The Night It Began: Game 4 Of The 2004 American League Championship Series (VIDEO)

The events of this week make now the ideal time--as though there could ever be a bad time--to re-live the magic of Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS.

The events of this week make now the ideal time–as though there could ever be a bad time–to re-live the magic of Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS.

It’s a Red Sox-Yankees weekend in Fenway Park coming off a week in which former Boston pitcher Derek Lowe retired. While Lowe is best remembered for winning the clinching game of all three postseason series in 2004, he’s less remembered for the work he did in Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series. And without that, nothing else that came after it would have been possible.

So—as though we need an excuse to re-live this turning point of Red Sox history—let’s take a look back at the game in which The Greatest Comeback Ever began.

The words Kevin Millar was telling the media before the game are now a part of not just Red Sox lore, but baseball history nationally. “Don’t let us win tonight,” Millar insisted before Game 4. Because, as he reminded the press corps, if the Sox won Game 4, then it was Pedro Martinez in Game 5, Curt Schilling in Game 6 and by Game 7 the weight of the world would be on the Yankees’ shoulders.

I didn’t hear about Millar’s words until after the fact, but that fateful Sunday morning in October 2004 a friend of mine, who was not a Sox fan, lifted my spirits by reiterating that same point.

The problem was, that presumed a win in Game 4 and I don’t think it’s appreciated just how unlikely that appeared on October 17, 2004. Tim Wakefield had given up his start for this game so he could pitch relief in the 19-8 Yankee blowout the previous night and save the bullpen. That meant Lowe was going to get the ball.

We touched on the highlights of Lowe’s fine career in Boston earlier this week, but the time leading up to this start was not one of those high points. He’d gone through a regular season that was, at best inconsistent, and at worst, consistently bad. On September 18 he’d faced the Yankees in a game where the Sox still had a chance to win the AL East, and failed to get out of the second inning. Two successive starts against what were then bad teams in Tampa Bay and Baltimore followed.

Seen in that context, his inning of relief to win the clinching game of the Division Series against the Angels seemed more like being in the right place at the right time, then a case of him really pitching well. Furthermore, as a finesse pitcher, who needed to keep the ball down, he hadn’t started a game since September 28 and had a total of three-plus innings in relief. I was certain the excessive rest would have him leaving the ball up in the zone and the hot Yankee hitters leading the way.

The start of the game seemed to play that out. With two outs in the third, Derek Jeter singled and Alex Rodriguez hit a home run. But Lowe settled down and he made it through five innings with the score still 2-0. The inability of the Boston offense to get anything going was aggravating, but if you wanted a good omen, this was it—after Wakefield kept the best relievers in the Red Sox bullpen rested, Lowe had given five quality innings.

It was the next inning of baseball—the bottom of the Red Sox fifth and the top of the Yankee sixth—that would leave both teams would some woulda, shoulda, coulda moments.

In retrospect, the way the bottom of the fifth unfolded was a little foreshadowing—desperate for some offense, Boston got started when Kevin Millar drew a leadoff walk. Mark Bellhorn walked with one out. With two outs, Orlando Cabrera delivered an RBI single. Yet another walk loaded up the bases. David Ortiz’s reputation as an elite clutch hitter was developing by this point in career, but not yet accepted fact. Ortiz continued to develop the case by slapping a two-run single to center and Boston had the lead.

But the top of the sixth made it look like this was another year where it wasn’t meant to be. With one out, Hideki Matsui—almost certain to be voted series MVP if his team could close it out—tripled. Francona hopped out of the dugout to come and get Lowe. It was an extremely quick hook, and the manager was greeted with some catcalls. But to be fair, it was an elimination game and the whole point of keeping Mike Timlin and Keith Foulke rested during Game 3 was to go to them early tonight. Lowe got a deserved ovation and left with the lead.

Now it was the Yankees’ turn to grind out a soft rally. An infield single to third produced one run. Then there was a walk and a wild pitch. Then came the most frustrating at-bats yet. With two outs, both Ruben Sierra and Tony Clark hit ground balls into the hole between first and second. Bellhorn made noble efforts both times, diving out and stopping the ball. On neither occasion could he get the runner at first, once getting the ball stuck in his glove. It was the softest of rallies, but the Yankees were back in front 4-3.

What if the Red Sox don’t give up the infield hits or the wild pitch? What if Yankee starter Orlando Hernandez wouldn’t have lost his ability to find the strike zone. Thankfully, the way things turned out, it’s New York fans who can torture themselves with the what-ifs. But speaking of torture, baseball fans had just watched an inning of play where there were 79 pitches, five walks, three infield hits and a wild pitch. A clinic it was not.

The game stayed pretty tame until the bottom of the ninth, and I think you all know what happened next. Let’s just watch it again instead…

What’s overlooked in the standard re-telling of this inning that changed the course of history is that the game should have ended in the ninth. Boston, after tying the game, had runners on first and third with no one out.

If you’re one of the fans who has purchased the DVD collection that has the complete game broadcast, dig it out and watch Cabrera’s at-bat against Mariano Rivera. Note that Cabrera, needing only to make decent contact to win the game, swings from his heels at a pitch up and in. Predictably he strikes out. If the Red Sox lose in extra innings, this horrible at-bat goes down in Sox infamy. As it is, it’s just left for petty writers like myself who haven’t forgotten how aggravated they were at the time to keep it alive.

And New York was the team that had the first two chances to win. They had a man on second with one out in both the 11th and 12th. But A-Rod hit a line drive right at Cabrera. And the immortal Curtis Leskanic, one of the last Sox relievers left, got Bernie Williams to fly to center to end one inning and then got out of the 12th.

Finally it was left for Big Papi. After a Manny Ramirez single started the inning, Ortiz delivered. Let’s watch it all over again…

The Greatest Comeback was underway.

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