NEW YORK -- The Boston Red Sox bid lavishly on Jose Contreras last winter and helped make him a very rich man when he turned down their offer and signed a $32 million deal with the Yankees. If the Red Sox go on to win the World Series, that failed negotiation might be remembered in Boston lore as the deal that reversed The Curse of The Bambino -- when the Yankees' consumption finally finished them.
With Boston only nine outs from elimination Wednesday night, Yankees manager Joe Torre trusted Contreras with a 6-4 lead, and within a span of just a few pitches, Contreras had relinquished that edge and the Red Sox would go on to win, 9-6, to tie the best-of-seven series at three games apiece.
The deciding Game 7 on Thursday will be a stage for legends, performing on a set built over 85 years by these two teams. Three-time Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez pitches for Boston, against the Yankees' Roger Clemens, winner of six Cy Young Awards. Clemens is retiring after this season and will try to avoid an imperfect symmetry -- he began his career with the Red Sox, and his career could end against them.
Martinez must pitch within the most hostile environment he has ever experienced. He already was something of a marked man in Yankee Stadium, because of his standing as the Boston ace, but his contribution to the Game 3 incidents will fuel a crowd that already despises him. When the series was tied one game apiece, Boston reliever Todd Jones recalled, "and we were leaving for Game 3, everybody (in Yankee Stadium) was chanting, 'We want Pedro.' I didn't hear anybody chanting, 'We want Pedro' tonight.' "
The fans in Yankee Stadium were stunned into silence by the Boston comeback in Game 6. They have seen the Yankees close out opponents with robotic efficiency during Torre's tenure as manager, and the Yankees had a series-clinching win in their hands -- in the hands of Contreras.
The Red Sox scored four runs in the third inning against Andy Pettitte, taking a 4-1 lead, but the Yankees had finally taken advantage of John Burkett's soft stuff and scored four runs in the fourth; Nick Johnson doubled home two runs, and after Nomar Garciaparra booted an easy grounder, Alfonso Soriano smashed a two-run double. The Yankees were ahead, 5-4, and added another run in the bottom of the fifth when Jorge Posada drove an opposite-field home run off Bronson Arroyo.
The Yankees had a two-run cushion and they had Mariano Rivera waiting in the bullpen, prepared to get the last three outs in the ninth inning.
Torre needed to nine outs from his other pitchers. Pettitte had thrown 92 pitches in the first five innings, a high pitch count, but he seemingly settled down in the fourth and fifth. Three of the first four hitters scheduled to hit for Boston in the top of the sixth were left-handed, like Pettitte, which might have normally influenced Torre to keep Pettitte in the game.
But Contreras had warmed up in the third inning, the fourth and the fifth, and his nasty splitter has been more effective against left-handed batters, so Contreras was summoned from the bullpen -- not the decision Pettitte would have made. As Pettitte talked about it afterward, he hemmed and hawed a bit, some exasperation in his face. "Joe's the manager and he has to make those decisions," Pettitte said.
"Andy battled, he threw a lot of pitches in five innings, but he had that one bad inning," said Torre. "I just felt it was time to make a change and go to Jose. Again, because he was so well-rested and what we have seen from him, it was an easy decision for me to make at that point."
Contreras made Torre look brilliant in the sixth, striking out three of the four hitters he faced, frustrating the Red Sox with his diving splitter. Contreras said he felt good, and that the multiple calls to warm up in the bullpen had helped him stay loose in the cool air, rather than tiring him. Torre had the rest of the game laid out in his mind: Contreras for six more outs, Rivera for the ninth.
Meanwhile, Boston manager Grady Little was gambling. The Red Sox were down two runs entering the bottom of the sixth, they were in jeopardy of being eliminated and yet Little kept calling to his bullpen for the underbelly of his pitching staff -- relievers who hadn't been used much, like Arroyo and Jones. Little was holding back Mike Timlin and Scott Williamson for the late innings, but it began to look like the late innings would be irrelevant.
Soriano singled and moved to second on a wild pitch, and then Jones walked Jeter. Left-hander Alan Embree relieved Jones to pitch to the left-handed hitting Jason Giambi, and Soriano and Jeter executed a double-steal. Boston's season was about to evaporate.
But Giambi has looked awful in the postseason, completely vulnerable to any decent fastball, and Embree blew him away with a high fastball, the second of Giambi's three strikeouts in this game. Bernie Williams grounded out to third, ending the inning, the Red Sox still down by two runs.
The only superstar who had struggled more than Giambi in this series was Garciaparra, who led off the seventh and slammed a slider to left-center, into the gusting 25 mph winds that swirled over Yankee Stadium and had aided Soriano's double earlier. The ball got down, between the outfielders, and when Hideki Matsui finally retrieved the ball and threw back toward the infield, he bounced the ball into the stands along the left-field line. Garciaparra, who already had a triple, was waved home, cutting the Yankees' lead in half.
Contreras' margin for error was diminished and he challenged Manny Ramirez, perhaps leery of falling behind in the count, firing a fastball -- and Ramirez bashed it to center field. This time, Derek Jeter thought, the wind actually helped keep Ramirez's long drive in the park; Ramirez had to settle for a double.
Contreras bounced a pitch past Posada, allowing Ramirez to move to third, before David Ortiz smashed a grounder off the first base bag. Ramirez trotted home with the tying run. "I came in with a two-run lead, and it was my job to hold it," Contreras said later. "I'm very disappointed."
Bill Mueller singled with one out, and left-hander Felix Heredia relieved Contreras and threw a wild pitch that advanced Ortiz and Mueller to third and second, respectively. Heredia struck out Trot Nixon for the second out, but after Jason Varitek was walked intentionally, Heredia walked Johnny Damon on four pitches to force home the go-ahead run. The excited shouts of the Red Sox players hovered above the concerned silence of 56,000 fans.
Nixon hit a two-run homer in the ninth and Little's bullpen was set up for the late innings, Timlin and Williamson closing out the Yankees. "I've never been around a club quite like this," said Little.
"They took our game," said Posada. "Coming into the ninth inning, we had a good feeling about it. But they took that feeling away."
A reporter asked Jeter if he was surprised by the Red Sox, because nobody expected Boston to win, and Jeter arched his eyebrows. "They expect to win," he said. Pedro Martinez will expect to win Game 7. And so will Roger Clemens.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.