A Wild And Weird Baseball Post-Season
JACKI LYDEN, host:
In St. Petersburg, Florida, tonight, high baseball drama. On the brink of elimination for the last three days, the Boston Red Sox suddenly are one win away from playing in another World Series. Their opponents, the young and powerful Tampa Bay Rays, suddenly seem vulnerable. Last night, the Red Sox beat the Rays four to two to even the American League Championship Series at three games apiece. So that means that tonight is the decisive game seven. And joining me to talk about it is NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Hey there, Tom.
TOM GOLDMAN: Hi, Jacki.
LYDEN: So take us back to Thursday night. In case people didn't see it, the series seemed over and done for. What happened?
GOLDMAN: Yeah, late Thursday, at that, the Rays were leading seven to nothing in the seventh inning needing just seven outs to earn their first World Series appearance. We see a pattern here, lots of sevens. And then the wheels came off, what is now officially part of Red Sox lore. Boston roared back with eight runs over the final three innings, and it was the biggest playoff comeback win in 79 years.
Now, the Rays hoped that the trip from Boston back to Florida and a day off would have killed the Red Sox momentum. But, no, last night Josh Beckett, the Red Sox ace pitcher, looked like the ace of old. And he controlled the Tampa Bay hitters the way he hadn't earlier in the series. And in his defense, he'd been dealing with an injury. And then Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, who'd been ice-cold at the plate, hit a tie-breaking homerun in the sixth inning to put Boston ahead for good.
LYDEN: Well, the Boston Red Sox are vaunted, of course. But how can they just flip a switch like that?
GOLDMAN: Well, a combination of a few things. You don't give up, which, of course, is the oldest sports cliche, but it really does matter. Not surprisingly, the guy who started the turnaround was the diminutive second baseman Dustin Pedroia who - more sports cliches here - is scrappy and tenacious. And his single Thursday night that drove in the Red Sox's first run in that remarkable comeback, that was like the first domino. And then, as the dominos started to fall, the Red Sox also had history to draw on.
Now, you may remember that in 2004 they were down three to nothing to the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series. Then they won four straight. Last season, they were down three to one to Cleveland in the American League Championship Series. They won three straight. And so their collective muscle memory allows them to play good, focused baseball when they absolutely have to. The Red Sox record when facing elimination games under their current manager, Terry Francona: nine wins, no losses.
LYDEN: So, that has to be on the minds of these young Tampa Bay ballplayers.
GOLDMAN: You would think so. They'll never say that publicly, though. But, you know, Jacki, if they look to their history for help, they're not going to find any help there. The Rays' short 10-year history is one of losing and hapless baseball, and that's what made their success story this season so good. So if they start to get the uh-ohs and think of themselves as the pre-2008 Rays, they'll be in trouble. And this is the challenge for Joe Maddon. He's their interesting renaissance-man-type manager. He's a very positive guy, and he really connects with his players. Here's what he said after last night's loss.
Mr. JOE MADDON (Manager, Tampa Bay Rays): It's all about how we react to the moment. And, you know, it's a seventh game, and this is a great learning experience for us. To win that game would be something special for us also. So, it's not about looking in the past. It's about looking into the future right now.
GOLDMAN: And we'll see if that pays off tonight.
LYDEN: Just quickly, Tom, over in the National League, waiting for all this drama to end are the Philadelphia Phillies. Who do you think they're rooting for?
GOLDMAN: I would think Tampa Bay, because in 2004 and 2007, when the Red Sox staged those memorable comebacks, they made mincemeat of the National League opponents in the World Series. So in '04, Boston swept the St. Louis Cardinals in four straight games. Last year, the same thing with the Colorado Rockies. So, the Phillies are very aware of what Boston does after these great comebacks.
LYDEN: NPR's Tom Goldman. Thanks, Tom.
GOLDMAN: You're welcome, Jacki.