On the sixth day of the New Era of Good Feelings—inaugurated by the completion of The Comeback against the Evil Empire (otherwise known as the New York Yankees)—wary Red Sox fans watched uneasily as the Red Sox took on the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 3 of the 2004 World Series.
After overcoming the roller-coaster ride that was Game 1 (has any dull thud sounded sweeter than Mark Bellhorn's game-winning home run off the Pesky Pole?) and the Bloody Sock Game (the second gutsiest Red Sox pitching performance of my lifetime), Red Sox fans knew that this was the game where something had to give if the Cardinals were going to launch a comeback. And, if there was any game that was set up for the Cardinals to have an advantage, this might have been it.
Playing in St. Louis, the Red Sox would be unable to use a designated hitter, which meant that not only would David Ortiz have to man first base to keep his bat in the lineup, but that official Sox cheer-idiot Kevin Millar would have to sit in the dugout. Taking his place in the lineup would be Pedro Martinez, who had nothing to contribute with his bat, and who had, at times, looked frighteningly mortal during the 2004 series.
So, as my friends and I gathered at the same house where we had watched Games 1 and 2, taking the same seats as before, and ordering the same takeout meals we had for Games 1 and 2, we sat down with trepidation and yet a certain amount of cautious optimism. Could the Red Sox pull off a win here, and leave the Cardinals in the next-to-impossible situation of overcoming a 3-0 deficit in the series?
As in the first two games of the series, the Red Sox wasted little time getting the first run on the board. Although the first two batters came to little good against Suppan, Manny Ramirez took a 2-2 pitch from Suppan into the stands in left field, giving the Sox a 1-0 lead before the Cardinals had even come to the plate.
The bottom half of the first inning would prove to be the biggest hurdle Pedro Martinez would face all night, and give Red Sox fans the biggest scare since A-Rod's feeble slap of Bronson Arroyo's arm in ALCS Game 6. Although he retired leadoff hitter (and erstwhile future Sox) Edgar Renteria, he (perhaps fittingly) walked Larry Walker, who advanced to second on an Albert Pujols single, and made it to third after Martinez walked his second (and last) batter of the evening, Scott Rolen.
Jim Edmonds was now at the plate with the opportunity to do major damage, and perhaps even give the Cardinals their first lead of the series. The familiar drumbeat of doom and panic filled the room in which my friends and I sat. We could see the inevitable: a Cardinal grand slam, a short outing for Pedro, a relief stint by Arroyo, a series lead cut to one game. The slumbering giant would finally awaken, and the 105-57 Cardinals would finally take the place that seemed their destination all along, The Comeback notwithstanding.
But then this happened:*
(*WARNING: The Surgeon General has advised that excessive exposure to Joe Buck and Tim McCarver's commentary can lead to early onset dementia. Proceed with caution—or better yet, on mute, accompanied by a Benny Hill soundtrack instead.)
It's hard to figure out what was going through third-base coach José Oquendo's mind at that point. The ball was caught rather in shallow left field by Manny Ramirez, who, as Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post memorably put it, "throws as well as he does not catch." His runner at third base was a lumbering first-baseman who played with Pedro Martinez back when he was on the Montreal Expos, and was born during the middle of the LBJ administration. There were two outs, so getting gunned down would end the inning. On the other side of the ledger, Oquendo had to deal with Albert Pujols being way, way off second base and being a potential candidate for a pickoff. So maybe there was nothing to do but take the chance that something good would happen. Perhaps Oquendo didn't want to make Pujols the scapegoat if the Cardinals fall short by a run, and elected to select the least bad of two options in a Hobson's choice scenario. Of course, the inevitable happened, and the Captain, Jason Varitek, threw Walker out at the plate. Pedro Martinez's utter disgust as he slapped Walker's backside as he walked back to the Sox dugout after the end of the inning was a priceless treasure.
The game settled down for a while after that, with Suppan and Martinez matching 1-2-3 innings in the second, and Suppan getting the side out in the third with only a walk to Orlando Cabrera in the top of the third. The bottom of the third would see Martinez falter once more, only to be bailed out again by the Cardinals.
With runners on second and third and no one out, the Red Sox were arrayed at double-play depth, fully prepared to concede a run in exchange for getting an out. The Cardinals' batter, Larry Walker, was fully prepared to bring in said runner in exchange for an out. Oquendo was once again fully prepared to send the baserunner home. In a matter of moments, the Cardinals would tie the game, and be in an excellent position to take the lead at the end of an inning for the first time in the series.
The only person who didn't seem to be on board with this plan? The baserunner at third.
