The path to Game Six began on October 16, 2003 as Todd Walker, Nomar Garciaparra, and Johnny Damon desperately converged upon a soft bloop hit by Jorge Posada. None would come close to reaching it before it found the grass, and so two men in pinstripes would cross the plate, tying the game. I, like much of Boston, sat in stunned awe at the managerial incompetence involved, and the knowledge that once again the Yankees would be breaking our hearts. My father, not much of a baseball fan, told me the next day that he'd gone to bed as soon as New York tied it, since "the Red Sox don't win that game. Up three, sure, but tied in the late innings? No way."
The first change was obvious: Boston needed a manager willing to play the percentages, or at the very least listen when told directly that a certain gambit wouldn't work. But behind Little's error lay two legitimate problems with the team: its ace wasn't a nine-inning horse, and it lacked a truly reliable option to secure the ninth inning of a crucial game. These loomed as the major items to solve before making the next run at the World Series. With a trade for Curt Schilling, Boston acquired a workhorse ace with a strong playoff pedigree, and they followed this by putting their money on Keith Foulke as the lockdown closer they had always lacked.
Game Six would be the test of both these moves, and the game that cemented each player's legacy in Boston.
Reliving the 2004 ALCS: Roberts steals Game 4
10 years ago, the Red Sox began their dramatic, unique comeback against their nemesis the Yankees, and we're here to relive all of it with you.
The fanbase was absolutely flummoxed heading into Game Six. After escaping elimination in glorious fashion on Sunday night, the Red Sox bludgeoned and clawed their way to a victory in a torturous six-hour, fourteen-inning ordeal the following evening. Thousands of groggy, anxious New Englanders stumbled into work on Tuesday morning, useless to anyone and counting down the hours until the first pitch would be thrown at Yankee Stadium. I recall my political science professor telling us sardonically (really, he said everything sardonically) that the playoffs were not an excuse to sleep in class or miss our homework. It didn't matter. The situation was entirely too absurd for the normal rules to apply.
Most absurd of all, the man who should have been the rotation's workhorse was injured. Curt Schilling had been nursing a minor ankle injury since June, and that injury became major when he slipped fielding a grounder against Anaheim in the Division Series. Unable to plant properly, his pitches in Game One of the ALCS had been flat and lifeless, easy targets for the Yankee offense. Rumors swirled of an experimental ankle surgery that might give the ace the strength he needed, but none of us knew for sure. To have fought back through 26 innings of madness, and hand the ball to the man acquired for this very purpose, only to be thwarted by an ankle tendon... It was perfectly Boston in its potential cruelty.
Schilling came to the mound in the bottom of the first, and there it was: a closeup of the questionable ankle, blood seeping through the sock. Even at the time, the symbolism was so over-the-top as to be weirdly relaxing. The series had so addled the universe that it had given up on subtlety. He's actually wearing a RED SOCK, get it? My favorite thing about the bloody sock, though, was the inevitable shouting later on that it was faked or staged, Schilling being such a well-known publicity hound. There are still Yankee fans who are pissed off about this, and it's wonderful. The sock aside, Schilling did his job. He wasn't overpowering, but he made his pitches and kept the Yankees off-balance all night. The only damage was a Bernie Williams home run, and when that's the only damage in a Yankee playoff game, you've done damn well.
As for the rest of the game, three moments stick out even a decade later as huge, not only within the context of the game, but as moments that made it clear that the full comeback was possible:
Jon Lieber, who had somehow out-pitched Pedro in Game Two, was trading zeroes with Schilling until the fourth, when Jason Varitek drove in Kevin Millar to put Boston up 1-0. Two batters later, the wondrously scruffy Mark Bellhorn hit a deep drive to left, which bounced back onto the field. Was it a double? A home run? The initial call was that Bellhorn would have to stay at second, but replays showed the ball hitting a fan behind the wall and coming back. The umpires consulted, and all of Boston prepared to add another bitter memory. I was sitting on my couch, and actually shouted "Wait, what?" as the umps reversed the call. The umps got it right. The universe isn't out to screw the Red Sox. Maybe we have a chance here.
Then, of course, there was this:
Ah, the slap. The play that will almost certainly remain the signature playoff moment of Alex Rodriguez's career. Unfairly, but baseball is an incredibly cruel sport. It was so pathetic, so utterly Little League. There's a scene toward the end of Stephen King's sprawling apocalypse The Stand in which one of the main characters is brought face to face with the Big Bad, and begins laughing aloud: "You're nothing! ...we were all so frightened...we made such a business out of you..." As soon as Rodriguez slapped at Bronson Arroyo's glove, the terrifying Yankee Mystique evaporated, and it left behind a goof in pinstripes. That's what we've been afraid of all these years? Let's win this damn thing.
Schilling had given Terry Francona seven innings, Arroyo one, and now the stage was set for Keith Foulke. Foulke had locked down the Yankees for almost three innings in Sunday's comeback, and pitched a four-out hold on Monday. Now he was on for the third time in as many nights, to hold a two-run lead and send the series to a deciding game. He walked Matsui, struck out Williams, got Posada on a popup, then walked Ruben Sierra, of all people, to bring the winning run to the plate. And this, this was the moment of the entire series when I was most scared. Game Four was stressful, Game Five was a six-hour anxiety nightmare, but this was the one moment that terrified me. Tony Clark was coming to the plate. Tony Clark, who two years prior looked utterly washed up with Boston, hitting three home runs and batting .207/.265/.291. And now this former Red Sox bench player could crush Boston's dreams with one swing of the bat. If you listened carefully, you could hear a thousand hot takes being sharpened. And then:
The Red Sox were still alive, and one game away from the impossible.