In a classic, Sox remain standing

OAKLAND, Calif. -- OK, everyone. You can breathe again.

What a series. Three games were decided by one run, three were won in a team's final at-bat and two went into extra innings. One ended on a bunt that rolled 70 feet and another ended on a home run that sailed more than 400. There was a barroom fight in Boston and a heavyweight matchup of Cy Young winners Pedro Martinez and Barry Zito in Game 5.

And the Red Sox-Athletics Division Series wasn't over until everyone who had spent Game 5 on the edge of their seats had risen not only to their feet, but to their tiptoes. Well, not everyone. Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon was lying on his back in the hospital after being knocked unconscious in a seventh inning collision.

Of course, he wasn't the only one who probably needed medical attention when the game and the series all came down to the bottom of the ninth with two outs, the bases loaded, Boston clinging to a 4-3 lead, Derek Lowe on the mound, pinch-hitter Terrence Long at the plate and the entire Oakland Coliseum crowd in dire need of an oxygen tank.

Make that an oxygen tank or a bed pan.

A series so nerve-wracking and dramatic that Theo Epstein must feel like the oldest general manager in baseball when Lowe froze Long with a front door slider for strike three to preserve Boston's 4-3 victory. Just when it seemed this series would go on forever (and isn't it a shame it couldn't?), it was suddenly over, with Long and everyone else looking for more.

The Athletics had choked again and the history-shackled Red Sox had pulled off one of the great comebacks in recent postseason history. While Oakland's clubhouse turned into a funeral parlor, Boston's quickly resembled open bar night at the Kennedy compound.

"It's impossible to feel drained as a player in the postseason,'' Boston backup catcher Doug Mirabelli said wading through the empties. "You feel drained before the game and drained after the game but when the game is on and the bell rings, you're ready to go.''

Oh, they'll be ready. No doubt about it. The question is how far can they go.

Martinez won't be able to pitch until Game 3 of the ALCS. Lowe pitched three times, twice in relief, and will start Game 2 Thursday on two days' rest for the second time in a week. Closer Byung-Hyun Kim has a sore shoulder and may not pitch again this season. Damon spent Monday night in the hospital with a concussion (he's supposed to be all right). The Red Sox have made three cross-country flights in the past five days, including two since Sunday afternoon. Wednesday they'll head into Yankee Stadium against their age-old nemesis. And the Yankees are not only rested, they're ... well, the Yankees.

So obviously, the Red Sox have no chance, none whatsoever. Just as they had no chance after they left Oakland last week trailing two games to none. Instead they rallied to win Game 3 on Trot Nixon's 11th inning home run, rallied to win Game 4 on David Ortiz's two-run double and rallied to win Game 5 when Manny Ramirez finally broke out with a three-run homer off Zito in the sixth to put Boston up 4-1.

"This team doesn't panic,'' catcher Jason Varitek said. "This team has proved all year that we don't panic. That's why we're standing here now.''

And the Athletics are standing in an all too familiar spot, wondering how they can win so many games in the regular season (no one has won more over the past four years) and so few in the postseason.

The Athletics have lost their past nine games in which they had a chance to win a series, twice blowing a 2-0 series lead. A frustrated general manager Billy Beane blamed it on money -- "You give me another $50 million and we'll finish off that 2-0 lead,'' he snapped at reporters -- but it mostly comes down to inexcusably poor fundamentals.

Beane can complain about budget limitations and Miguel Tejada can complain about the obstruction call that wasn't, but the main thing obstructing an Oakland victory was the worst baserunning in the league. They squandered two runs that would have made all the difference in Game 3 and screwed up again in Game 5 when Jose Guillen made the final out of the fourth inning trying to stretch a double into a triple. That's not just bad, it's embarrassing.

Manager Ken Macha also made an interesting move with one out and runners on second and third in the fateful ninth inning Monday when he lifted veteran Jermaine Dye, the highest paid player on the team by far, for career minor leaguer Adam Melhuse -- even though Boston manager Grady Little had already indicated he was going to intentionally walk Dye to load the bases. Melhuse struck out looking and one batter later Lowe struck out Long.

Thus, the season ended this way for the Moneyball Athletics. A team that achieves much of its regular season success by taking pitches and emphasizing on-base percentage could manage only three walks and no runs in the ninth inning when it needed just one run to stay alive.

The Red Sox also follow the Athletics offense strategy; the difference is Boston also has the money to load their lineup with high-salaried bashers like Ramirez. He didn't drive in a run in the series until he took a rapidly tiring Zito deep with two on and one out in the sixth. There was no Carlton Fisk dance for this dramatic blast -- he simply walked slowly down the line until the ball cleared the wall, then broke into a slow trot.

With Martinez pitching, a 4-1 lead seemed pretty safe but Oakland scratched back. The Athletics scored a run in the bottom of the sixth and another in the eighth to set up the dramatic ninth. Scott Williamson took the mound and promptly walked the first two batters to send Boston fans into agony with visions of the 1986 World Series.

Not to fear. Lowe came in and this time, the Red Sox got the final strike. This time the Red Sox got the final out. This time, the Red Sox won their classic series.

And in case you somehow missed it, don't worry. It's going directly to ESPN Classic.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.