DENVER – Eight days ago, the Boston Red Sox were in Cleveland, frantic for clutch hits and live arms, anything to keep their season going and a trembling Nation united.
Three-game losing streaks generally don't play well in October, even with Josh Beckett promised on the other side. But, the Red Sox had held their we're-in-it-until-we're-out stance reasonably well.
They'd also failed to get a starter out of the fifth inning for so long they were leaving relievers on the side of the road, and their hitters couldn't stay with the Indians' habitual seven-run innings, because baseball rules prohibited Manny Ramirez from batting two or three times in the order.
They looked done and smelled worse.
Well, look at them now.
Their biggest issue is picking one of three guys to go without, and at an appointed time sending him up for a clean, self-assured at-bat. That'll be Kevin Youkilis, by the way, leaving David Ortiz for first base and Mike Lowell for third base.
The offense is going so well they're going to bench the guy who just hit .500 in the American League championship series.
Manager Terry Francona wouldn't say if he'd play the alignment all the way through the National League portion of the World Series, but sounded comfortable enough that he would.
"They won't let us play all three of them," Francona said, "so we'll go with this."
The Red Sox showed up here Friday afternoon on the contrail of a five-game winning streak (which plays very well in October), more concerned with their fluid intake, their lung capacities, and keeping Manny's helmet welded to his dreads.
The Red Sox had pulled it together in time for Rudy Giuliani to hop aboard, might outlast the resolution of the New York Yankees' field manager deliberations, and are a couple wins from their second World Series title in four seasons.
From 3-1 down to the Indians, from what was left of their pitching staff, from three games of unreliable swings, the Red Sox have come a long way from "Who cares?"
You'll recall Ramirez sat in front of his locker between Games 4 and 5, right around the time Beckett was breaking down the differences between dying on one's feet and living on one's knees, and said, "If it doesn't happen, who cares? There's always next year. It's not like it's the end of the world."
It sounded a little like surrender.
It sounded like he wasn't sure the Red Sox were of body or spirit to knock around C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona again. They did. And then they beat Jake Westbrook, danced around a little, and two days later put six runs on Jeff Francis, followed by one of their signature precision knockouts of Ubaldo Jimenez.
Five games since "Who cares?" Five wins.
"I never had any doubts, any doubts in my mind we could come back," shortstop Julio Lugo said. "We knew it was going to be tough. They weren't going to go away."
Since Ramirez slyly set to rallying his boys to their best baseball of the season, the Red Sox have batted .351, have pitched to a 1.40 ERA and a .206 batting average against, and have picked Matt Holliday off first base.
They have outscored the Indians and Rockies, 45-7.
They have toiled through 808 pitches, or 3.78 per plate appearance. They have drawn 30 walks. And their pitchers have walked five, to 43 strikeouts.
From a slow fade to winter, the Red Sox have retaken their usual game: The grinding at-bats, the obedient fastballs, the reliable gloves.
"I think we went back to what we normally were before," Ortiz said. "That's why we stayed in first place all year."
The bullpen has thrown 16 consecutive scoreless innings, 12 2/3 since "Who cares?" Beckett's four starts, two since "Who cares?" have put him with some of the credentialed postseason pitchers of all time. Curt Schilling, going on 41, has won twice, and perhaps won himself a contract for next season.
Saturday night the Red Sox return to Daisuke Matsuzaka, who got his head out of his locker long enough to win Game 7.
They're back to strike one, back to advantage fastballs, to have allowed two runs in two games to the Rockies, one of the regular season's accomplished offenses (and one of the postseason's tamed offenses).
"It culminated [Thursday] night," Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell said.
They're the same pitchers, just pitching better. The same hitters, hitting better. And the same Manny, caring as much as he always has. He's got four hits already in the World Series, one running catch on a ball it looked like he'd never get, and a lot of the usual wobbling helmets. Since "Who cares?" he's seven for 16, with five RBI, Coors Field and Game 3 waiting.
That, they care about.
"That's what changes people's minds," Ortiz said. "If you win, the opposing team might think, 'Damn, we're done.' "
No one likes to think they're done.