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An improbable rally puts an improbable season on the cusp of a championship

Posted by David D'Onofrio  October 29, 2013 06:17 AM

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When the greatest ever to play his position -- on this planet or any other -- is batting .733 on baseball's biggest stage, and when a pitcher twice outduels another of the game's elite with the two best starts of an already stellar postseason career, it commands attention.

In fact, if the Red Sox can complete this beyond-words odyssey with one more magical victory, nobody will object if it's decided that David Ortiz and Jon Lester should share the honors as World Series MVP. No New England sports fan will soon forget what the slugger has done through this series, or what the southpaw did in Game 5, particularly if millions are watching as the duck boats roll through downtown Boston this weekend.

But it shouldn't be forgotten, either, that with the World Series tied at two games apiece, and Game 5 tied at one in the top of the seventh, both Ortiz's RBI double and Lester's 23 outs of one-run ball might've easily gone to waste if it hadn't been for the impressive -- and, frankly, improbable -- rally put together by a bottom of the Boston lineup that had to that point been mostly miserable over the course of this best-of-seven.

That it began with Xander Bogaerts isn't entirely surprising -- beyond the fact that he began the season as a 20-year-old shortstop at Double-A, and is now the 21-year-old third baseman for the American League champs. He's struck out a bunch against St. Louis, but his bouncer through the middle was at that point his fifth hit in his last 10 at-bats, and his second of the night against Cardinals' ace Adam Wainwright.

Rather, the unforeseen really began when the rookie got to first, and Stephen Drew stepped into the box lugging with him the frustrations of a 4-for-49 slump. Dating back to the fourth game of the ALCS he had just one hit in 25 at-bats, that coming when the Cardinals' failure to communicate allowed a hapless fly ball to fall in front of the mound. and it had been 36 plate appearances since he worked a walk.

St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright hadn't walked anyone, his command consistent with numbers that showed him having allowing fewer walks per nine innings than all but two qualifying pitchers in the major leagues this season. And so once Drew took a strike, then fouled off a cut fastball to leave the battle a ball and two strikes, it looked as though Wainwright had the shortstop right where he wanted him.

Drew was a below-average hitter against curveballs this season, while the statistics say Wainwright has the second-best curveball in all of baseball -- and, regardless of the pitch type, only a couple starting pitchers in all the bigs entice more batters to swing at balls outside the strike zone. Once he missed his chance to hit the cutter, and got behind in the count, Drew looked like a sitting duck given his struggles of late.

His chances didn't seem much better when he laid off Wainwright's wicked curve to pull even, or, really, when he laid off another hook to run the count full. Plate discipline had not been a particular strength while striking out in 16 of his previous 33 at-bats -- yet when Wainwright called upon Uncle Charlie again with the count at 3-and-2, Drew left the bat on his shoulder as the ball broke down and away, laying off the pitch that had got him punched out just five innings earlier, and taking first base.

That brought David Ross to the plate with men on first and second, and with a lot of responsibility if the Red Sox were to seize this opportunity against a pitcher who typically gets tougher to hit as the game gets later. Lester was on deck, and the bullpen was quiet.

After two nights of heavily taxing his relief corps, and with the cruising lefty still at a low pitch count, Farrell had decided to leave he'd remain on the mound. Even if it meant a guy who's never had a hit in the major leagues would have to bat. If Ross made an out, then, the runners would most likely both be stranded. And his battle with Wainwright didn't start well. Like Drew, Ross fell behind 1-and-2.

During the regular season, Ross hit .077 whenever the count reached that point, and .135 with two strikes in general. Wainwright allowed opponents a .176 average after the count got to 1-and-2, and .159 with two strikes. Again, advantage Cardinals.

Again, Wainwright went to his devastating curveball.

And again, the Red Sox were ready for it. Ross stayed back just long enough that he kept fair a line drive he yanked down the left field line, and as it took a big hop into the seats Bogaerts was granted home. Boston had a lead, plus two more runners in scoring position, at second and third.

"I always defer to my teammates," Ross said. "Xander Bogaerts is maybe one of the best young players I've seen, the professional at‑bats he's thrown on this stage, it boggles my mind. What I would be doing as a 21‑year‑old in the World Series, I can't even ‑‑ I would be in awe. And that guy is having great at‑bats. Adam Wainwright is one of the best pitchers in baseball, and what a great at‑bat he was having.

"And Dirt has been scuffling a little bit. Got a really good at‑bat from him to walk, and just I think a little back‑up curveball that I hit down the line. That felt really good."

That made Farrell's decision to let Lester hit for himself a little more palatable, and although Wainwright did his job by retiring his counterpart, Jacoby Ellsbury then further diminished the chance the Sox would come to regret the choice not to reach for the throat by pinch-hitting for the pitcher.

Only 18 of 78 hitters Wainwright faced after throwing his 100th pitch reached base this season, and to that point Ellsbury was 3-for-19 in the series, having struck out in three of his four previous at-bats against the Cards' ace. But he took an aggressive cut at an 0-1 fastball the pitcher left elevated, and served Wainwright's 107th pitch into center.

Drew scored without a problem, and though Ross was thrown out at the plate trying to come all the way around from second, the Sox had a 3-1 lead. Nine outs later that would be good enough for a 3-2 advantage in the series. And now the Sox head home needing to win one of two at Fenway Park to be crowned as World Series champions.

Thanks to Ortiz, Lester -- and a cast of heroes as unlikely as this whole run has been from the beginning.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Dave D'Onofrio is a sports journalist who focuses on the Red Sox and Patriots, and also writes's "Off The Field" blog about what Boston's sportsmen do away from the More »

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