ST. LOUIS -- Nine days ago, the greatest closer in major league history needed just three outs to finish off the Boston Red Sox. Three more outs, and the Red Sox would've suffered a humiliating playoff sweep, the Yankees spraying champagne all over their house. Three more outs and the Red Sox would've been doomed to an ugly offseason overhaul, the 86th consecutive winter of rebuilding, maybe the coldest ever.
But it was in that depth of almost total defeat that the Red Sox began their comeback, and now they are one victory away from completing a sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Boston thoroughly dominated the Cardinals again in Game 3, Pedro Martinez pitching seven scoreless innings as the Red Sox won, 4-1.
"We're not happy, we're not celebrating," Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon said. "We've stressed as a team how important every game is, and tomorrow will be no different."
Boston can finish off the Cardinals in Game 4 Wednesday, and unless you still believe in curses, there is every reason to think the Red Sox will do so. They are controlling almost everything -- all the at-bats, the potent sluggers in the middle of the Cardinals' lineup -- as if this was a series between the Red Sox marionettes and the St. Louis puppets. The Cardinals have never held a lead in this series, and in those brief moments when the Cardinals have opportunity, they are reacting poorly, making mistakes.
The Red Sox took a first-inning lead -- again -- when Manny Ramirez slammed a solo homer off St. Louis starter Jeff Suppan. The Cardinals stirred, for once: They loaded the bases with one out in the first against Martinez, and Jim Edmonds lifted a fly ball to left, where Ramirez often performs a comedy routine on defense; you're never sure if he's going to intercept the ball with his glove or his head.
But every once in a while, Ramirez does everything right in the outfield, and this moment was one of those times when Ramirez suddenly looked like Carl Yastrzemski. He measured his approach to the ball perfectly, set himself and, as Larry Walker tagged at third base, threw home -- on target, one bounce. Jason Varitek caught the ball and rammed his glove into the sliding Walker to complete an inning-ending double play. The other Red Sox shouted and high-fived Ramirez like they had won a lottery ticket.
The Cardinals had more runners in scoring position in the third, after Suppan beat out an infield single and Edgar Renteria whacked a double over the head of Boston right fielder Trot Nixon (who ensured himself a permanent place on Major League Baseball's blooper reels by slipping on the rain-soaked grass and landing flatly on his backside, with a splash).
The Red Sox, leading by a run, played their infield back, shortstop Orlando Cabrera and second baseman Mark Bellhorn close to the outfield grass; any roller hit past the pitcher and Suppan could trot home easily. Walker did pull a medium-speed grounder to the right side, and Suppan started moving toward home, third base coach Jose Oquendo starting to wave behind him: Go, go!
Suppan is accustomed to running the bases, having played in the National League in three different seasons. But this was his first time
running the bases in a World Series, and perhaps that is the reason why he suddenly stopped halfway down the line, as Bellhorn threw leisurely to first base; Suppan started to move back toward third base, haltingly, and Oquendo -- seeing disaster occurring right in front of him -- looked away in exasperation. Renteria, the runner at second, was nearing third: Two baserunners stuck in no-man's land. "I was supposed to go," Suppan said later. "I don't know how else to describe it -- bad baserunning."
The other infielders yelled at first baseman David Ortiz that Suppan was in trouble. Ortiz, playing his first game in the field in months, steadily and deliberately began moving toward Suppan, as the first base manual says to do, and when Suppan darted back toward third, Ortiz calmly rifled a throw to third baseman Bill Mueller, who slapped down a tag successfully. The St. Louis rally was sabotaged and as Suppan got up and jogged off the field, Oquendo stood with his arms folded and squeezed against his chest.
With excellent plays by their two weakest defensive players, the Red Sox had gotten a break and in the next two innings they did what great teams do, padding their lead when failure was fresh in the minds of the Cardinals. After a two-out double by Mueller in the fourth, Nixon whacked a long single against the right-field fence; 10 of Boston's 21 runs in this series have come with two outs.
Damon reached a full count leading off the fifth, and he doubled, before Cabrera poked his bat out and dumped a single into right field, with Damon stopping at third.
Ramirez fell behind in the count 1-and-2, and Suppan flipped an off-speed pitch so low that it seemed destined for the dirt; catcher Mike Matheny dropped to his knees, preparing to block the ball. But Ramirez swung, hit the ball shoe-lace high, and dragged a single through the left side of the infield to score Damon. Boston scored again on a two-out single by Mueller, and Suppan was discarded, like the other St. Louis starters.
"They are tough to finish off," St. Louis left fielder Reggie Sanders said. "They're giving tough at-bats every at-bat, so there's not a chance for the pitcher to relax."
This is the common refrain in this series: The St. Louis pitchers cannot fool nor finish off the Boston hitters, cannot make them swing and miss, cannot overpower them; the Red Sox dictate all the at-bats, the Cardinals' pitchers seemingly helpless. The efficiency of the Boston hitters has been uncanny: The Cardinals have thrown 511 pitches in this series and the Red Sox have swung and missed only 25 times. "We've been making a conscious effort to do that," Damon said. "We've been putting together good at-bats the whole year."
Said hitting coach Ron Jackson: "We feed off each other, hitters one through nine, and they've been picking each other up pretty good."
Martinez caused 13 swings and misses in 98 pitches in Game 3, dominating the Cardinals after the early St. Louis rallies. He changed speeds masterfully, throwing a changeup that fooled Scott Rolen into a dribbler in the seventh, and he blew fastballs past Sanders. Martinez allowed only three hits, walked two, struck out six, retiring the last 14 batters he faced -- and from the fourth inning into the ninth, 14 consecutive Cardinals hitters failed to get the ball out of the infield.
Martinez had walked off the field at the end of the seventh, looking calm, like it was no big deal. The Red Sox seemed relaxed afterward, the players chatting breezily, Kevin Millar taking video of Derek Lowe giving postgame interviews, Curt Schilling walking through the clubhouse with a black and blue ankle, Bronson Arroyo making jokes.
But this is all enormous, all that is happening. Nine days ago, a ninth inning away from a sweep, Mariano Rivera on the mound, the hopes of another summer all but gone. And now there is great anticipation; 86 years of anticipation.