Red Sox comeback: Greatest ever?

Their rally from 7-0 down in the seventh was for the ages -- it just wasn't for the fools who left Fenway early.

Published October 17, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

Never leave a playoff game early. We've talked about this before, people.

Even with the Tampa Bay Rays leading 7-0 in the seventh inning Thursday night, that was my first thought as Boston Red Sox fans started filing out of Fenway Park: If the Sox pull off a comeback, it's going to be one of the greatest comebacks of all time, and all these idiots are going to miss it.

It was -- it may have been the greatest postseason comeback of all time -- and all those people who left and didn't find their way back in, well, here's hoping that whatever they were rushing off to was as diverting as one of the greatest rallies in baseball history. Those tickets were probably cheap anyway, right?

A comeback did seem like a pretty remote possibility at the time, but that's the point. Every historic, amazing, improbable comeback seems like a remote possibility before it happens. That's what makes them historic and amazing. There's no such thing as an improbable comeback that everybody knew was coming.

The Rays were seven outs away from the World Series Thursday, leading the American League Championship Series three games to one and leading Game 5 by that 7-0 score with two outs in the Red Sox seventh. Scott Kazmir, manager Joe Maddon's controversial choice to start the game over James Shields, had tossed six shutout innings. Now the bullpen was in and everything was about to go north.

With runners at the corners, Dustin Pedroia singled in a run off the Rays' first reliever, Grant Balfour, and then David Ortiz, mired in a terrible slump, homered. That still left the Rays up 7-4, but it brought the ballpark back to life. Dan Wheeler, who hadn't pitched since going three and a third innings on Saturday, came in to get Kevin Youkilis to fly out, but it would turn out he didn't have much.

In the eighth -- as the departed fans began cooking up their stories about how they'd made their way back into the yard -- Wheeler walked Jason Bay and then gave up a two-run homer to J.D. Drew. That made it 7-6, and while the Boston comeback hadn't yet been completed, it now seemed not just possible but probable that they'd win.

After Wheeler got two outs, Mark Kotsay hit a double to deepest center field. The ball glanced off B.J. Upton's glove. He plays a shallow center field and hadn't positioned himself deeper as a concession to the game situation. With one more step he'd have made the catch and sent the game to the ninth with the Rays up by one.

Didn't matter. The Sox were by this time operating in the realm of inevitability. Coco Crisp battled for a run-scoring single to right. Game tied. Matter of time. What was so interesting outside Fenway again?

The Rays mounted a two on, one out threat in the ninth against Justin Masterson, who had come on in relief of Jonathan Papelbon. Red Sox manager Terry Francona had brought Papelbon in as a desperation move in the top of the seventh with two on, none out and the Rays up 5-0. Papelbon allowed the inherited runners to score on Upton's pop-fly double off the Green Monster scoreboard, but then pitched a typically dominant eighth after Ortiz had gotten the Sox close.

Now the Rays had their two biggest hitters, Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria, coming up, but the rally died when Pena hit into a double play.

J.P. Howell pitched the ninth for the Rays, and he got the job done, but a throwing error by Longoria on what should have been the third out put Youkilis on second. Howell intentionally walked Jason Bay to set up the force. Drew drove a ball over Gabe Gross' head in right, and that was the ballgame.

An argument really could be made that it was the greatest comeback in history.

The seven-run deficit the Sox overcame has been topped only once, in Game 4 of the 1929 World Series, when the Philadelphia A's rallied from 8-0 down to the Chicago Cubs by scoring 10 runs in the bottom of the seventh inning, winning 10-8.

But Philadelphia was already leading that series 2-1. Losing that game only would have brought the Cubs even. The Red Sox were not only down by seven in the seventh inning, they were also down 3-1 in the series, seven outs from their season ending.

On the other hand, the A's comeback gets credit for happening in the World Series. Enough to make up for the A's not being on the verge of series defeat? Discuss.

If you have tickets to Game 6 Saturday night in St. Petersburg, Shields vs. the possibly injured Josh Beckett, you might discuss it in your seats, especially if the game seems to be out of hand in the late innings.

Just whatever you do: Don't leave early.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

MORE FROM King Kaufman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------