ST. LOUIS — As anyone at all familiar with Jonny Gomes knows, there isn't much that can leave him speechless. But standing in the Boston clubhouse late Sunday night, reflecting on the journey from unheralded Devil Rays minor-leaguer to the grand stage of World Series star after his three-run homer gave the Red Sox 4-2 win over the Cardinals and pulled them even in the World Series, just about did it.
"Just really how the whole thing was written today, how my baseball path has been written, how my life has been written, a pretty special moment," Gomes said. "If you're looking for words, I don't have much for you."
Gomes has been a catalyst, an inspiration, a unifying force in every clubhouse since he came up with the Rays, overcoming a series of dramatic obstacles: a poor childhood that didn't always include a home, a horrific car accident that killed his best friend and a heart attack at age 22 that could have ended his career before he ever got out of the minors.
"It's a good thing I've got the skin of a rhinoceros and the heart of a lion,'' he said.
Gomes finally made it and was a key part of the Rays 2008 team in several ways — remember the Yankees and Red Sox brawls — but was not active for the playoffs or the World Series, then let go after that season, as Pat Burrell was signed.
That experience stuck with him as he moved on to the Reds, who made the playoffs in 2010, and the A's, who made in it 2012, then the Red Sox this year, and the opportunity to play in this World Series has been even more special.
"Absolutely,'' he said. "Every day, every failure, every hit just adds to my motivation in that game. After that '08 (experience), I just wanted to keep grinding and battling to be one of those starting nine in the postseason, and I was able to get that in 2010 and then went back last year with the A's. Then I wanted to be one of those starting nine in the World Series. So I'm 32, 9½ almost 10 (years) in the show and I'm still checking things off on my wish list, so I'm pretty proud of that."
Gomes wasn't in the original lineup Sunday, added to play leftfield when Shane Victorino was scratched during batting practice due to lower-back tightness — "I had to Tonya Harding Victorino," he joked — and certainly made the most of his opportunity in the sixth.
The score was 1-1 as the Cardinals took the lead with an unearned run in the third and the Sox evened it on a sac fly in the fifth.
After Dustin Pedroia's two-out single, the Cardinals had lefty Randy Choate warming but instead had right-hander Lance Lynn pitch to dangerous David Ortiz. Well, actually, not pitch to him but around him, the four-pitch walk moving the go-ahead run into scoring position. Then the Cardinals went to the bullpen for right-hander Seth Maness, and Gomes blasted a 2-and-2 pitch over the leftfield fence and into the St. Louis bullpen, putting the Sox up 4-1.
He dropped his bat and took a look — "What's the rush,'' he joked - then took a romp around the bases might have been more exciting than the actual hit, celebrating along the way then greeted a beard tug from teammate Mike Napoli that had to hurt, but he was feeling no pain.
"The one thing I've always wanted out of this game was the opportunity, whether that was a uniform, whether that was a pinch-hit (appearance), whether that was to get a start,'' he said. "So I got the opportunity (Sunday), and the one thing you can guarantee is when I'm in the lineup, I'm going to be swinging,''
His homer wasn't quite the whole story, as David Ortiz had gathered the Sox for an inspirational talk in the dugout after the fifth — "It was like 24 kindergartners looking up at their teacher,'' Gomes said — and the Cardinals closed to 4-2 in the seventh after a pinch-hit double by Tampa's Shane Robinson, but close.
And after Saturday's game was the first in Series history to end on an obstruction call, Sunday's was the first in postseason play to end on a pickoff, as Koji Uehara caught Kolten Wong off first,
Game 5 is tonight in St. Louis, with a rematch of Game 1 starters Jon Lester and Adam Wainwright, and there will at least be a Game 6 in Boston on Wednesday.
As much as the Red Sox insisted they had put Saturday's controversial and emotional loss behind them, they started Sunday's game as if they were still stunned.
They managed just one hit — a broken-bat infield single by Ortiz — in the first four innings. Worse, they made another defensive mistake that led to the game's first run, centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury misplaying Matt Carpenter's leadoff single and Carlos Beltran immediately following with a cash-it-in single for a 1-0 lead.
The Red Sox showed some life in the fifth, loading the bases against Lynn on an Ortiz double and two walks but getting only one run, on a sac fly by Stephen Drew.
Boston starter Clay Buchholz came into the game admittedly not 100 percent due to shoulder tightness and lasted four innings, barely breaking 90 mph, allowing only the unearned run, walking three (one intentionally) and striking out two.
All that set the stage for Gomes, who Sunday's dramatics were even more special because of the timing. MLB had organized a Stand Up To Cancer salute during the game, and Gomes held up signs in honor of his high school coach Bob Leslie, who lost his battle, and a 5-year-old Boston boy, Brady Wein, who is still fighting.
"There were definitely some angels up above looking down in the sixth,'' he said. "It really adds to the fairy tale that it was for me today.''
That it was, as he reflected back to the start of his unlikely career.
"I got drafted in 2001 by the Devil Rays and there wasn't a lot of people that knew that was a professional team,'' he said. "Fought some critics, fought some things off, and then we won the AL East in '08. So I mean, it's been a grind. But I'm definitely cut out for that.''
Perseverance is a huge part of his story.
"You talk about a guy like me, every single at-bat, every pitch I see my career is on the line. Every punch-out, it's "See, I told you so.' " Every hit, it's "That wasn't supposed to happen,' '' he said, "But I'm not trying to prove anyone wrong. I'm so grateful for Tampa, Cincy, Washington, the A's, now here. I don't have a chip on my shoulder. It's just Jonny Gomes being Jonny Gomes.''
And that pretty much says it all.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays