- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK -- This was one statistic the "Moneyball" crowd couldn't calculate. Terry Francona was on his own.
So just how many sticks of gum did the Boston Red Sox manager consume in the 15 or so hours he spent at Yankee Stadium on Sunday?
"I set a record," he said. "My tongue is, like, numb."
Frayed nerves. Overloaded synapses. Lurching stomachs. Hearts near to bursting.
And yes, at least one numbed tongue. All came into play on a day in which the clock could have struck midnight on the chances of the Red Sox to advance to the playoffs, their lead down to a half-game over the Tampa Bay Rays after losing the matinee end of Sunday's day-night doubleheader with the New York Yankees.
Instead, the Sox bought themselves time -- and breathing room -- when Jacoby Ellsbury -- in what may well be remembered as the signature moment of an MVP season -- hit a three-run home run in the 14th inning to give the Sox a 7-4 win over the Yankees in a game that ended at 11:44 p.m. -- 5 hours, 11 minutes after it began.
"It's a huge win," said Ellsbury, the man of not only the hour but also of a season that had come perilously close to slipping away. "It allows us to control our own destiny. We know if we win out, we're in."
The Red Sox and Rays are separated by a game with three to play. The Sox go to Baltimore to face the Orioles, who last week beat them three out of four times in Fenway Park and have played like a club relishing the spoiler role, winning series against the Rays, Angels and Sox all in the span of little more than a week.
Now can the Sox at least begin to breathe again?
"I hope we were breathing before," Francona said. "Maybe every other breath. It was a big win, but now we've got to go down there and play good tomorrow."
The Rays are home for three games against the Yankees, who beat them three out of four in the Bronx while clinching the AL East title but whose primary interest now is just tuning up for the playoffs. They rested regulars against the Sox on Sunday, and they almost certainly will do the same in The Trop.
If the Sox run the table this week and win their last three games, it doesn't matter what the Rays do. That wouldn't have been the case had Boston lost Sunday night, which is what gave the comeback from a 3-0 first-inning deficit its urgency. The Sox took a 4-3 lead in the seventh on a single by Jason Varitek -- his first hit with runners in scoring position this month -- and the Yankees tied it in the bottom of the seventh on a base hit, stolen base and sacrifice fly.
From the start of the third inning until the end of the game, the Yankees managed only two more hits, both singles, and the Sox and Ellsbury finally broke through against the many-times-recycled Scott Proctor, the eighth Yankees pitcher of the night. Pinch-hitter Darnell McDonald singled, Marco Scutaro walked, and one out later Ellsbury, who had homered twice in the 6-2 afternoon loss to become the first 30-30 man in club history, launched a fastball into the Yankee bullpen.
"Now we're not slumping, now we roll," proclaimed closer Jonathan Papelbon, who entered with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth to strike out Austin Romine, then struck out three more Yankees in a seven-up, seven-down stint that matched his longest of the season.
A team with a 6-18 record in September, which would be the worst of any team ever to advance to the postseason, is now on a roll? Yes indeed, Papelbon said. That's how much this win meant; it changed everything.
"One pitch, one out, one game, everything," said Papelbon, who went on a rhetorical roll after the game almost as impressive as the one he enjoyed against the Yankees.
No, he said, he hadn't come to the point that he expects Ellsbury to come through the way he did.
"You've got to go out there and grind and shine every day," he said. "That's patented. Don't use it.
"That's it. This is grinding season. Now we've got to go ball in Baltimore. If you don't like this, you ain't got blood going through your veins, right? If you don't like this -- if you're not going to play tired, you're not going to play hurt, and you're in this clubhouse, then you don't have blood going through your veins.
"Yeah, it's tough, but that's why you grind. If you want to shine, you grind. If you grind, you shine."
And if you want to keep playing baseball in October? You take it one stick of gum at a time.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.