If Red Sox fans were waiting for further evidence from the universe that their suffering was soon to pass, for once, the universe was willing to answer in a form that even the most pessimistic of Red Sox fans could recognize: as if a meteor blazing across the night sky, we were gifted with The Greatest Baserunning Blunder of All Time:
Jeff Suppan never made it home. Perhaps he did, as Tony La Russa suggested, hear Oquendo shouting "No, no!" instead of "Go, go!" Or perhaps he thought David Ortiz had made a much stronger play and was planning to head home with his throw. Regardless of his reasons, though, Suppan found himself the runner's equivalent of Schrödinger's cat, frozen halfway between third and home, possibly headed to either but actually standing on neither. Unfortunately for Suppan, halfway home in baseball means you're about to be a dead man. Ortiz, not exactly Kevin Youkilis at first base (but then again, back in 2004, neither was Youkilis), was still alert enough to note a stranger in a strange land, throwing the ball to Bill Mueller, who put the hapless Suppan out of his misery.
There are moments that decide every postseason series. But there are few that proclaim "It's Over" like a thousand-trumpet fanfare. This was one of those moments. Just as Suppan did, this was the moment where the Cardinals as a team seemed to give up the ghost. You could actually watch Oquendo deflate and give up on Suppan while the play—unlike Suppan—was still "alive." It was truly one of the worst mistakes ever made on the basepaths, and on one of the biggest stages to boot. As the Washington Post's Thomas Boswell memorably wrote, in one shining moment Suppan officially became "The Worst Baserunner on Earth."
Following Suppan's gift to his fellow pitcher, Martinez became, for the last time in a Boston universe, the "Pedro" we all knew and loved. For four more dazzling innings, he was the electric pitcher who baffled all those who dared to face him. He retired all twelve base runners he faced in that quartet of frames, allowing just one ball to get out of the infield, with Jim Edmonds hitting a fly ball to Johnny Damon. But there was more than that: he sent five Cardinals back to their nest (er, dugout) by way of a swinging K. It was a poignant reminder of how very good Pedro could be at his best, but also how far he had already begun to fall. What a sendout it was.
Boston's bats, in contrast, proved much more potent than the Cardinals' latter-day Murderers' Row. It seemed that Suppan's blunder caused him to check out completely of the game, succeeding neither as a pitcher nor as a hitter. While he managed to notch two outs in the fourth, including a strikeout of Jason Varitek, the wheels soon came off in the form of a double to Bill Mueller and a single to Trot Nixon which scored Mueller. The fifth was even worse for Suppan, as he opened the inning with three straight hits to the top of the Sox lineup, with the not-yet-traitorous Damon scoring on Manny Ramirez's single to left. Three batters later, Mueller would end the party with a single to right that would score Orlando Cabrera.
After the top of the eighth inning was in the books, Cardinals fans were probably salivating at the prospect of manager Terry Francona channeling his inner Grady Little and trying to coax one more inning of magic out of Martinez. However, showing the same gumption and fortitude that enabled the Sox to survive their near-death encounter the previous week, felt utterly uninclined to indulge the Cardinals' fans deluded fantasies, and instead turned to his bullpen. He also brought in his defensive brigade, replacing Ortiz, Bellhorn, and Ramirez with Gabe Kapler, Pokey Reese, and Doug Mientkiewicz. On the other hand, perhaps he felt like he wanted to play with fire at least a little, as he summoned Mike Timlin, the only regular bullpen member who had surrendered runs in the series thus far. On this Tuesday evening, though, Timlin was in full hunter mode, and bagged himself Tony Womack, Roger Cedeno, and John Mabry on consecutive groundouts.
While future Red Sox and sanitarium inmate Julian Tavarez shut down the Sox in the ninth, Sox closer Keith Foulke decided to make things "interesting" in the bottom of the ninth, surrendering a one-out homer to Larry Walker. However, that run was the classic example of "too little, too late," not even budging the Cardinals' win probability. (OK, that's not entirely accurate—it ballooned from less than one percent to a whopping two percent.) Just in case, though, Foulke slammed the door shut, getting the mighty Albert Pujols to fly out to left, and ending the game with Scott Rolen watching not only the pitch fly into Varitek's glove, but his Cardinals' chances of winning the World Series fly right along with them.
At this point, the Cardinals were done for, and not the same way the Sox were seemingly done for after Game 3 of the ALCS. This was something altogether different. This was the Cardinals' only chance to start staging their comeback. History would not be so cruel as to have two 3-0 comebacks in the same postseason—not even to the Boston Red Sox. (OK, history would do that to the Chicago Cubs. But they're the Cubbies, and well, do I need to say anything else?)
As the fans counted down the wins toward a World Series victory, it also felt like a number of other countdowns were taking place at the same time. It felt like Pedro Martinez was on his way out the door. The Idiots would win, but there would be no more Idiots in a few days. The miraculous, entertaining, historic 2004 season would be over, and something special and utterly unique would no longer be described as "is," but as "was." This would be especially true for me on a personal level: my own time in Boston was coming to an end. In a few short days, I'd no longer be a student, and I had already committed to a new job two thousand miles away. If the Sox were to win a World Series while I was a Bostonian, it was now or never.
But everyone knew the truth: the 2004 World Series was over. The only thing the Red Sox would have to do was win just one more game—for themselves, and for Red Sox Nation. And Sox fans went to sleep that night, perhaps for the first time in 86 years, confident that the win would come—most likely Wednesday night.