ST. LOUIS – Jonny Gomes swings a baseball bat with a brief and heaving hack, as if his body were entangled in baling wire. In left field, he's slightly less graceful than that. He's a sight.
There's this saying, though. It goes, "They don't ask how." And Gomes is beautiful enough in his rolling, tattooed, bewhiskered simplicity, how he attacks the whole game with a thick, barreled-out body and eyes alight with the opportunity. Man, he loves to win. To be around guys he likes and then to win. Then sometimes it seems enough just to try, and Lord knows he's done plenty of trying in plenty of places. It's worked and it hasn't, depending on the time and place, and then depending on who believed with him, or in him, and who didn't, and in the end there was Jonny, finding the best of it and probably having a laugh and maybe already off looking for the next chance.
So it came to be that he'd stand in the on-deck circle Sunday night with what seemed like the World Series on the line. Nothing would be won or lost, necessarily, but Gomes' Boston Red Sox had gone down painfully the night before, and weren't hitting, and were down in the series, two games to one. They'd have to fight now to return the series to Boston, against the momentum of the St. Louis Cardinals.
In a 1-1 game with two out and two on in the sixth inning, Gomes would bat against Seth Maness, a right-handed sinkerballer he didn't know. He walked to the plate. He set his back foot, then the front. He drew his hands near his right ear, the bat high. Maness threw him four pitches, all of them sinkers, all of them near Gomes' knees, and the count stood at 2-and-2. Dustin Pedroia led off second base, David Ortiz off first.
At that moment, Gomes was hitless in eight at-bats in the series. The Red Sox were batting .184. If something was going to happen, it would be there and then.
In the bullpen, out beyond the left-field fence, the veteran Ryan Dempster sat bundled up on a bench against the back wall. Craig Breslow sat beside him. He'd tucked his baseball glove behind him.
Dempster turned to Breslow and said, "I should probably grab my glove in case I have to catch this."
Breslow nodded. Dempster retrieved his glove and started to stand up.
In the dugout, behind Gomes from the batter's box, Jake Peavy sat beside Jarrod Saltalamacchia. He turned to the catcher and said, "I will take this guy in any situation, really in life, but in any baseball situation at any point in any game. Give me Jonny Gomes and I'll take him."
Gomes raised his bat again, and sat heavy into his legs, and readied that swing that could only be his.
"He has no follow-through," catcher David Ross said. "Like the little guy in the pinball machine."
A rookie who hadn't given up an earned run in seven playoff appearances, Maness threw a fifth sinker to Gomes. This one was not at the knees, however. It rode up higher, maybe overthrown in the moment, and it was slightly in, and there is maybe nothing in the world Gomes likes better than to turn on a 90-mph fastball.
"It's a heavyweight fight," Gomes would say, "and you have to win as many rounds as you can."
His bat barrel struck the ball clean, and the sound stunned the Busch Stadium crowd into silence, and then a gasp. Matt Holliday turned and quickly sidled to the warning track, then the fence. Dempster took a couple more steps forward, out of the darkness, then stopped. Between Dempster and the fence, John Lackey was warming up. "I didn't want to take a fastball to the chest," he said. Peavy's and Saltalamacchia's heads turned with the ball, following it toward Holliday and the fence and the bullpen. Holliday took one last step and threw himself into the air. His body hit the wall and, as it did, his glove whiplashed back and forth.
The ball hit the bullpen grass on the fly. Dempster caught it in his glove on one hop. Gomes howled and pounded his chest and carried that big ol' square body around the bases, Pedroia and Ortiz somewhere out in front of him. The Red Sox had taken a 4-1 lead, on their way to a 4-2 win and a World Series tied after four games. Gomes had learned half-way through batting practice that he'd even play in Game 4, and then only because starting right fielder Shane Victorino was suffering from a sore back, and starting left fielder Daniel Nava would move to right field, leaving Gomes to left.