He had not been in this situation before. No one ever had, in fact. Not in 96 previous World Series.
Game 7 of World Series, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, tie game, one out, the game's premier closer on the mound.
This is exactly where Luis Gonzalez of the Arizona Diamondbacks found himself on November 4, 2001, with the baseball world's spotlight shining right down on him.
As Gonzalez walked to the plate to face Mariano Rivera, trying to beat a team which had won three straight World Series championships, his mind was a blur. But he quickly gained the clarity to think to himself, "Choke up."
This concept was totally unfamiliar to Gonzalez, who had hammered the staggering total of 57 home runs during the season. "It was the first time I choked up all year," he would later admit to the media.
Considering Rivera's stuff -- a vicious, nasty cut fastball -- and the nature of the situation, Gonzalez's call to choke up illustrated his baseball intelligence and experience.
The crowd at Bank One Ballpark is in a nervous frenzy for the bottom of the ninth inning. A team from Arizona has never been this close to professional championship, but on the mound is the impenetrable Rivera, who has registered 23 successive postseason saves and never blown a save in the World Series. Rivera blew out all three Diamondbacks that he faced in the bottom of the eighth, protecting New York's 2-1 lead, setting the stage for the ninth -- and final -- inning of this epic World Series and classic Game 7 that began with Roger Clemens dueling Curt Schilling.
"When we all reached the dugout [for the bottom of the ninth], we all said, 'Believe. You gotta believe!'" Arizona first baseman Mark Grace would say later. "And we did believe. We knew we could win. We had come too far. We weren't going to walk away without the fight of our lives, without scrapping and clawing for as long as we could. All we had to do was put together a few quality ABs."
That they did, starting with Grace. The last of the ninth begins with Grace looking at ball one. On the next pitch, Rivera throws one of his trademark cutters. Grace, who had waited 14 years to get into a World Series after spending his career with the Chicago Cubs, fights off the pitch and loops it into center field for a single. David Dellucci is sent in to run for Grace. Damian Miller then lays down a bunt -- right in front of the mound. Rivera fields the ball and spins around. He sees he has Dellucci dead at second base. This could actually be a double play because Miller is slow. But Rivera's throw sails wildly past shortstop Derek Jeter and into center field..
Instead of being an out away from elimination with no one on base, the Diamondbacks have runners on first and second and no outs. Bank One is rocking -- and the Yankees are reeling. Never did they ever consider that they'd be in this position. Not with Rivera on the hill. "Losing never entered our minds," Jeter would say later. "Not for a second." Not until Rivera commits that throwing error. But the Yankees' ace closer comes back by fielding a second straight bunt, this one by Jay Bell, into an out at third base, leaving the Yankees two outs away from a fourth straight World Series championship.
Next up is Tony Womack, who had kept the Diamondbacks' postseason alive with a game-winning hit in Game 5 of the National League Division Series against St. Louis. He does it again, lacing a 2-2 pitch for a double down the right-field line to tie the game. Bank One is simply delirious as Craig Counsell steps to the plate. Shockingly, Rivera hits Counsell with a pitch, sending the crowd into a wilder frenzy. The bases are now juiced for the team's best hitter.
The electricity in the stadium is off the charts as Gonzalez fouls off the first pitch. The next pitch is a classic Rivera cutter, veering in on Gonzalez's hands. He swings, cracking the bat, just below the trademark. "I got jammed, but I knew I didn't have to hit it hard," Gonzalez says. "I knew I just had to hit the ball in play."
The ball floats toward shortstop, spinning in the air, like a cue shot, and away from a backpeddling Jeter, who was playing in to cut off the run at the plate. As Gonzalez runs toward first base, Jeter races back and lunges in vain as the ball floats over him and lands on the lip of the outfield grass. Bell -- the first free agent signed in Diamondbacks history -- races across the plate with the Series-winning run as absolute bedlam breaks loose on the field and in the stands.
"Not a day has passed that I haven't thought about it," Gonzalez says today. "Not one. And not a day has passed that I haven't thought about how fortunate I was to be in that position, how fortunate we all were. It was so wonderful to be a part of that. It's one of those moments where the memory never fades away."