ST. LOUIS -- It was the middle of spring training, just another day in a month and a half of Groundhog Days, when Boston pitcher Ryan Dempster gave just another absentminded "Hey, how ya doin'?" to teammate Jonny Gomes. What Gomes responded with was anything but ordinary, foreshadowing what the year might hold from a band of rogues and grinders that would come to resemble sloppily hirsute Civil War re-enactors.
Replied Gomes, "One day closer to a parade." Such has been the spirit and will of the 2013 Sox.
After 93 losses from an unlikable last place team last year, the Boston Red Sox, rebuilt and renewed, today stand one victory away from their third world championship in 10 years, and what would be the most improbable of them all. Not only can the Red Sox complete the worst-to-first turnaround, but they can also provide something to their nation of fans that nobody under the age of 95 has seen: The Sox winning the World Series at home. Game 6 is Wednesday night at Fenway Park, and oh, Lord, how we must hope the old lady's mortar holds, what with the noise and emotional thunder that will bear down upon her 101-year-old bones.
Only in 1912 and in 1918 did the Sox win the World Series at Fenway, the last time in front of only 15,238 fans in an early September series of a season abbreviated because of World War I. Babe Ruth was a defensive replacement late in the 2-1 clinching win at the Fens against the Cubs.
On the brink of such team history, one man has elevated his stature in baseball and in the deep-rooted culture of the Sox more than anyone else. It might not quite be Ruthian what is going on here, but it's the next best thing to see a garrulous big man becoming a legend of the fall.
It was eight years ago that the Red Sox presented David Ortiz with a plaque that called him "the greatest clutch hitter in the history of the Boston Red Sox." Ortiz's performance in this series has moved him far beyond plaques. It is pushing him toward having his number hang from the right-field roof at Fenway, having a statue outside the old ballpark and an official spot in the namesake town of his clubhouse nickname: Cooperstown.
With three more hits in a 3-1 Game 5 victory, Ortiz is batting .733 (11-for-15) in this World Series and .476 (20-for-42) in his World Series career -- the best average in history among all men who have at least 50 plate appearances in the Fall Classic.
"Trust me," Gomes said, "this game is not that easy, but he is making it look easy. It got to the point where the crowd was chanting, 'Get Ortiz out!' This is the World Series! It's not supposed to be like that. That's something special."
Somebody asked winning pitcher Jon Lester, he of the blossoming October reputation himself, if he could remember any player on any team with a five-game stretch like Ortiz has enjoyed. Before Lester could answer, Ortiz shot back, "I did it like 20 times this year."
"That pretty much sums it up," Lester said.
And then there was this from Ortiz, which sums up even better why he is this good at this time of year: "I was born for this."
Ortiz is the cosmic center of this World Series. Everything revolves around him -- everything from the Red Sox' psyche to the tangled nerves in the St. Louis dugout. Ortiz's fifth-inning dugout sermon in Game 4 -- voice rising, f-bombs flying in a verbal wake-up call -- will be the Gettysburg Address of Red Sox oratory if Boston wins one more game.
On the other side of the field, the Cardinals can't get through Ortiz no matter what they try. The left-handed reliever Kevin Siegrist has become unimportant because he has thrown two pitches to Ortiz and both have been hammered for hard hits, one of them a home run. On Monday night it was the manager, Mike Matheny, and the ace, Adam Wainwright, who were schooled by Ortiz yet again.
Just two batters into the game, Dustin Pedroia was standing on second base with one out when Ortiz came ambling to the plate with that great, unhurried, ramble of a walk of his. It is the business walk of the biggest, baddest bear in the national park happening upon an abandoned picnic. He projects the supreme confidence about how this is going to end.
Of course, you do not pitch to Ortiz with first base open and Gomes and Daniel Nava behind him -- yes, even in the first inning. Twice before in World Series history a team walked the number three hitter intentionally in the first inning. Braves pitcher Lew Burdette did it to Mickey Mantle in 1958's Game 2 and Cardinals pitcher Joaquin Andujar did it to George Brett in 1985's Game 3. Ortiz is one of those rare players who is just too good and too hot not to be treated the same way.
