Hope For The Forsaken

To hear the talk of Boston fans, Yankees fans, and pretty much everyone else, you’d think the ALCS ended early Sunday morning with the final out of Game Three. The Yankees gave the usual answers about not taking anything for granted, but you could tell they were already half-looking toward the World Series. The Red Sox talked only about winning the next game, their hopes for winning the series almost wholly extinguished.

To be sure, the Red Sox entered Game Four with the deck stacked heavily against them; no team in baseball history has ever come back from being down 0-3. But just because something’s never happened doesn’t mean it never will. The actual odds of a team winning four straight games against a team they’re equally matched against are 1 in 16 — long odds, but not nearly as long as you’d think.

Last night the crowd at Fenway was cautiously optimistic, expecting the worst, but hoping for a reprieve. Alex Rodriguez’s two-run homer in the top of the third cast a pall over the crowd until a fan on the other side of the wall heaved it back over, only to have it tossed back at him by Johnny Damon. Back over the wall came the baseball before being pocketed by the umpire, but the amusing moment had eased the tension. Boston broke through in the fifth as Orlando Hernandez began to lose the plate, scoring three runs and taking only their second lead of the series.

But the Yankees came right back and scored two in the top of the sixth to go up by one, and there the score stood until the ninth.

Mariano Rivera had come in for the eighth, and while the Red Sox had beaten him twice during the regular season, they had never broken through against him in October, and their failure to do so had cost them the first two games. But Kevin Millar led off the inning with a walk, and pinch-runner Dave Roberts stole second and scored to tie the game on a ground ball single by Bill Mueller. Boston got the winning run to third with one out, and loaded the bases, but was unable to get the winning run across against Rivera this time.

But now Fenway was alive, the fans jumping up and down screaming and hugging each other.

Alan Embree came on to hold the Yankees where they were, and did so until the eleventh, when he was lifted with runners on first and second and two outs for Mike Myers, who proceeded to walk Hideki Matsui and load the bases. In came Curtis Leskanic, who had given up Gary Sheffield’s three-run homer the night before to start the rout, but he got out of the inning and held the Yankees scoreless in the 12th.

And then in the bottom of the 12th, Paul Quantrill came in to relieve Tom Gordon. Quantrill had started the season strong, but after working every other day during the season, his effectiveness declined dramatically. His effectiveness was nil last night, as he gave up a leadoff single to Manny Ramirez, and then a walkoff home run to David Ortiz. The Red Sox swarmed Ortiz on the field, as though they had just clinched the pennant.

But from where they had been a few hours earlier, the relative feeling was as though they had done just that. They had extended the series another day, and kept hope alive for a miracle comeback.

If the Red Sox are going to make the comeback, circumstances are lining up almost perfectly for it. They were able to win their least dependable starter’s game, and the dramatic fashion in which they came back and won only helps them and hurts New York. Now they try to force a sixth game with Pedro Martinez, and if they can get there Terry Francona announced last night that Curt Schilling would be the Game Six starter. While Martinez will have to beat Mike Mussina and Schilling will have to beat Lieber, as well as overcome a serious ankle injury, there’s no particular reason to think that Martinez can’t shut down the Yankees, and if Schilling can overcome his pain and maintain his mechanics, he can beat New York, too. And if that happens, it comes down to Game Seven, where anything can happen.

Yeah, it’s a longshot, but it’s plausible, and it gives Red Sox fans who 24 hours ago were already mourning their defeat a small glimmer of hope.

Losing Game Four isn’t all that bad for the Yankees, there are some small positives coming out of it. Should they win the series, Mike Mussina will start Game One of the World Series on normal rest, rather than eleven, as he would had the Yankees won last night. They regained some confidence in Orlando Hernadez, who pitched effectively for his first four innings before losing command in the fifth. Keith Foulke is likely unavailable for Game Five, at least not for longer than one inning. They didn’t blow their bullpen too badly in the loss, and Boston didn’t rest their bullpen that much in the win.

But losing is never a good thing, and the Yankees can’t afford to keep doing it. They need to put Boston away before they reach a place only two teams have gone before, or even worse, where no team has gone before.

Don’t be fooled, today is an important start for Mike Mussina, nearly as important as it is for Pedro Martinez. After Mussina the Yankees have to rely on Jon Lieber to give another strong start, or they’ll have to hope that Kevin Brown or Javier Vazquez can stop what will at that juncture seem like an unstoppable Boston juggernaut. Don’t laugh it off, it could happen.

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