NEW YORK -- They knew it.
I'm sure they wouldn't have said it, had Sunday night's incredible game at Yankee Stadium ended differently. But they knew.
The Red Sox knew.
This game was their season. This was it. This was how they were going to be remembered.
And now they can change the story.
Now they can say, as Jonathan Papelbon did on the way out of Yankee Stadium, "Hopefully, we're back here in a couple weeks."
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Yes, the wild-card lead is down to a single game, the smallest it's been at the end of a full day of play since early June. Yes, they need to go to Baltimore and win at least a couple of games, and maybe all three, because there's a real chance that the less-motivated Yankees will lose one, two or all three at the Trop against the Rays.
The difference is that now you can see the Red Sox winning two or even three games. The difference, after Jacoby Ellsbury's 14th-inning home run gave the Sox a 7-4 win over the Yankees, is that now they can see themselves winning those games.
"Now we're not slumping," Papelbon said. "Now we roll."
Or, as Dustin Pedroia put it, "We're on a one-game winning streak. Smile, bro."
Look, if the Sox had lost Sunday, they'd have told us that they still believe. They'd have told us how having Josh Beckett on the mound Monday was comforting.
They'd have been lying, and they'd know it.
So often, it takes losses to get a team to tell the truth. In this case, it took a win.
It came from manager Terry Francona, when he was asked about Pedroia's fine play on Curtis Granderson to start the 13th inning.
"Who knows?" Francona said. "That may have saved our season."
|While his Red Sox teammates have more or less collapsed around him, Jacoby Ellsbury has not. (Getty Images)|
"If we'd have lost, we would have still had a chance," Francona said. "But it helps. It helps a lot."
It helps so much that Francona was ready to send Papelbon to the mound for what would have been a fourth inning, had the Red Sox taken the lead in the top of the 12th. It helps so much that Papelbon was prepared to pitch until it was over, if his manager had asked.
One win really can change a season. One win really can change history.
We don't remember teams that almost collapsed. But we sure do remember the ones that finish it off.
Maybe the Red Sox still do that. Maybe the series in Baltimore turns into a disaster.
Maybe I'm writing some entirely different words late Monday night at Camden Yards.
But I don't think so. Much more importantly, they no longer think so.
These things get in players' minds. You get games like the one the Red Sox played Saturday (a 9-1 loss) or the one they played Sunday afternoon (a 6-2 loss that began with an ugly first inning).
It was after that game that David Ortiz sat in front of his locker and said, "Our game tonight can tell you a lot."
It sure did, especially when it began with John Lackey allowing three first-inning runs (the last one on a Varitek throwing error). For the 15th time in the last 17 games, the Red Sox had failed to score the first run of a game.
"To fall behind again, it took a lot of grit, because it's happened a lot," Varitek said. "This team gritted."
Lackey gritted first, going five more innings and leaving with just those three runs on the board. The bullpen gritted, with five relievers combining to pitch eight innings and allow the Yankees just one hit.
Finally, there was Ellsbury.
He has played like an MVP all year, and especially all this month, even as his teammates have collapsed around him. He probably won't win it -- and definitely won't if the Sox miss the playoffs -- but the game-winning homer off Scott Proctor was certainly MVP-like.
"That was about as important a game for us as there's been in a while," said Varitek, who would know.
He knows how these things go, and he knows how losses and collapses can start to feel inevitable.
It felt that way with the Red Sox Sunday afternoon. It felt much, much less that way late Sunday night.
Did one win save their season?
"It saved today, for sure," Varitek said.
It changed inevitable back to possible, and even leaning towards unlikely. As in it's still possible the Red Sox go home for the winter on Thursday.
But it sure is a lot less likely.