost the first two games of the series, the better team having to win the next three to advance. They get Josh Beckett on Sunday and, if they're up to that, Jon Lester on Monday. No matter where the franchise calls home – California, Anaheim, Los Angeles – it has made a habit of losing to the team from Boston this time of year, 11 in a row over 22 years and counting.
Throughout, the Red Sox have beaten them more dramatically. They have beaten them more thoroughly. But Game 2 of this AL Division Series was signature Red Sox, meaning at the end of nearly four hours of hardball, after 340 pitches, after dancing monkeys and clattering fans and countless opportunities, they shook hands while the Angels gathered their bats.
Over 4½ Octobers now, no one has done it better than the Red Sox.
"As a group, I think we understand the situation very well," said Mike Lowell, whose achy hip gave the start at third base to Youkilis. "Better than any other team I've played on. There's a group hunger to do it again. It's an awareness. Collectively, we understand what's at stake."
So, they wait out the typical laborious start by Daisuke Matsuzaka, the king of the 2-and-0 cutter on the black, pitching like he's trying to run out the clock.
They wait out the Angels, chipping madly at a four-run lead, and then another.
And then they win a game when they can win the game, late, against a closer not as good as his record, when there's nowhere else to win it.
"I'm drained, no question," said Jason Bay, a newcomer to these sorts of games who hit a three-run homer in the first inning, establishing the first four-run lead. "That atmosphere, every pitch is life or death. I'm definitely looking forward to taking a snooze on that flight. I mean, until you get out there, the place sold out, the atmosphere, you really have no idea."
Still, he has hit a home run in both Red Sox wins.
"We knew coming to the playoffs these are the types of games we're going to see," said Alex Cora, the veteran who started at shortstop over rookie Jed Lowrie. "You just focus on the moment and do what you're supposed to do. It's just a mirror of our season. We grind it out. For everything we went through, we won 95 games, just like last year. We grind it out. That's the image of our team."
It's Youkilis, rushing in from third base, bare-handing Hunter's attempt for a bunt hit leading off the ninth, throwing him out by a step. It's Youkilis, dashing off from third base, reaching over the photographers to snare Gary Matthews Jr.'s foul pop for the next out. And then Papelbon shaking his fists when it's done, and Howie Kendrick has struck out for the fourth time in the game, the seventh time in two games, every rally seemingly finding the Angels' weakest link.
"We never have quit," Youkilis said. "We are used to it and immune from it. We're not going to play a game in 2½ hours. You know, the games in the playoffs, I never even look at the time. It's not like I've got something else to do. I know when the ninth inning is coming and the last out is recorded."
And then, more often than not, standing on those weary legs, looking through those weary eyes, they are a win closer.