Red Sox pull off a magical comeback victory

BOSTON -- The Boston Red Sox have pulled off this type of baseball miracle before, thanks to Dave Roberts' legs and Bill Mueller's bat and David Ortiz's power and heart. They've done it against the likes of Mariano Rivera and CC Sabathia. So when they found themselves trailing 7-0 in the seventh inning against Tampa Bay with the season about to expire, they had a wellspring of positive experiences to tap into.

As catcher Jason Varitek so aptly put it, "You can't take away belief."

So here are a few things to believe after Boston pulled off the second-biggest postseason comeback in major league history:

  • You finish off defending champions when you have a foot on their throat, because hope leads to momentum, and momentum becomes contagious in the dugout, and who knows what can happen when a team starts grinding out a few marathon at-bats?

  • When some Boston die-hards joked that the Red Sox had the Rays right where they wanted them trailing 3-1 in the American League Championship Series, it might not have just been idle talk borne out of desperation.

  • Contrary to all logic, the ALCS will resume with a Game 6 Saturday night at Tropicana Field, when Tampa Bay's James Shields takes on Boston's Josh Beckett. If Game 5 is any indication, they might want to keep the defibrillators handy.

It was slightly past midnight when J.D. Drew singled over right fielder Gabe Gross' head to score Kevin Youkilis, giving Boston an 8-7 victory and setting off the biggest celebration imaginable without champagne corks popping or Jonathan Papelbon dancing in his underwear. The Red Sox, who had looked flat, outmanned and almost bereft of energy, had just chopped their way out of the coffin, Uma Thurman-style.

In the clubhouse after the game, some players sounded eerily like Jack Buck in the aftermath of that Kirk Gibson home run: They couldn't believe what they just saw.

"I don't think we can grasp the magnitude of what just happened yet," said left fielder Jason Bay. "I don't want to say [the Rays] had already written our ticket home. But it was definitely one of the more viable options."

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the only larger comeback in baseball history came in Game 4 of the 1929 World Series, when the Philadelphia Athletics beat the Chicago Cubs 10-8 after trailing 8-0. Jimmy Dykes was the hitting star in that game, and Lefty Grove nailed it down for the A's with two innings of shutout relief.

No offense to Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler and J.P. Howell, but they're no Lefty Grove.

For six innings and well over two hours, the Red Sox's performance was an invitation for a scathing postmortem. Boston's leadoff hitters went hitless in their first 21 at bats in this series, Ortiz looked lost at the plate, and the offense seemed far too dependent on Dustin Pedroia, Youkilis and Bay.

When Daisuke Matsuzaka departed in the fifth inning, the Red Sox trailed 5-0, and Boston's starting pitchers had an aggregate 8.37 ERA for the series. When Tampa Bay increased its lead to 7-0 on a B.J. Upton double, TBS reporter Craig Sager was cool with tracking down former Tampa Bay general manager (and current Philadelphia scout) Chuck LaMar in the stands for a preview of the upcoming Phillies-Rays World Series.

Not so fast. It all turned around thanks to some questionable bullpen strategy by Rays manager Joe Maddon and a timely revival by Big Papi.

It's no secret that Ortiz has been feeling some heat of late. He made some comments earlier in the series to suggest that he wasn't entirely to blame for Boston's problems against Tampa Bay, and some people might have perceived that as an indirect form of buck-passing. But apparently not the people whose opinions he values most.

"It's not an easy job to be the guy that everybody leans on, especially in times like this," said Boston hitting coach Dave Magadan. "But he's come through so many times in his career, it's only natural for us to look to him to get us going. He's man enough to take it, and he's not going to point any fingers."

As Boston manager Terry Francona likes to point out, Ortiz is always one swing away from being a major factor in a game. On this night, that single swing came in the bottom of the seventh inning.

With two outs, Boston had a run home and two men on base when Ortiz stepped to the plate with a chance to make it a game. Rather than summon Trever Miller or Howell, lefties who had combined to hold Ortiz to two singles in 20 career at-bats, Maddon stuck with Balfour, his designated strikeout guy. But Balfour, ineffective in Game 2, was even worse Thursday night.

Ortiz, who had been lunging at everything and consistently popping up hittable pitches, drove a 97 mph Balfour fastball into the right-field stands to pull Boston within 7-4, and a dormant Fenway Park crowd began stirring in a big way. The home run broke a streak of 15 postseason games and 61 October at-bats without a long ball for Ortiz.

"We started with a whole 'one pitch at a time' mindset. Just win that pitch," said Coco Crisp. "Then things started to get going for us. And the feeling that 'we can do this' came along with it."

After Drew hit a two-run shot off Wheeler to pull Boston within 7-6 in the eighth, Crisp made a huge contribution to the comeback. With Mark Kotsay on second base, Crisp fought through a 10-pitch at-bat against Wheeler that brought to mind Paul O'Neill's classic confrontation with Armando Benitez in the 2000 World Series.

Crisp fouled off fastball after high fastball before turning on some hard stuff on the inner half of the plate and singling home Kotsay to tie it. Francona, in hindsight, called it the best at-bat that Crisp has had in three seasons with the Red Sox. It was hard to argue given the situation and the stakes.

"Coco's worked hard on changing his swing path a little bit -- staying inside the ball from both sides of the plate -- and giving himself a chance on that high fastball," said Magadan. "He doesn't feel like he's got to cheat on everything now. It was a thing of beauty."

Almost as pretty as Drew's game-winner. The old perception of Drew -- that he's too lacking in passion to fit into the fabric of baseball-mad Boston -- is looking more detached from reality with every big hit he produces.

And for what it's worth, Ortiz is certainly feeling a lot better about himself today. After the game, he was ready to tell anyone who would listen that Big Papi isn't going anywhere.

"Look at my size, man. It don't matter if I hit or not -- I'm gonna be the same guy," Ortiz said. "The problem with this game is, sometimes people kind of forget about things. I'm part of the soul of this ballclub. It don't matter what people say. I'm gonna keep on trying."

It remains to be seen if the Red Sox can turn one memorable night into something more enduring, or crank up the heat on the Rays enough to make them crack at Tropicana Field this weekend. But Francona, who has seen enough of these celebrations not to get carried away, didn't hesitate to call the evening "magical."

"I've never seen a group so happy to get on a plane at 1:30 in the morning in my life," Francona said.

At least, we think it was a plane. Based on the way this one ended, the Red Sox might have chartered a magic carpet back to Tampa.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.