ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.
Once the dust settled early Friday morning at Fenway Park - when the last Red Sox player boarded the team bus for an unlikely flight to Tampa, when the last Boston fan had finally decided to go home, and when the magnitude of the greatest comeback in 79 years of postseason baseball became clear - one thought came to mind.
Can the Tampa Bay Rays somehow recover from this and still win the pennant, or has the American League Championship Series swung in the Red Sox’s favor?
For those who witnessed Boston’s stunning - and really, there’s no other way to describe it - comeback from a 7-0 deficit in the seventh inning of an elimination game to an 8-7 victory, it’s almost impossible to believe the Red Sox won’t win Games 6 and 7 and make another trip to the World Series.
How could any team recover from a collapse like this, let alone an inexperienced team that is making its first postseason appearance? Surely the mental and emotional toll of such a turnaround is too much to overcome.
Good luck convincing the Rays of that.
“I feel good,” manager Joe Maddon insisted Friday at Tropicana Field. “I mean, our guys … if you walked around the clubhouse last night, for those of you that were there, you saw how they handled it.”
Indeed, the Rays were stoic and confident in the wake of a potentially crushing loss. Players focused on the fact they still hold a 3-2 series lead, that they dominated the Red Sox at Fenway for 24 innings over three games before the meltdown, that they still have two chances to close this out at home.
“You know, [Thursday] night’s game was a washout as far as we’re concerned,” said right-hander James Shields, who will start Game 6. “We’re still up 3-2. We’re still in good shape.”
There has been plenty of talk in the last 48 hours about the Red Sox and how their history of pulling off these kinds of comebacks helps make another one more plausible.
But take a look at other comparable moments in recent postseason history, and a somewhat surprising pattern emerges: Teams that suffer devastating losses in the middle of series often come back to win in the end.
Let’s begin with the 2005 NLCS between the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals. Houston was one out from locking up the first pennant in franchise history when closer Brad Lidge (now pitching for the current NL champion Philadelphia Phillies) surrendered a colossal ninth-inning home run to Albert Pujols that forced the series back to St. Louis.
How did the Astros respond? By seizing Game 6 and advancing to the World Series after all. Obviously there was no carry-over from the blown chance in Game 5.
Now think back to the memorable 2001 World Series, in which the New York Yankees twice rallied in the bottom of the ninth to beat Byung-Hyun Kim and the Arizona Diamondbacks and take a 3-2 series lead back to the desert.
Everyone said the Diamondbacks would never recover from back-to-back collapses like that. But what happened? Arizona steamrolled the Yankees in Game 6 15-2 and then staged its own ninth-inning rally for the ages against Mariano Rivera in perhaps the greatest Game 7 ever played.
So history would suggest the Rays won’t have a tough time bouncing back Saturday night.
There is, however, one key factor to point out about those two previous examples: who was on the mound for the eventual winning teams in those crucial games. The 2005 Astros had Roy Oswalt. The 2001 Diamondbacks had Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.
Maybe the old baseball saying is true: Momentum is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher.
Which means the pressure Saturday night surely will be on Shields, a man whose penchant for coming up large in tight spots has earned him the nickname “Big Game James.” But does he deserve to be included in the same breath as Oswalt, Johnson and Schilling? No way, at least not at this early stage of his career.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox will send their two best pitchers to the mound for Game 6 and a possible Game 7 on Sunday: Josh Beckett and Jon Lester.
Beckett, despite his recent struggles while battling an oblique injury, is merely the best postseason pitcher of this decade. Lester, despite getting roughed up by Tampa Bay in Game 2, only won last year’s World Series clincher and posted 16 consecutive scoreless innings earlier this month.
So perhaps it won’t be as easy for the Rays to recapture momentum.
Either way, it’s going to make for fascinating drama this weekend. Either the Rays are going to shrug off a collapse of epic proportions and deliver the final knockout punch to the defending champs. Or they’re going to crumble under the pressure and go down as one of the biggest choke artists in baseball history.
Amazing what three innings of pure madness can do to alter the course of one October.