ST. LOUIS — The Boston Red Sox needed a hero. After throwing away two World Series games in a row, with images burning fresh in their minds of crazy heaves going down the left field line as the St. Louis Cardinals sent home game-winning runs, the Red Sox needed somebody — anybody — to ignore the heat of the spotlight and the weight of expectations, someone to transform Game 4 into a Series-tying victory, not a third straight loss that could doom their title chances.
Yet an hour before game time, they certainly didn’t know it would be Jonny Gomes, who wasn’t even in the original starting lineup, who would hit the three-run game-winning homer in the sixth inning to turn a 1-1 tie into an eventual 4-2 win. When bad is good, you know your luck has turned. When you’ve just become only the second team that anybody can uncover in MLB history to lose a game on a walk-off obstruction call, you need something strange to reverse the mojo, something genuinely weird, something with a maze of multicolored tattoos and a beard that could hide a first baseman’s mitt. Yes, heeeerrreee’s Jonny.
When Shane Victorino couldn’t get his balky back to loosen up in batting practice, Manager John Farrell turned to the players he thinks leads his team in intangibles. He tabbed the sawed-off, barrel-chested, free-swinging go-for-the-pump slugger Gomes and batted him directly behind his hottest hitter, David Ortiz, to “protect” Big Papi.
“All I fight for in this career of mine is an opportunity,” said the 32-year-old, who has played for five teams yet gotten more than 385 at-bats in a season only once in his 11-year career. “When I get a chance, I’m steppin’ up. I’m not dodgin’. I saw the lineup card — batting fifth, now I’m protecting David Ortiz. Good luck with all that.”
Good luck for the Red Sox, anyway. To grasp the man and his perfect moment, you have to realize that Gomes is absolutely crazy, stark staring batty about baseball but in a wonderful, innocent and unembarrassed way. As soon as you meet him you know he’s baseball’s equivalent of the guy with a basketball jones who has his own set of keys to let himself into the gym at midnight to shoot 300 more free throws.
He loves to talk and think inside baseball constantly, looking for base-running edges, signs to steal from second base and pitchers’ tendencies to help tip his teammates. He’s a power bat, with 149 career homers, but he thinks like a utility middle infielder.
Gomes, who played (sparingly) for the Nationals in ’11, always thinks he should be in the lineup, then shuts up when he isn’t. He’s such an unlikely hero that there isn’t even an “h” in his name. So it’s perfect that his career moment, a 400-foot blast off a sinking fastball from righty Seth Maness deep into the Boston bullpen in the sixth inning, came on a night his name wasn’t even in the original starting lineup.
From the outside world, Gomes disguises how much he cares under a bunch of wild man tattoos and, this year in Boston, a gigantic beard he began growing in spring training along with another new Boston teammate, Mike Napoli.
Napoli had played on a pennant winner in Texas. Gomes had never made it past division series losses with the Reds and A’s but burned for a ring like few players you’ll ever meet. Both were sending a message to the Red Sox: Crazy commitment is good. Want to join up? Dustin Pedroia, one ventricle of the Red Sox’s heart for their ’07 championship team, saw kindred gritty spirits immediately and threw out his razor.
“Jonny is one of the leaders in our clubhouse. His value goes above and beyond his numbers,” Farrell said. That’s why he ignored all Gomes’s postseason numbers! Jonny entered this game with the worst postseason batting average (.125) of any active player with at least 40 at-bats.
Yet Farrell, like many others, simply felt Gomes will strike magic somehow. Eight days ago, his double, a foot from the top of the Monster, ignited the rally that led to Victorino’s pennant-winning grand slam.
In his first at-bat, Gomes grounded into a double play. Next time, he battled starter Lance Lynn to a 10-pitch walk. Of 12 pitches, 11 were fastballs. A pattern? A vet whose bat had slowed late in the season? Don’t mess with off-speed stuff to his guy; just knock the bat out of sawed-off, barrel-chested Jonny’s hands?
In the sixth, the Cards insulted Gomes by semi-intentionally walking Ortiz with a man on first base and two outs. In a 1-1 game, St. Louis was willing to burn the book and put the go-ahead run in scoring position just to get to Gomes instead of coping with Big Papi. In came Maness: fastball, fastball, fastball, all hard two-seamers with sink.
On the 16th pitch he saw — and the 15th fastball — Gomes finally jacked one. Pedroia, on second base, leaped in the air. The Red Sox, a team hemmed in by headaches and handicaps, had found their fitting hero — one of the godfathers of the beards.
“I’d probably screw it up if I tried to put into words what’s going on inside me — special, magical,” Gomes said. “I’m thinking of the messages, the mentors, the helping paths that I’ve had from the people who helped me get here. I hope they’re taking their two cents out of this. . . .
“Then I step in the box, and I’m all alone,” Gomes said. “I’m sure there’s a book on me [can’t reach the high heat with all that upper-body bulk]. But if I get a mistake, the bat’s gonna come through the zone hot.”
And that’s how the ball left the park, scorched and screaming.
In Game 3, the Cards spit on the “protection” behind Ortiz. Twice they walked him, once intentionally, once an obvious pitch-around. “Don’t let him beat you,” Game 4 starter Lynn said. “If I need to walk him, I’ll walk him.” The Cardinals’ message: In St. Louis, with no DH allowed in the NL park, your nine-man AL lineup just became only seven men deep.
So the Red Sox put out an all-points bulletin for a hero, a protector. In the sixth, with Ortiz on first and Pedroia on second, Gomes’s bat came through the zone hot, and he flew around the bases.
“Purely emotion,” Gomes said of his reaction. “I don’t think I’m that good to plan out my home runs in the World Series.”
A Series that’s now tied.
That’s Gomes, pronounced like “homes.” Or, if you prefer, “home run.” Or home as in Fenway Park, that welcoming place to which the Red Sox and this World Series are now certain to return.