Marathon win lets Sox let out deep breath

Jacoby Ellsbury home run saves wild card lead for the Boston Red Sox, and maybe their season.

I was just about to withdraw my support of Jacoby Ellsbury for American League MVP, seeing as how he was playing for a non-contender.

That’s how it looked, right?

The Red Sox were embarrassed in Game 1 of Sunday’s doubleheader, then fell behind 3-0 in the first inning of Game 2.

Another blowout loomed with embattled right-hander John Lackey pitching. The Red Sox seemed destined to drop into a tie with the Rays for the AL wild-card lead.

But then — perhaps — the Sox’s entire season changed.

Lackey recovered to pitch into the seventh. The Sox took the lead, lost it, but kept grinding as the game rolled into its fourth and fifth hour. The Yankees, resting four of their regulars, managed only two hits in the final 12 innings.

And with two outs in the 14th, Ellsbury launched a three-run homer off the Yankees’ eighth pitcher, right-hander Scott Proctor, lifting the Red Sox to a 7-4 win, pushing their wild-card lead back to one game with three to play.

Chew a little gum during that one, Terry Francona?

“I set a record,” the Red Sox manager said. “My tongue is, like, numb.”

The Sox are still only 6-18 in September. They’ve still blown most of a nine-game lead. But if they don’t exhale after what catcher Jason Varitek called “as important a game for us as there has been in a while,” they never will.

Francona, asked if the team could breathe now, said, “I hope we were breathing before — maybe every other breath.”

Well, the Sox clubhouse certainly seemed energized afterward as the rookies dressed in racy female outfits for the team’s final regular-season road swing, a baseball tradition that would have looked horribly inappropriate had the outcome been different.

Closer Jonathan Papelbon, who struck out four in 2-1/3 innings, his longest outing since May 15, 2010, coined a new phrase, "grind to shine," and grew passionate talking about the intensity of the pennant race.

“If you don’t like this, you ain’t got blood flowing through your veins,” Papelbon said. “If you don’t like this, if you’re not going to play tired, if you’re not going to play hurt and you’re in this clubhouse, you ain’t got blood running through your veins.

“I hope we’re back here in a couple of weeks (to face the Yankees in the ALCS). That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Easy, Pap. One step at a time.

Right-hander Josh Beckett will start for the Sox on Monday night against the Orioles, followed by lefty Erik Bedard and lefty Jon Lester on three days rest, if necessary.

The Rays, hosting the Yankees, will use their three best starters: James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson and David Price. The Yankees will counter with less than their best: Hector Noesi, Bartolo Colon and a pitcher to be determined.

However, Yanks manager Joe Girardi almost certainly will field more representative lineups than he did in the two games Sunday, when he was concerned about wearing down his regulars in the doubleheader.

Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira did not start Game 1. Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Russell Martin and Brett Gardner did not start Game 2, and only Gardner entered the game later.

The Red Sox, of course, didn’t care that they beat the best of Scranton-Wilkes Barre in the nightcap, not after the way they embarrassed themselves against the Yankees’ initial split squad in the opener.

In the first inning of Game 1 alone, the Yankees scored two runs without hitting a ball out of the infield, thanks to two bunt singles against ancient kuckleballer Tim Wakefield, two walks, one passed ball, one wild pitch and an error on catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

Game 2 was different, a drawn-out epic, a typical Red Sox-Yankees masterpiece. Francona compared it to the July 1, 2004 classic at the old Yankee Stadium, the one in which Derek Jeter dove into the stands and featured a number of other extraordinary plays.

The Sox certainly did not lack for stars, starting with Lackey, who stormed off the mound cursing when Francona removed him after Eric Chavez’s leadoff single in the seventh — and for once, he actually had a legitimate beef.

Varitek said that Lackey’s resolve after the first inning set the tone for the entire club. A series of unlikely heroes — Jed Lowrie, Marco Scutaro, J.D. Drew in his first game since July 19 — helped fuel the Red Sox’s comeback. The lead Varitek provided with his one-out single in the seventh evaporated on a sacrifice fly by Chris Dickerson, but the Sox kept pressing forward.

Papelbon was at his brilliant best. Left-hander Franklin Morales fought through two eventful innings for the win. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia made a diving stop on Granderson leading off the 13th that Francona said “might have saved our season.”

Then there was Ellsbury.

He hit two home runs in Game 1, becoming the first player in Red Sox history with 30 homers and 30 stolen bases in the same season. But he was only 1 for 6 in Game 2 when he stepped in against Proctor with runners on first and second and two outs in the 14th.

Proctor threw a breaking ball for ball one. Ellsbury said he sat on a fastball, and he got one over the plate. The three-run shot gave him 103 RBI for the season, an extraordinary total for a leadoff hitter.

The Sox could breathe.

“We’re on a one-game winning streak,” Pedroia told a Boston radio reporter. “Smile, bro.”

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