The Red Sox found themselves staring down the barrel off a loaded gun yesterday. Having lost the first game of their doubleheader despite facing A.J. Burnett, the Sox had to win a game started by John Lackey, or leave New Yankee Stadium in a tie for the wild card.
When John Lackey entered in the first inning and immediately gave up three runs to New York, you probably wouldn't have had a difficult time finding Sox fans who just favored ending the game then and there rather than bother playing it out. The next couple of innings were primarily spent coming to terms with the imminent culmination of the collapse and indulging in good old-fashioned self pity.
Meanwhile, something strange was happening. Rather than crash and burn following a difficult start, John Lackey picked himself up and started firing off clean innings, and then the Sox started scoring. One run came across in the fifth after a leadoff triple from Jed Lowrie, another in the sixth off a pair of leadoff singles from Carl Crawford and Dustin Pedroia. When Lowrie again picked up an extra base hit in the seventh and came around to score on Marco Scutaro's double, the Sox suddenly found themselves tied, and even took a 4-3 lead on Jason Varitek's RBI ground ball up the middle.
Of course, these were, as always, the 2011 Red Sox playing in September, so it couldn't be as simple as all that. John Lackey came back out to start the seventh, gave up a leadoff single, and was quickly yanked for Alfredo Aceves, who would allow the inherited run to score on a sacrifice fly. The game was knotted up, and that's how it would stay for a long time. Daniel Bard recorded three outs, then gave way to Jonathan Papelbon after loading the bases in the ninth. Papelbon would come through with one of his all-time best performances, recording seven outs to keep the Sox alive into the twelfth, where Franklin Morales would take over and provide two more key innings, all to give the Sox a chance.
That chance would come off the woeful Scott Proctor in the 14th. Darnell McDonald singled to left field with one out, Marco Scutaro walked, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia flew out to deep center to bring Jacoby Ellsbury to the plate with two down and men on the corners. Ellsbury hadn't been having the best game to that point. 1-for-6 with a deflating GIDP, it was a far cry from the performance he'd had in the first half of the doubleheader, when he tried to single-handedly carry the Sox to victory.
But this wasn't a situation for Jacoby Ellsbury to fail in. Here he was, an MVP candidate, up against Scott Proctor with a man on third base. This was not a situation in which outs are recorded. He would not, to put it simply, be denied. The 1-0 fastball was right where Ellsbury likes them--dead center and a little low--and the resounding crack of the bat on the ball left little doubt as to the outcome. The ball sailed far and deep to right-center, and dropped past the wall for a game-winning three-run shot--a perfect highlight to cap off an MVP-worthy season if ever there was one.
With Felix Doubront shutting the door in the bottom half of the inning, the Red Sox now only need to be as good as the Rays over the next three games. No, Beckett and Bedard didn't exactly work out too well against the O's last time around, and should Jon Lester be needed, he'll be pitching on short rest after a disaster. But let's not take for granted the luxury of that one-game lead that we came so very close to losing Sunday night.