Five outs away from the big come-from-behind pennant series win. Clemens folded early on in what was supposed to have been a pitcher's duel, leaving Pedro to work his way up into the bottom of the eighth. He'd thrown a hundred pitches by that point and had just sent Nick Johnson back to the bench. Five outs away with a three-run lead. How beautiful it was. Some Boston fans are getting cocky, raising their hands extended to show five. Others, well, others know better. Others know of the heartbreak and the pain of a completely unexpected error that leads to another Red Sox season ending in shame. We saw the Cubs experience that pain two nights ago, when they were so sure of their victory, only to lose it in the eighth as well. The pain still exists; it struck once and could strike again tonight. So while some optimistically cheered, others cynically held their breath and waited. Slightly hopeful. (But you never can tell.)
Then Derek Jeter stepped up and gets two bases for his troubles. No big deal, really -- puts him in scoring position, sure, but it's nothing too threatening. But that was Jeter's first hit of the game. He shouldn't have had it that easily. And this is how the worry continues. It grows. First the armchair pitching coaches mumble it, and then it's picked up by the slightly more sober fans in the bar. Eventually there's talk and murmur among the fans in the car, in the living room, and online. Take Pedro out; he's done a fine job. Time to get a fresh arm in.
A trip to the mound. A quick discussion with the pitcher, and a quick shuffle away. Pedro's staying in. An odd decision, but Grady Little knows what he's doing. This is the strongest bullpen the Sox have seen in ages, and Grady is certainly no moron when it comes to making good judgements. If Pedro is good enough for another out, Grady will know and make the call accordingly.
Pedro pitches low to Bernie Williams. He hits the dirt. He slumps his shoulders. It's clearly not a very good situation; perhaps he didn't need that one more out. Maybe he is tired after all. We know he's not a golden god, we know he's only human, but he's one of the best darned humans out there when it comes to pitching. And he gets tired like everybody else. So why not give him his well-deserved rest?
There's no answer to that rhetorical question. Bernie hits a deep single and Jeter scores off it. Was the out really going to be that hard? Another trip out to the mound, another conversation with Pedro. By this time the worry has turned into deep apprehension, and the mantra is no longer whispered or mumbled, but spoken out loud by fans listening and watching everywhere. The lead has just been whittled away slightly, and it's nothing to really worry about, and it can easily be fixed, can't it? All we gotta do is take Pedro out.
But Pedro stays and faces that dastard Hideki Matsui, who hits an aberration of a ground rule double and puts Williams on third. Boston blinks, rubs its eyes, and squints at the screen some more. What in the heck is going on here? How'd we let the Yankees get this good so late in the game, and with five outs to go? This is when the spoken worry becomes a cry. It is no longer a matter for the armchair coaches to debate, it is no longer a hypothetical move personally dreamed up by a lone nut pretending to play along at home, it is an imperative. Voiced by the Boston fans speaking as one:
TAKE HIM OUT.
TAKE HIM OUT.
FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, GRADY LITTLE, TAKE PEDRO OUT.
And here comes the moment that seems to have defined both the 2003 American and National League pennant race. Here comes the point where it all falls apart for the Destined Winner. Here is what happens when the underdog comes far only to fall on its face just at the finish line. Here comes the point where the game pivots, tilts, and crashes down around a stunned populace. For Chicago, it was a poor fan reaching for a high foul tip when he thought there wasn't going to be a play made for it, depriving his beloved team of a much-needed second out. It's not the final nail in the coffin, no -- the game could be saved by the slimmest of miracles, but there's only so far you can go on bravado until you get the wind knocked out of you. Or your sails, if you prefer the nautical metaphor. Whatever it is, a rally is nigh-impossible at this point.
And here's that point: Pedro stays in. Gives up two runs to Jorge Posada's double. And just like that, the game is tied 5-5, two outs to go in the inning, and nobody knows exactly what the hell Grady Little was thinking. Perhaps he was hoping Pedro could pitch into a double play? I'm not sure. That's all I can hypothesize now so late at night and with so much cough syrup in me. The radio announcers were flabbergasted. Joe C. and Jerry could only find words like "shocked" and "amazed" and had a hard time expounding on that. I'm pretty sure on the television side, Tim McCarver just opened his mouth and let whatever verbal diarrhea was in him spew forth, but that's this man's opinion. Maybe he was good enough to keep his piehole shut for once. I don't know. Pedro was replaced right then and there, sure, but the damage had been done. Cowboy down.
Sure, there could have been a good rally. All Boston needed was one run, but we (we? Yes, we. We are as one, this Red Sox Nation) just couldn't do it. The bottle had been tipped and all the Moxie (Ted's favorite) was gone. We left men on in the ninth and tenth as the game went into extra innings -- but then, in the bottom of the 11th, Aaron Boone hits a home run on his first pitch and there go the Yankees to face Florida in what could possibly be the most anti-climactic World Series ever. It had been close. It had been extremely close.
And this Boston fan, as he has done in many years past, quietly sighed, turned the game off, and sat and thought for a very long time.
Do you want to know who started the worry? Who realized it first and pointed it out first? It was at the end of the seventh, after the insanely long stretch (six minutes!) replete with dripping patriotism and a song wildly oversung. The worry was started by Pedro himself, who pointed to the sky after he retired the last batter in the seventh. That's Pedro's sign -- that's his "put the potatoes on, I'm done". He knew he was ready to go. But why he decided not to insist on leaving earlier in the eighth is beyond me. It's beyond all of us. And it'll just go down in time as the Mistake that Cost Us The Championship This Time Around.
But Boston sports fans should know this by now. This taste is not unfamiliar to us. All in all, it's just another end-of-season rite for the Boston Red Sox. Sometimes it happens sooner, other times it happens slightly later. But it always ends up the same way, like a stale flat Dunkin' Donuts Coffee Coolatta: bitter and hard to swallow.
Welcome to Boston.