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10/17/08 3:50 AM EST

Sox catch Rays with late, great rally

Facing elimination, Boston stages unprecedented comeback

BOSTON -- Keep your vistas of the Charles River, the rectangular monolith of the Prudential Center sparkling from the Back Bay and the tree-lined pathways crackling with vibrant shades of orange and red.

The most beautiful sight in the entire city of Boston, at least as far as the Red Sox were concerned, was a battered yellow "4" sliding into place on the Green Monster on Thursday night.

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Four runs -- three of them on David Ortiz's towering bash -- and there was a renewal of October life at Fenway Park.

The Red Sox needed it, more than at any point this season. Down by seven runs and with seven outs separating them from a premature New England winter, the Red Sox staged a comeback for the ages, pulling off an 8-7 victory in Game 5 that manager Terry Francona would fittingly describe as "magical."

"A loss and we stay home," Francona said. "I've never seen a group so happy to get on a plane at 1:30 [ET] in the morning in my life."

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the comeback was the second largest in postseason history, eclipsed only by the Philadelphia A's rallying from 8-0 down to beat the Cubs in Game 4 of the 1929 World Series. But no team facing postseason elimination had ever come back from seven or more runs down.

Boston's predicament, needing to win three straight to avoid permitting the Rays their first World Series appearance, inspired some hope. After all, the Red Sox -- or those wearing their laundry -- had pulled this off twice this decade, rallying from near-certain defeat to stow rings in safe-deposit boxes.

"We were in this spot last year and found a way, but it's not last year," Dustin Pedroia said.

And nothing about the first six innings on Thursday made it appear anything of the sort would -- could -- take place. Dispatched with six scoreless innings by a free-and-easy Scott Kazmir, the Red Sox had little reason to believe as they slumped in the ancient first-base dugout.

"We did nothing," Francona said. "They had their way with us every way possible."

B.J. Upton's two-run double in the seventh inning off Jonathan Papelbon wasn't just insurance, it was a final nail in the coffin for a groaning Red Sox team -- too old, too beat up and too lackadaisical. You could practically hear the WEEI radio callers clearing their throats.

Remarkable rallies
Biggest deficits overcome in postseason history
AthleticsCubs10/12/29WS 4810-8
Red SoxRays10/16/08ALCS 578-7
YankeesBraves10/23/96WS 468-6
DodgersYankees10/5/56WS 2613-8

Except it never happened. The eight-run rally gassed a charter jet out at Logan Airport and sent a jubilant crew back down to Florida, and it all started with a sinking line drive off the bat of Pedroia in the seventh inning, as right fielder Gabe Gross decided to play it safe on a hop. Small victory, but Pedroia said, keep grinding.

"Whatever happens, happens," Pedroia said. "Not much was going our way at that point."

Safety was the last concern on Big Papi's mind as he got a Grant Balfour fastball in his wheelhouse, crushing it some dozen rows deep into a crimson free-for-all. There was that yellow "4" on the board, a winking promise of more to come.

"We were down by a lot of runs," Ortiz said, "and we never give up. We keep on fighting; we keep on playing."

Red Sox in Game 5s
With a win Thursday vs. the Rays, the Red Sox are 6-1 in Game 5s when they are trailing 3-1 in a best-of-seven or best-of-nine postseason series.
YearSeriesFoeGame 5Series
1903WSPittsburghWonWon in 8
1967WSSt. LouisWonLost in 7
1986ALCSCaliforniaWonWon in 7
1999ALCSNew YorkLostLost in 5
2004ALCSNew YorkWonWon in 7
2007ALCSClevelandWonWon in 7

What could manager Joe Maddon do, using his until-now golden touch to punch buttons from the Rays' dugout? Certainly, a topic worthy of debate, but the name called came up Dan Wheeler, recording the last out of the seventh inning and back out to work after the Rays' fruitless eighth.

This would be a save situation for Wheeler, protecting a three-run lead, and two batters in, it was a frenzied one-run lead as J.D. Drew pummeled his first homer of the series.

Wheeler finessed two outs, but Mark Kotsay doubled to move the tying run to second base before Coco Crisp engaged in what Francona called "his best at-bat as a Red Sox," waging a 10-pitch battle before serving an even-up single into right field.

Fenway's rafters literally shook as the only numbers that mattered were these: "TB 7, BOSTON 7."

"They didn't have too much to cheer about up until that eighth inning," Kotsay said. "They got behind us and they rallied with us. I've always known that these fans are great to play in front of, and they proved it again tonight."

One run off Justin Masterson would have rescued the Rays, of course, turning this all into a phew-how-close-was-that moment. But that didn't happen either -- momentum being the strange bedfellow it is.

Carlos Pena, who'd hit into two double plays all season, picked the top of the ninth inning to bestow a DP upon Masterson, and a Red Sox win seemed a foregone conclusion even before anyone stepped to the plate in the home half.

In front of a riotous, chanting and confident crowd who believed -- they'd just seen the impossible, yet again, after all -- Drew delivered the game-winning single, hopping the right-field wall.

"It's a playoff game and we're facing elimination, and we're down by so much," Crisp said. "To come back and win it in the ninth on a walk-off by J.D. is pretty much the most amazing thing I've ever been a part of."

"You can't dwell on it," Maddon said. "We'll lose for a half hour or so, and then we'll move on. We have another game to play."

If one had glanced at the clock keeping time above Fenway and not at the playing field below, the most passionate of Red Sox diehards would have noticed that Boston won this Oct. 17 game at precisely 12:16 a.m.

Five years ago at the same exact moment, Tim Wakefield was uncorking a floating knuckleball that would soar into the night sky above Yankee Stadium, as Aaron Boone crushed Boston's playoff hopes and sent New York to the World Series.

And perhaps, with a half decade to ponder that moment, that fan would consider this -- that Bronx stadium has no baseball left in it, while the Red Sox are guaranteed at least nine more innings.

A bus ride away from the very friendly skies and a straight shot down the Eastern Seaboard, Ortiz was asked if this marked Boston's greatest comeback.

"I've got to sit down and think about it," Ortiz said. "We've been coming from behind a lot of times. But this was a great win and we've got to keep playing. We're going back there and we've got to make things happen."

Technically, Drew should have been able to trot to second base and attain his rightful ground-rule double, but the aborted dash seemed appropriate in the end. For one night, the Red Sox had come far enough.

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.