Thursday October 16th, 2008

We might forget this now after all that happened next, but it appeared, albeit briefly, that the Red Sox were on the verge of turning things around in the bottom of the second inning of Tuesday night's ALCS Game 4. After he had allowed back-to-back one-out homers to the Rays' Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria in the bottom of the first, starter Tim Wakefield had his knuckler fluttering again, and he had retired Jason Bartlett, Akinori Iwamura and B.J. Upton in order in the top of the inning. The P.A. system blasted the classic Asia song Heat of the Moment in the middle of the inning, to the delight of the fans. Then, after Kevin Youkilis crushed a long liner to center that Upton just barely tracked down, Jason Bay, after having his bat sawed off, reached first due to a double error by Longoria, and Mark Kotsay stroked a hard single over the shortstop. First and third, one out: The Sox were in business.

Then Coco Crisp bounced a tailor-made double-play to second; then Willy Aybar hit a mammoth home run over the Green Monster; and then, just like that, the Sox, and their fans, were truly out of it. In the steamy stink of the men's room in the top of the fifth inning, after an Aybar single had made it 6-1, one guy sarcastically yelled, "We got 'em right where we want 'em!" Three innings later, when it was 13-2, there was no longer room even for sarcasm, and it was so quiet that the voice of a fan who was sitting deep in the right-field grandstand rang through the park. "What a s--- game!" he screamed. He might as well have been a team spokesman.

The Rays were just 40-41 on the road during the regular season, and in these playoffs they drew opponents with the second- and third-best home records in the American League (the Red Sox were 56-25, the White Sox 54-28). And yet the most remarkable thing among all the remarkable things that the Rays have accomplished in the postseason has been their ability not just to win on the road (they're now 3-1), but to crush the life out of two of the more notoriously raucous ballparks, Fenway Park and U.S. Cellular Field, and to do so early. Upton's first- and third-inning home runs in the decisive ALDS Game 4 in Chicago effectively ended all towel-twirling there for the season. Monday's ALCS Game 3 was over by the third, and Tuesday's Game 4 was essentially over just as early. Boston fans haven't had the opportunity to build to the Fenway frenzy that has carried the Red Sox in recent times, and Boston's dreaded home-field advantage hasn't been much of an advantage at all.

Even in the face of the indignity of being pulverized by the Rays in two consecutive games, some fans still tried to keep their spirits up, recalled Rays outfielder Carl Crawford in the clubhouse after Tuesday's game. "We were getting reminders of what the Red Sox have done" -- bouncing back from a 3-1 deficit to the Indians in last year's ALCS and a 3-0 deficit to the Yankees in '04 -- "from the stands. There was one guy yelling, 'Go ask Derek Jeter!' He was yelling that real loud, so I'm sure everybody heard him. I'm sure there's going to be some more of that."

Perhaps it's because of the absence of Manny Ramirez, perhaps it's because David Ortiz doesn't look right, perhaps it's because the Rays have appeared unstoppable and the Red Sox anything but an immovable object, but a repeat of those comebacks just seems unlikely. And if the Rays are again able to jump out to an early lead on Thursday night against Daisuke Matsuzaka, then Fenway will once more be quiet -- eerily so, for October -- and the plaintive wails of fans sitting in even the park's farthest reaches will be clearly heard.

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