Red Sox in familiar territory
Boston has won eight of past nine potential elimination games
BOSTON -- Under these familiarly dire circumstances in the past, the Red Sox have pressed their fists to the ground, hoisted themselves back up and turned their opponents upside down.
They need to do it again or their first World Series title defense in 86 years is going to be an unsatisfactorily short experience.
Like a boxer trying to defend a belt, expect the Red Sox to come out with roundhouse swings to send this American League Division Series back to Chicago. And when it comes to the 2005 Red Sox, nobody packs a bigger wallop than David Ortiz.
"When you know you're against the ropes, you can do nothing but bring your best game out there," said Ortiz. "We've been against the ropes a lot. Keep fighting, come hungry on Friday and try to do your best."
As the fluctuating blood pressures of their fans can attest, the Red Sox have played nine potential elimination games the past two Octobers. They somehow managed to win eight of them.
There was the 2003 ALDS against Oakland, when Boston dropped the first two games, came back to Fenway and won a couple of nail-biters and then survived a jarringly tense Game 5 in Oakland. While everyone remembers the infamously crushing defeat in Game 7 at Yankee Stadium in the American League Championship Series that year, what is sometimes forgotten is that the Red Sox won Game 6 in Yankee Stadium just to get it to a winner-take-all. Eleven players remain from that battle-tested '03 team.
Of course, there was the epic occurrence of last October, when a 19-8 pasting from the Yankees put the Red Sox in a 3-0 hole in the ALCS. Two extra-inning marathon wins at Fenway followed by two monumental victories in New York gave the Red Sox an achievement no other baseball team has ever tasted. Fourteen players from the '05 postseason roster are still around from that team.
There are three players (Tim Wakefield, Trot Nixon and Jason Varitek) who also experienced the 1999 Division Series comeback, when the Sox were pinned in a 2-0 hole at Jacobs Field, came back to win two at Fenway and then rode six no-hit innings out of the bullpen from Pedro Martinez in Game 5 to advance to the ALCS.
None of this means that the Red Sox will duplicate such heroics. It just means that they know they've done it before.
"It's not like all is still well, because you're down 2-0," said Ortiz. "But at least you can pick up your confidence when you're playing in the house."
The house, as Ortiz puts it, is the common thread of all these comebacks. Fenway Park has always been the place where they've started. The Red Sox posted a 54-27 record at home this season, the best in the Major Leagues.
"I think there's a number of reasons," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "I think every team is more comfortable in their home ballpark. The way ours is configured, I think our left-handed hitters know they can reach the wall. Manny is strong enough to reach the right-field wall. Not too many guys in baseball are."
Their pitchers also seem to perform better at home. Wakefield has been Boston's most consistent pitcher down the stretch, save for his last regular-season outing on three days' rest against the Yankees.
"We just have to stay aggressive," said Wakefield. "We've been in this situation before. Now that we're back at home, playing in front of our home crowd, there's still a chance."
To give themselves a chance, the Red Sox will need Wakefield to hold the White Sox down early with his knuckleball; they'll need the offense to establish some early momentum against White Sox right-hander Freddy Garcia. They'll need the crowd at its loudest.
"What it ultimately comes down to, regardless of whether you're experienced or not, is we need to win [Friday]," said Francona. "That's what we're going to try to do. If the experience helps, good. We know we need to win."
They are certainly familiar with the pressure that comes with that.
"That's the personality of this club," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "We tend not to do things easily, and we respond very well to pressure situations. We've put ourselves in one now. We'll see if we can respond."
"We are a team that was put together to feel like it can win every single night out," said Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon. "Now we're going to have to do it."
The bottom line is that the Red Sox need to produce a three-game winning streak, something they did 10 times during the regular season.
"I'm not going to panic, and I don't think anybody in this clubhouse is going to panic," said Damon. "We know our backs are against the wall. We'll try to get this first one and move on from there."
Because, as past history has taught them, that first one can lead to a lot more.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.