ST. LOUIS -- Midway through Game 4 of the World Series, the moment got to Jonny Gomes. But it wasn't a baseball moment. It was during a mid-game Stand Up 2 Cancer tribute. Fans held up cards honoring people stricken with cancer, and Gomes held up two: One for a four-year-old boy in Massachusetts, and another for his high school coach.
Maybe that kind of perspective helps a man relax during a baseball game, and maybe it doesn't. Maybe it also helps to have been an 18th-round pick, and to have spent the last decade wondering if the door was about to close in his face.
"When you talk about a guy like me, pretty much every single at-bat, every pitch I see, my career is on the line," Gomes said. "If I punch out, it's, See ya, I told you so. And every hit, it's, That wasn't supposed to happen."
Maybe it just helps to see yourself like that. But in so many ways, Jonny Gomes was not supposed to be the hero on Sunday night. He was not supposed to hit the three-run home run that won Game 4 for the Red Sox and tied the World Series at 2-2. The Cardinals were so sure of it that, knowing Gomes was on deck, they walked David Ortiz on four pitches. Then they brought in rookie reliever Seth Maness to face Gomes. Maness has had a rough postseason, but he is a right-hander, and that seemed as if it would be enough against Gomes.
Gomes is a career .225 hitter against righties. He barely faced them all season. He has been scrapping the whole postseason. But there is something about Gomes that makes people around him believe in him: He believes in himself. Boston manager John Farrell put Gomes in the lineup against righties earlier this month, an ignore-the-numbers move from a franchise that takes pride in following the numbers. Farrell explained his decision then:
"The way players respond under these circumstances in this environment has got equal weight, if not more, than maybe what the numbers might indicate or drive you to make a decision over the course of a regular season game or over 162. This is a different environment. And I think that's why we've got to remain in tune with how guys are responding in those key moments, [those] pressure-packed moments."
Farrell might as well play video of that explanation the next time any of us doubt him. This month, he has given a lot of at-bats to a guy who hasn't done much with them. When right fielder Shane Victorino was scratched from the lineup, Farrell had to give Gomes, who batted fifth and played left field, a few more. Gomes did not find out Victorino had been scratched until batting practice.
"He was looking in the mirror, combing his beard," Red Sox reliever Ryan Dempster said. (Of course he was.) "He said, 'I'm in there. It's my time to shine.'"
Maness threw four sinkers to Gomes to get to a 2-2 count. Then came the fifth sinker, which Gomes pounded into the visitors' bullpen in left-center field to give Boston a 4-1 lead en route to a 4-2 win. Dempster caught the homer on one hop.
And with that, the series was transformed again. With the victory, the Red Sox assured themselves of a Game 6 at Fenway Park. That guarantees nothing, but as Gomes pointed out, Boston has not clinched a World Series at home in almost a century. In 2004 and '07, they finished World Series sweeps on the road. Now they are going for history, though it is the kind of history you find in footnotes.
There are no demons anymore. Has any sports franchise transformed itself in the last decade as much as the Red Sox? Can you imagine what would have happened if they had lost a World Series game on an obstruction call -- as they had lost Game 3 on Saturday night -- 10 years ago? They would have fired the manager, tissue sales would have spiked in New England and four Boston sportswriters would have signed book deals before the first pitch of the next game.
Now? They treat that stuff like a stain on a shirt they wanted to get rid of anyway. Farrell said before Game 4 that the game-ending obstruction ruling in Game 3 was the right call. Boston did not hold a team meeting to discuss it, because the Red Sox don't need team meetings. First baseman Mike Napoli said they haven't had one all year. Even Game 3 starter Jake Peavy, who went off on the umpires after the defeat, said calmly that it wouldn't affect the team the next day. A year ago, under then-manager Bobby Valentine, Boston was disaffected. Now the Red Sox are unaffected.
The wild personalities of the 2004 Idiots have given way to methodical workaholics such as Dustin Pedroia, who numb other teams into submission. The only holdover is Ortiz, who gave a big mid-game speech to his team Sunday night. That's a good story. Truth is, his team probably did not need it. Guys like Gomes were motivated long before anybody was watching.
"I'm 32, about nine and a half, almost 10 in The Show," he said, "and I'm still checking things off on my wish list. So I'm pretty grateful for that."
Dempster said: "Even if Jonny had a 10-year contract, he would play the same way. He would grind every at-bat out. I remember facing him from the other side. You knew you were in a battle. Even when he doesn't get a hit, it's six, seven pitches. He can wear a guy down for the next guy. He is a huge, instrumental part of our team.
Gomes has one more thing to check off his wish list. Two more wins will do it.