Mark down Oct. 18, 2004, in the baseball book of dates. Perhaps it will be a mere footnote. That's what the odds still say. But in 48 hours, it may be recalled as a date that is second to none in the game's postseason history for drama and impact.
If the Boston Red Sox become the first team in 101 years of postseason baseball to overcome a three-games-to-none deficit, and if they do it against the hated New York Yankees, then this one day, with its two wins in a span of 21 hours, a doubleheader sweep of an whole different species — may go down as New England's own Independence Day. Forget the Fourth of July.
Twice on the same day — once at 1:23 a.m., then again at 11:02 p.m. — the Red Sox beat the Yankees in sudden-death, extra-inning games with game-ending hits that ignited lunatic home plate celebrations and jubilation in the ancient stands that reached 100-year-storm proportions. David Ortiz ended Game 4 of this American League Championship Series with an 12th inning homer. Then, about 21 hours later, Ortiz won the longest game in postseason history (5 hours 49 minutes) by singling home Johnny Damon from second base to secure a 5-4, 14-inning Game 5 win.
Twice on this same day, with the pennant sitting squarely on their plate, the Yankees handed the ball to their central heroic protagonist of the last nine seasons, reliever Mariano Rivera. Of all Manager Joe Torre's worthies, none — not Derek Jeter or Bernie Williams — has matched Rivera's October value. And twice the mighty and usually perfect Panamanian blew those saves. Both times his flaws were almost minuscule. The second squandered lead was barely his fault at all. But they were just enough.
Even one such blow to the Yankees' guts would do damage. But twice? Who knows? Perhaps it is a prelude to history. If not, we'll have plenty of time to shrug and say, "Well, it sure was fun to think about." If so, America may be a nation of insomniacs by Thursday morning.
Anyone who know doubts that there may be another ALCS Game 7 this season — the rematch of rematches — need only look at the starting pitchers for Game 6: New York's 14-game winner Jon Lieber against (yes, that's right) Curt Schilling. The same Schilling who, in his new high-top shoe, says his right ankle feels pretty decent, thanks. The same Schilling who has fanned 300 men three times and won 20 games in three of the last four years, including 21-6 this year. Ands, most of all, the same Schilling who, until his injury-marred loss in Game 1 had a dozen of the best postseason starts of any pitcher ever.
The team that has not truly atoned to its fans since 1918 now presents to its followers the pitcher who was acquired as a kind of multi-generational cosmic apology: see, we got you Schilling.
For those who love and understand baseball, it would be impossible to overstate the impact on any team of losing back-to-back extra-inning games after saves were blown in regulation time. To do it twice with the pennant in your hands is unprecedented. Statisticians, and heaven knows this region is crawling with them, know that one particular play has the most impact within a game: ending an inning by having a runner thrown out at the plate. Thereafter, normal stats are distorted and the team that has defended its "home" has an inordinate probability of winning. In baseball, the psychology is real.
However, the event in baseball that has the most impact from one game to the next, which leads to streaks and slumps more often than should be statistically predictable, is the blown save. Back-to-back blown pennant saves have never happened before. So how can we know how the odds of this series have just been skewed? But in baseball, some psychological events have real statistical implications.
In other words, if a team were going to do something that hasn't happened in 101 years, then winning two games in one day after a pair of blown Rivera saves would be the kind of almost unimaginable event that might ignite it.
Of course, there will be more than 55,000 people at Yankee Stadium with a contrary opinion and an 80-year history of rattling nerves, invoking curses and producing midnight magic of their own in October.
The Red Sox have enough late-inning heroes to stock a decade of "Survivor" episodes. In Game 4, Bill Mueller's ninth-inning RBI single back through the box off Rivera after he had allowed a leadoff walk and stolen base provided the vital game-saving run that forced extra innings.
In Game 5, Tom Gordon inherited a 4-2 lead in the eighth but allowed a solo homer to Ortiz, then issued a walk and single to Trot Nixon. So poor Rivera inherited a 4-3 lead with runners at the corners and nobody out. He escaped after permitting only a game-tying sacrifice fly to Jason Varitek. A good job, right? Not according to baseball scoring rules: blown save.
That was fitting in a game in which absolutely nothing was remotely close to normal. The height of the absurd may have arrived in the 13th inning when the Yankees' Gary Sheffield almost scored what would have been a pennant-winning run as a result of what would have been four passed balls by catcher Varitek — the first on a Sheffield strike out.
However, with Sheffield at third base, Varitek barely blocked what would have been a fourth passed ball on a Tim Wakefield knuckleball. Wakefield escaped as Varitek finally caught a pitch — a third strike to Ruben Sierra. Thus was Boston spared what surely would have been the ultimate way to lose a pennant to the Yankees — one on four passed balls.
On Oct. 18, 2004, however, no such thing was destined to happen. This was the day — almost all 24 hours of it — for Red Sox reprieves. However, if they don't make the most of it, after a pair of games that both took more than five hours, many who agonized with them here may be tempted to invoke the Bambino's Curse on them — forever.