ST. PETERSBURG — The Red Sox were not pitching well. They were hitting worse. Their fans were vacating Fenway Park in droves and making peace with the notion of having to follow the NHL's Bruins.
Then the Rays let them back in the American League Championship Series, blowing a seven-run, seventh-inning lead in Game 5 on Thursday with a handful of outs remaining between them and the World Series.
The Rays let them feel better about themselves in making a 3-1 series 3-2. They let the defending World Series champion — a team that had come back from a 3-1 deficit in the ALCS last year against the Indians — feel as if it could do it again.
Now the Red Sox are pitching better. Josh Beckett gave them five strong innings Saturday. They are hitting better, with designated hitter David Ortiz going 2-for-4 with a double after hitting a confidence-changing, three-run homer in Game 5. This was the career .320 hitter in the ALCS who said Friday that he would "talk with my bat tomorrow."
"I fight," Ortiz said. "I fight even though I might not get the right results. I don't give in."
J.D. Drew had two more hits after producing a key two-run homer and the winning single in Game 5. Kevin Youkilis, one of the best hitters in LCS history, had a homer and two more RBIs. Coco Crisp had three hits and a walk to become the leadoff hitter who has been firing up a once-dormant lineup.
"(Saturday night) we had a lot of good at-bats, got (Rays starter James) Shields' pitch count up early," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said.
And the heart of the Red Sox, captain Jason Varitek, who was in an 0-for-14 slump and perhaps on the verge of playing in his last game of a 12-year career, put Boston ahead for good in the sixth with a home run. His quick fist pump and brisk trot around the bases passed for jubilation from the understated 36-year-old veteran.
Now the Red Sox are feeling very good about themselves indeed, in a one-game playoff tonight for the right to defend their world title and end the Rays' story of destiny with the most bitter of conclusions.
"We did actually meet the other night just for a couple minutes, I think just to remind them of how we felt about them, things like that. No Knute Rockne, foam trash cans or anything like that," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "We've gotten ourselves into a lot of predicaments, and fortunately we've had the ability to get out of them. There's no other choice. But that gets a little big picture-ish. I think the best way to go about it is play the game at hand. We do it all year, and there's no reason to change that philosophy now because that's the only way."
Brant James can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8804.