For too many nights this season, it seemed as if playing was a chore for the Boston Red Sox. Since the end of April, a period covering almost three calendar months and nearly half the schedule, they were actually under .500.
And it wasn't just that they were underachieving. It was how they were underachieving. Too often, they seemed to lack energy, and when their big-inning offensive approach failed, they looked positively flat.
Instead of the invigorating wins that typified their 2003 season, this season has been marked by crushing defeats. Two in the last week typified their troubles. After snapping a tie in the eighth inning in Seattle on Monday night, they blew a two-run lead in the ninth, then lost it in the 11th. Friday night, they scratched back to tie the Yankees in the eighth, only to lose it in the ninth.
Then came Saturday. Then came the game which maybe -- just maybe -- could turn their season around.
United by an honest-to-goodness rumble in the third inning with their rivals and undaunted by a five-run deficit, the Sox rebounded to steal an 11-10 decision from the Yankees, capped by a two-run, walk-off homer from Bill Mueller in the bottom of the ninth.
They not only emptied their bench and bullpen; they also emptied their tanks.
"We've been waiting for some sort of catalytic event," said general manager Theo Epstein. "This whole day -- from our players wanting to play, to the fight, to the comeback against one of the great closers in the game -- could be it."
About an hour before the delayed start of the game, it seemed the game wouldn't be played at all, thanks to a rain-soaked field which was deemed unplayable by the grounds crew. But Red Sox players -- to a man -- demanded that every effort be made.
"We owed it to ourselves and to our fans," explained Kevin Millar. "This is a big series and we wanted to compete."
Compete they did. In the third inning, Bronson Arroyo came in on Alex Rodriguez and hit him in the elbow with a sinker. An angry Rodriguez stared down Arroyo as he walked toward first and was soon intercepted by Jason Varitek.
Words and challenges flew and in seconds, Rodriguez and Varitek were locked in combat, joined by 48 teammates, coaches and managers. This was far more ferocious than the ALCS dust-up; actual punches were thrown, a rarity in baseball bouts.
When the fisticuffs were finished, the Sox seemed energized. Trailing 3-0, they scored two in the third and two more in the fourth. But the relentless Yankee lineup came back for six runs in the sixth and it looked bleak when Mariano Rivera entered in the eighth, needing just four outs and in possession of a three-run lead.
But an RBI-single by Kevin Millar -- seven hits in the series to date -- set the stage for Mueller, who lined a ball into the teeth of a strong wind and into the Sox bullpen.
Fenway Park shook in celebration and the Sox soaked up their biggest -- and potentially galvanizing -- win of the season.
The victory immediately called to mind the team's comeback win in Philadelphia last Labor Day, a victory which seemed to propel the Sox into the playoffs. Asked if yesterday could serve as the same turning point, Millar said: "It could be. I can't dictate the future. But it definitely has that feel."
"I hope," added Terry Francona, "this day is one we look back on a while from now and say that this brought us together. We were talking about that yesterday -- how you never know what can make your team stronger, with their personalities and bring them together. I hope a long time from now, we look back and say this did it."
Almost lost in the win was the fact that it came at the expense of Rivera, who had converted 35 out of 36 in save opportunities and nailed down 23 in a row, including one Friday night with remarkable ease.
Manny Ramirez had hit him hard in the eighth, sending Bernie Williams to the center-right triangle. Two batters before Mueller, Trot Nixon had backed right fielder Gary Sheffield up the warning track before his home run bid lost steam.
It was left for Mueller to be the hero.
"You play for nine innings," he said. "You have the mindset that you're going to play at all times until they tell you to go home. You go out there and give everything you have."
These sort of dramatic wins have been too few and far between this season, who've won a lot of games with ease -- and seemingly been blown out in nearly as many others.
The math is still bleak. The Sox still trail the Yanks by nine in the loss column, a lot of ground to make up in just over two months.
But it might be the first step toward saving the season.
"It's a huge win for us," Francona said, "and it will be bigger if we make it bigger, if we have this catapult us and do something with it."
"We've been waiting to have this feeling all year," said Epstein. "But if we don't continue, it won't mean anything. It wasn't a work of art [the Sox made four errors]. We still have to get better. But today wasn't about stats or fundamentals or box scores. Today was about emotion."
That's something, until Saturday, that had been in short supply this season.
Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.