BOSTON -- WHEN THE Tigers tagged two homers to open up a five-run lead in the sixth inning Sunday night, the prospect of heading to Detroit down two games with Justin Verlander waiting in Game 3 had become real for the Boston Red Sox.
By the time Sox got their second hit of the series, they’d struck out 28 times in 15 2/3 innings. They’d taken plenty of bad swings. They’d struggled through bad at-bats.
It was dire to the point that, when a fan seated near the Sox dugout kept yelling encouragements, citing that day’s dramatic Patriots’ comeback as a reason to stay optimistic, backup catcher David Ross tossed him a ball out of appreciation.
Even if Ross wasn’t sure he had the same faith the fan did.
“Wow,” the catcher said he was thinking, “that guy has more hope than I do.”
In Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer, Detroit threw the AL earned run average champion and the presumptive Cy Young Award winner at the Sox in the first two games. But the Sox seemed to make things harder on themselves, too, appearing to let the strike zone of home plate umpire Joe West ruffle them Saturday, then looking like they were pressing as they failed to get a hit over the first five frames on Sunday.
“It was tough,” catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “We didn’t get much going (Saturday), and (Sunday) was going the same way.”
Until the Tigers roughed up Clay Buchholz in the sixth, the scoring differential between the teams was just two runs, and Boston’s pitching was practically matching Detroit’s, minus the strikeouts.
But it sure didn’t feel that way. It felt like their failures had crept inside the Sox’ collective head. It felt like the series was slipping away from them.
Then, sparked by a Shane Victorino single and a Dustin Pedroia double, they began to shake the funk.
And the real team, the 97-win, best-in-the-AL team, showed up.
“It was like, ‘Oh, we got a hit and we got on the board in the same inning. OK. Here we go,’” Ross said. “It’s just emotional. I don’t know if it was psychological, just emotional. Just something to cheer for.”
“Their pitching basically dominated us,” manager John Farrell added. “But Vic gets the two out base hit, Pedey gets the ball off the wall, and there was a little bit of life injected into us.”
Both the crowd and the dugout were jazzed again two innings later, when Will Middlebrooks mashed a double to the left-field corner. Jacoby Ellsbury followed with a walk in a lefty-on-lefty showdown with Drew Smyly, then, after a Victorino strikeout, the tide continued to rise when Pedroia smacked a single to right to load the bases.
Detroit changed pitchers three times in the frame, but the crowd never sat, even during the breaks. And the standing became more jumping and dancing and gyrating after the first pitch from Tiger closer Joaquin Benoit to David Ortiz, which the Sox’ designated hitter belted to the home bullpen for a game-tying grand slam.
“I’ve been on teams where if you take the wind out of the sail, it’s a wrap. I think we’ve done a great job of doing that to teams. It’s not 2013 Sox baseball, by any means,” said left fielder Jonny Gomes, who was pressed by a reporter’s claim that it would’ve just been human nature to let their failures bury them.
Replied Gomes, “I guess we’re not human.”
The first 14 innings of the series proved that they are, of course. And now that’s a good thing. Now the Sox are the team with momentum and confidence. Verlander is coming in feeling good about himself, too, after a brilliant effort in Game 5 of the Division Series, but it would’ve been all the more difficult without Sunday’s heroics.
“We needed it, man,” Ortiz said. “We needed start some momentum going on. I’m pretty sure that that game that we’re going to have on Tuesday against Verlander, I’m pretty sure you’re going to see guys having better at‑bats.
“And the past couple of days, I mean, see the whole regular season you haven’t seen a team shutting us down for 14, 15 straight innings like they have the past couple of days.”
And now that their heads are clear, and hope has been restored both behind the dugout and inside, you may not see it again.
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.