"I don't like walking anybody," Wainwright said. "You've got a guy on second already. It's the first inning. He hit a good pitch. He is out-of-his-mind hot right now ... That was my call before the game. I said, 'I'm not pitching around Ortiz today. I'm gonna get him out.' He hit a good pitch. He made a good swing."
Pride gets in the way of prudence. As Pedro Martinez likes to say, "I would put a skirt on if I had to, but I am not letting their best hitter beat me."
All it took was one pitch for Wainwright to get burned by the arrogance of competition. He threw a cutter and didn't get it in far enough to the hottest hitter on the planet. Ortiz smashed it down the line for an RBI double. One pitch. Next thing you know, Wainwright will be touching the burner on a lit stove to see if that is hot.
Matheny can share the blame, too, for allowing his ace to decide before the game not to pitch around Ortiz. There should be an investigation if St. Louis did not begin this series with a scouting report that said, "No matter what happens, don't let Ortiz beat us." It was all the more obvious after four games, so how could it continue to happen?
The worst remnant from Matheny's stubborn faith in Wainwright was yet to come. This occurred in the seventh inning, when a 1-1 game would go Boston's way because the manager and ace allowed it.
Wainwright was now 276 innings deep into the season when rookie Xander Bogaerts grounded a single with one out. It may have seemed harmless, but not when Wainwright followed that hit by walking Stephen Drew. The at-bat was the baseball equivalent of an air-raid siren of alarm. Wainwright walked a guy who was 4-for-49, and he did so by flipping a full-count curveball that had no bite to it. This was an announcement of trouble. The warranty had expired. He had failed to challenge an ice-cold hitter and his curveball had no substance to it.
David Ross was next. The count went to 1-and-2. Wainwright went back to the curveball, and again there was no bite. It was a nothing hanger, an invitation to be smacked. Ross obliged with a rope down the left-field line that bounced into the stands. Now it was 2-1.
Wainwright was done. Matheny had Carlos Martinez and Siegrist warming in the bullpen. Lester, a terrible hitter, was next, so Matheny properly made no move. Lester grounded out. The left-handed Jacoby Ellsbury was next. Surely Matheny would get Siegrist to pitch to Ellsbury. Wainwright was 105 pitches into the game and 276 1/3 innings into his season. He was done, right?
But Matheny never came out to take the ball. Wainwright threw two more pitches, the second of which was a fastball that Ellsbury drilled for an RBI single. Even though Ross was cut down at the plate trying to score behind Drew, it was now 3-1 Boston, and in a series as taut as a newly-strung violin, the insurance run was enormous.
In their pride and faith in one another, Matheny and Wainwright had allowed Ortiz to beat them with the first run and then the Red Sox to leverage the pitcher's withering stuff into the decisive runs in the seventh.
These games have been too tight to leave room for such mistakes. From Games 2-5, the Red Sox and Cardinals have remained within two runs of one another for 35 of the 36 innings. It is right that this series is going back to Boston, and maybe even headed toward a Game 7. The Red Sox have never won a decisive World Series Game 7.
There have been five games in this series, some of them played not terribly well but all of them dramatic, that stand as wonderful scene-setters for what is to come. The Cardinals will give the ball in Game 6 to 22-year-old Michael Wacha, the wunderkind who entered the postseason with only nine career starts but has since become the youngest pitcher in history to win four starts in one postseason. He could become the first pitcher ever to win five starts in the same postseason. He is the St. Louis stopper. The Cardinals are 3-0 when Wacha starts in the game after a postseason loss, including a 2-1 win in a road elimination game in Pittsburgh in the Division Series.
All Wacha has to do is win again in another elimination game on the road, this time in tiny, trembling Fenway with history pushing down upon his shoulders. It is the kid versus 95 years of Boston patience, waiting as the city has to celebrate a World Series championship under the shadow of that great Green Monster in left field, this time on Halloween Eve.
It would have been hard to imagine seven months ago in Fort Myers, Fla., that the 2013 baseball season would come down to one game with more intrigue than this one. One day closer to a parade are the Red Sox, and it has been almost a century to see it happen at Fenway. Between them and history stands Wacha, the unbeatable, unshakable kid of the postseason. He will be okay as long as he remembers one immutable truth of this and any postseason that is ignored at a pitcher's peril: Do not challenge David Ortiz.