Such sweet relief, this atmosphere of giddiness that enveloped the Fens last night after the steady drumbeat of gloom and despair that has echoed throughout the ancient ballpark in recent days. There were ovations, loud and long, for all the familiar faces back on the field after extended absences due to injury: the captain, Jason Varitek; the dirt dog, Trot Nixon; and the silent slugger, Manny Ramírez, who in a departure from tradition was the last player to jog out to his position instead of the first.
And in the end, there was jubilation, as Carlos Peña, in one of those truth-beats-fiction-every-time moments, did something he imagined doing many times while growing up in Haverhill -- hitting a game-winning home run for the Olde Towne Team. Last night, leading off the bottom of the 10th, Peña connected off Chicago reliever Brandon McCarthy, driving a ball deep into the right-field seats to lift the Red Sox to a 3-2 win over the White Sox before the usual sellout crowd of 36,206 on Yawkey Way.
``They were telling me that my rib cage would hurt because they were punching me so hard, but it doesn't hurt at all," said Peña, who entered the game in the ninth as a defensive replacement because first baseman Kevin Youkilis was hit in the hand by a pitch in the eighth, then found himself at the vortex of a home-plate scrum that had all but disappeared from the local landscape. ``So that just tells you right there. I didn't feel anything. Definitely the most exciting moment in my whole entire career."
It was the fifth walkoff home run of the season for the Red Sox and the first home run of any kind in a Boston uniform for Peña, who until last month was languishing in the minors, playing for the Yankees' Triple A team. The win went to Mike Timlin, who worked a scoreless 10th after Javier Lopez, the lefty just summoned back from Pawtucket, gave the Red Sox four outs.
``No one in this clubhouse has given up yet," said third baseman Mike Lowell, whose ninth-inning double off White Sox closer Bobby Jenks scored Ramírez, who had drawn a leadoff walk and moved to second on an infield out, and sent the game into extra innings with the score tied at 2.
Jenks's blown save was just his third in 42 chances this season.
``The numbers don't look too good for us, but stranger things have happened," Lowell said. ``So we're going to keep grinding it out. Hopefully tomorrow is a better day and hopefully we get David [Ortiz] back in the lineup, and that could be another boost."
Absent at the start of the night was the tension that customarily comes with the price of admission here on Labor Day, the traditional starting date of baseball's stretch run. Only an extreme optimist -- or Julian Tavarez -- was giving the Red Sox much of a chance to reenter the playoff picture. Even after last night's win, with 24 games to play, the Red Sox are 10 games behind the Yankees in the loss column in the AL East, and trail both the Twins (6 games) and White Sox (5 1/2) in the wild card.
But Tavarez, the accidental starter with Curt Schilling on the shelf with a strained side muscle, pitched as if October were hanging in the balance for both teams, in a splendidly played game in which 35 players took part, 18 for the Red Sox.
For six innings, Tavarez shut out the White Sox. He struck out the side in the first inning, sprinted across the first-base bag after gloving A.J. Pierzynski's roller in the fifth, and induced two double plays, exhorting his fielders by pointing dramatically at the bag where he wanted the ball thrown.
Tavarez was gesturing even when there were no runners on base.
``He was saying the whole time, `1, 1, 1,' " Lowell said. ``I said, `Where else am I going to throw it to, second?' Hey, he's in his own world sometimes, but that's a good thing."
Never mind, Tavarez was on a roll, no more so than in the sixth, when he set down the White Sox on just three pitches, starting an inning-ending double play himself.
Who could blame manager Terry Francona for being seduced into running Tavarez out there for another inning, given the alternatives he's had in recent weeks? But it backfired. White Sox strongman Jim Thome swatted a Tavarez sinker over the wall in left to tie the score at 1, and Paul Konerko followed with another opposite-field hit, a double, that finally forced Francona's hand with one out in the seventh.
Tavarez's replacement, Manny Delcarmen, was spared momentarily when Youkilis made a terrific diving stop of Pierzynski's smash, a certain base hit, but then Joe Crede lined a single in front of Gabe Kapler in center, Konerko scored, and the White Sox led, 2-1.
``I never thought Tavarez was going to pitch that well," said White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, whose own starter, Jon Garland, set down 13 in a row before singles by Youkilis and Mark Loretta led to the game's first run in the sixth, which Nixon brought home with a soft single just over the head of second baseman Tadahito Iguchi.
Guillen, whose team has now lost four of its last five games and dropped 5 1/2 games behind Detroit in the AL Central, was left to worry about the condition of MVP candidate Jermaine Dye, the White Sox right fielder who left the game with tightness in his back. Guillen has already ruled out Dye playing tonight.
Meanwhile, the Sox' MVP candidate, Ortiz, was beseeching Francona to let him pinch hit rather than wait for the final medical green light that is expected to come today.
``One thing I told [Ortiz] was that for you to go up there for one at-bat, you have to put some cleats on, put on a jersey and a hat and some batting gloves," Tavarez said. ``Because there is no way for you to go to Francona and say, `I want to hit,' when he looks at you, from head to toe, and says, `You want to hit in a jacket and running shoes?' He's going to laugh at you."
Tavarez was the one who correctly forecast that Ramírez would return to the starting lineup last night -- guaranteed it, in fact -- and he was just as bold in predicting fellow Dominican Ortiz would be playing tonight.
``He's really excited about tomorrow," Tavarez said.
And it might not take much for this town to follow.