What if … Little had gone to his bullpen earlier?

GAME 7, 2003 ALCS

What happened: After seven innings, Pedro Martinez and the Red Sox owned a 5-2 lead over the Yankees. Martinez had pitched well, but he'd also thrown 21 pitches in a shaky seventh inning, and 100 pitches in the game. All season long, manager Grady Little had usually pulled Martinez when he was around 100 pitches; when Pedro had been allowed to throw many more than 100 pitches, he hadn't fared well. But in the top of the eighth, David Ortiz homered to give the Red Sox a three-run lead.

Blessed with that big lead, Little sent Martinez to the mound for one more inning. After a seven-pitch out, Martinez, on his 110th pitch, gave up a double to Derek Jeter. On Martinez's 115th pitch, Bernie Williams plated Jeter with a single to center field. Little visited the mound … and stuck with his starter. On Martinez's 118th pitch, Hideki Matsui bounced one over the right-field fence for an automatic double. Still Little didn't make a move. And on Pedro Martinez's 123rd pitch, Jorge Posada dropped a pop fly into no-man's-land in center field, both runners scoring to tie the game.

But what if … Little had turned to his bullpen earlier?

The Red Sox almost certainly would have won. The top three Red Sox relievers -- Mike Timlin, Scott Williamson and Alan Embree -- had pitched well during the season, and brilliantly during the postseason. Later, Little supposedly told people in the organization he hadn't trusted his relievers "to keep their nerves under control in such a pressurized spot." But they'd already pitched well in pressurized spots, and Embree and Timlin pitched well again after finally getting into Game 7. There's simply no reason to think that trio wouldn't have protected a three-run lead for two innings.

And if it had? The Red Sox would have advanced to the World Series. And win or lose -- the Yankees lost to the Marlins in six games -- it's virtually certain that Grady Little would not have been fired … and so Terry Francona would not have been hired.

Would the Red Sox have won the World Series in 2004 with Little rather than Francona? Would they have won another in 2007? This falls under the heading, "Unknowable." But in Francona's five years, the Red Sox have averaged 94 wins per season and won two World Series. It's hard to imagine them doing better than that, under another manager. Perhaps Grady Little's terribly unfortunate decision in 2003 was the best thing that ever happened to the Red Sox.