NEW YORK -- Jacoby Ellsbury's game-winning home run -- the one that may have resuscitated the Red Sox' season -- followed 13 innings of white-knuckle baseball that began with a faith-shaking three-run deficit in the first, which in turn was preceded by club's 18th loss of the month on Sunday afternoon.
There was a pall over the Red Sox's playoff hopes, a nine-game wild-card lead that had been dwindling away all month, that had reached an emotional low point when a serenade of boos -- and not the victory anthem of
Instead, the 7-4, 14-inning Game 2 win salvaged a doubleheader split with the Yankees, restored Boston's wild-card lead to one game over the Rays and gave a jolt of life to a clubhouse lacking energy for a week.
"You've got to grind out there," closer Jonathan Papelbon said. "Grind and shine every day. This is grinding season. And now we've got to go ball in Baltimore.
"If you don't like this, you don't have blood in your veins."
Rather than be pronounced DOA -- dead on arrival -- when their charter lands in Baltimore for their final three games of the season with the Orioles, the Red Sox are a living and breathing entity after surviving a five-hour, 11-minute marathon in the Bronx with a win.
"I know it's easy to say after we win, but we had heart," manager Terry Francona said. "There's no getting around it -- that was a big win."
The Red Sox couldn't have stood any worse than a tie for the wild-card lead with the Rays -- who now host the Yankees for three games needing to make up a game in the standings in order to qualify for the postseason -- but Boston's track record in September didn't hint that a turnaround might be coming.
The Sox have already lost 18 times this month, their most defeats with the calendar on one page since August 2006, when a cavalcade of injuries led to a season-sinking 9-21 month. The crippling blow then was a five-game sweep at the hands of the Yankees at Fenway Park, and the victory in Sunday's night staved off a similar fate to their archrivals this weekend.
"A lot of people are writing us off," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "We're going to come out and play our butts off. That's it."
The cold reality is this: though the offense has scored 132 runs in 25 games this month for a seemingly nice 5.3 per-game average, that figure is distorted by four games in which they won while scoring at least a dozen runs and winning by at least five. Take out those four games and they've scored 70 runs for a meager 3.5 average.
Perhaps even more dire has been the performance of the starting pitching. The average major league start this season has lasted six innings, yet Boston's starters have averaged 4 2/3 innings in September and gone more than six innings only three times while putting together a 7.17 ERA.
Put another way: this month Red Sox starters have thrown 113 innings, and their relievers have thrown 105 innings, a far cry from the expected 2-to-1 ratio.
"We are all to blame for what is happening right here," designated hitter David Ortiz said. "We all as a group need to come out of this."
The bullpen shined Sunday night. Papelbon pitched 2 1/3 innings of relief -- his longest outing since May 15, 2010 -- which started with a two-out, bases-loaded escape in the ninth inning, continued into the 10th when he had consecutive strikeouts of power-hitters Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano and finished with the 11th with outs of Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner. Franklin Morales threw two shutout innings after him, and Felix Doubront cleaned up the 14th for the save.
Is it enough to turn the tide? This would be arguably the worst collapse of all time and certainly the worst collapse in recent years. The only one comparable would be the Mets in 2007 when they had a seven-game edge with 18 games left to play, but their primary challenger, the Phillies, got hot down the stretch and finished the season 13-4. The Rays haven't quite done that. They are 14-10 this month but 8-9 in games against anyone other than the Red Sox.
The collapse has been more than just bad baseball. There have been some surreal moments, too: a pitcher (Erik Bedard) was reportedly served legal papers in the Red Sox clubhouse by a Yankees fan wearing his team's apparel; prominent baseball writer Peter Gammons reported that there was an increasing "disconnect" between manager and general manager (a charge quickly refuted by both Francona and GM Theo Epstein); and after Sunday night's game Lackey said he received an upsetting text message from a member of the media 30 minutes before taking the mound.
"There's a tendency to try to turn a stretch of bad baseball into a soap opera," Epstein said Friday, "and we're not going to let that happen."
No team has ever blown a nine-game lead for a playoff spot in September. It's a margin so wide and so daunting to the also-rans that a natural disaster was seemingly needed to help bridge the gap.
Hurricane Irene pounded New England with a drenching downpour during the last weekend in August, and that Saturday the Red Sox slogged through two rain-soaked games of a doubleheader against the Athletics. Boston won both, but the hurricane created an unplanned two-day break (only one day off was scheduled).
The Red Sox haven't won consecutive games since and it's not possible to win a World Series without ever winning back-to-back games in the postseason.
With a smile after Sunday's game, Pedroia declared this a "one-game winning streak" and there's doubtless satisfaction in winning a game -- and restoring a season -- that had been on the brink of getting away.
But there's still more work to be done.