ANAHEIM, Calif. - At one point, J.D. Drew thought he would be in the dugout for this game, for every playoff game the Red Sox will play this fall. The herniated disk in his lower back would not allow him on the field, healing just enough to make him think he could return before seizing his back with more pain.
"Absolutely," Drew said. "I thought I was going to have to shut it down, watch the team go through the playoffs."
But there was Drew last night, striding toward the plate, his bat cocked over his left shoulder, the most significant opportunity of the Red Sox season before him: the tying run in scoring position, one out, ninth inning. He had played three times in the Red Sox' past 39 games. He had felt his back stiffen once the seventh inning passed last night, as he expected it would.
Drew merely wanted to be on the field. He became a hero when he drove a 2-2 changeup from Francisco Rodriguez over the wall in right-center field, a two-run home run that gave the Red Sox a 7-5 victory over the Los Angeles Angels in Game 2 of the American League Division Series. The clout will live beside his AL Championship Series Game 7 grand slam last year in Red Sox history, the two hits that endeared Drew to Sox fans and delivered huge victories.
Manager Terry Francona batted Drew fifth for the second game in a row, expressing confidence that his back would hold up. "I don't think it would surprise me, or we wouldn't have played him," Francona said.
Still, that Drew made it on the field at all was an accomplishment. He received an epidural, his second in roughly a month, during the final week of the season, a last gasp to return for the playoffs. He played 10 innings combined over the season's final three days, his last, limited preparation for the playoffs.
The effort to play seemed lost after Game 1, when Drew went 0 for 4. He felt good, though. He relied on his usual keys - tracking the ball from the pitcher's hand, swinging only at strikes, "just grinding out at-bats," he said. In Drew's first at-bat last night, he lashed a double to right-center, driving in the Red Sox' first run.
The situation escalated when Drew came to the plate in the ninth, the score tied, the potential winning run on second base. He had faced Rodriguez, the Angels' 60-save closer, three times before in his career, and he had mustered only a walk, a ground out, and a strikeout. He learned nothing of use; he only remembered the walk, which, he recalled, came on four pitches.
Drew approached his final at-bat simply. Coco Crisp, a fleet runner, had just jogged to second to pinch run for David Ortiz. A base hit meant a Red Sox lead.
Rodriguez threw a fastball for strike one, then rifled only changeups. "Pretty good ones," Drew said. The count climbed to 2-2. With two strikes, he simplified his outlook further. "Just put the barrel to the ball," Drew thought.
"I'm just trying to square a ball up, find a hole somewhere," Drew said. "It just happened I squared that one up real nice."
Rodriguez's final changeup strayed up and inside. Drew unleashed a vicious swing, which produced three sounds, one following the next like dominos: the thunderclap of his bat mashing the ball; the groan of the crowd; the silence pervading Angel Stadium.
Drew had done this before, but that swing produced delirium in a different setting. For the first time, he won over Boston fans in Game 7 of last year's ALCS. He clobbered a grand slam in the first inning, a blast that now has company under the J.D. Drew chapter in Red Sox lore.
"It was a little different situation," Drew said. "That one was a really cool feeling. This one was huge."
Drew circled the bases briskly after he launched his memorable home run, but still with an easy gait. "It's a lot better than having to run the bases," he said. A game-winning homer can't make a stiff back disappear, but it can make it feel better by a matter of degrees.
"It was nice to be out there and contributing," Drew. "Trying to get everything back into playing shape in the playoffs isn't the easiest thing to do. But it's working out."
Adam Kilgore can be reached at email@example.com.