Accidental hero Jonny Gomes

The sub wasn't supposed to be in the Game 4 lineup, but his HR was the key blow

Originally Published: October 27, 2013
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- Some things in life -- and baseball -- you can't plan, you can't script, you can't spit out of a computer.

Heck, some things in life -- and baseball -- you can't even explain.

Which brings us to the accidental hero of Game 4 of the 2013 World Series, Mr. Jonny Gomes.

There was no master plan that brought him to the plate Sunday night to produce the biggest hit of his lifetime, the game-winning three-run home run that would tie up this World Series at two games apiece.

There was no high-tech computer metric that told the Boston Red Sox to place him in the No. 5 hole on their lineup card, so he could lead them to a stunning 4-2 win over the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

[+] EnlargeJonny Gomes
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesClouting a three-run homer, Jonny Gomes finally fulfilled John Farrell's faith in him in October.

There was, to be honest, no science to this magic moment whatsoever -- because the accidental hero wasn't even supposed to play.

But sometimes in baseball, stuff just happens. Maybe it's supposed to happen. Maybe it's destined to happen. And maybe it's just a complete, freaky, fluky, goofy combination of luck and coincidence.

But all we know is that, a couple of hours before game time Sunday night, Jonny Gomes' name was nowhere to be found in that Red Sox lineup.

And then, come game time, there he was, hitting fifth, "protecting" David Ortiz, just six innings away from a swing of the bat that would change this World Series.

And why? All because Shane Victorino's back "tightened up." And wouldn't untighten. And turned into The Back Strain that Saved the Red Sox Season.

Hey, of course it did.

It has been that kind of World Series, a can't-miss reality show that veers in a whole new unforeseen direction every single night. And on this night, it veered in the direction of a 32-year-old journeyman who has been waiting all his life for this one golden October moment.

"The one thing I've always wanted out of this game was the opportunity," Gomes would say later, on a night he'd like to frame and hang on his wall, "whether that was a uniform, whether that was a pinch hit, whether that was to get a start. So I got the opportunity tonight. And one thing you can guarantee is, when I'm in the lineup, I'm going to be swinging."

And so there he was in the on-deck circle in the sixth inning, watching the Cardinals pitch around Ortiz -- obviously, shamelessly, purposefully -- to create a critical, game-on-the-line match-up designed to bring HIM to the plate.

But then, who could blame the Cardinals if that's how they thought? David Ortiz is one of the great October hitters who ever lived. He's a man who has made 17 postseason home run trots. He's a man hitting .727 in this World Series (8-for-11). He's a man who had already homered twice and had a grand slam stolen by Carlos Beltran. And he's a man who has reached base in 12 of his 16 trips to the plate.

[+] EnlargeJonny Gomes
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallNo Shane Victorino afield, Jonny Gomes nevertheless managed to get the job done in left.

And Jonny Gomes? He's a man who was 0 for this World Series (0-for-9, to be precise). A man who was 5-for-34 (.147) in this postseason. A man who hadn't homered in a month (since Sept. 27, 51 plate appearances ago). And a man who came into this day with -- ready? -- the lowest career postseason batting average (5-for-40, .125) of any active player with 40 or more plate appearances.

"So when you get thrown into that situation," said his friend and teammate, David Ross, "where Jonny Gomes is protecting David Ortiz in the World Series, I mean, who would have thought that? It's mind-boggling. So going into this game, they had to be saying, 'We're not letting David Ortiz beat us.' And then Jonny Gomes does."

Yes. He. Did. But the Cardinals never saw that coming.

With two men on and two outs in a 1-1 game, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny headed for the mound. Out of the game went starter Lance Lynn. In marched their resident ground-ball machine, Seth Maness.

Maness had the second-highest ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio in the National League this year (2.55-to-1). Gomes had the second-highest fly-ball-to-ground-ball ratio in the American League (2.26-to-1). So this was quite the duel.

But it didn't turn out the way Mike Matheny had it planned. The count ran to 2-and-2. Maness unfurled a sinker that didn't sink, waist-high, right down the middle. And Jonny Gomes did what Jonny Gomes has made a career out of doing:

He did everything he could do to pummel this baseball so hard that it would come down somewhere in the vicinity of downtown Joplin.

Well, the baseball never did make it to Joplin. But it did go roaring through the Missouri sky for 387 magical feet, finally plopping to earth right in the middle of the Red Sox's bullpen, where Gomes' buddy, Ryan Dempster, picked it out of the air on one hop.

"I had to catch it on one hop," Dempster reported later. "I would have caught it in the air, but [John] Lackey was warming up, and I didn't want to take a fastball in the chest."

Now we understand it sounds way too corny and way too crazy to say that Gomes' teammates had a feeling about him in that moment. But it's totally true. And Dempster was right at the head of that line.

"It's kind of a funny story, actually," Dempster said. "I was sitting next to [Craig] Breslow, and I had my glove behind me. And when the count got to 2-and-2, I said, 'Hey, man, I probably should grab my glove so I can go catch this ball. ' Then I stood up. And as I stood up, he hit it."

Then this baseball came flying at them. And a 1-1 game had just become a 4-1 game. And this was one group of ecstatic, heavily bearded men.

"Yeah, we were pretty excited," Dempster said. "I mean, you don't want to get too excited, because the game's not over. But we were pretty excited.

[+] EnlargeJonny Gomes
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesBy game's end, Jonny Gomes had plenty to celebrate.

"We weren't half as excited as Jonny, though," he said, with a laugh. "I know that. He led the team in excitement."

Yeah, he may be an excitable fellow on every day of every year. But on this particular trip around the bases, Jonny Gomes might just have led the entire human species in excitement.

He screamed into the night. He pumped his right fist as he spun around first base. He threw both arms out in front of him as he charged toward second. He pounded his chest -- once, twice, who knows how many times, before he was able to settle himself down. 

It took him 21.5 seconds to round those bases, according to the famed Tater Trot Tracker, Larry Granillo. And Jonny Gomes enjoyed every second of it -- because he couldn't help but think of everything that had led to this irreplaceable moment.

"What's going on inside here is pretty special, magical," he said afterward, pointing to his heart. "There's so many people and so many mentors and so many messages and so many helping paths and helping ways for me to get here, that there's a lot more than what I could bring individually.

"And then I step into the box in the World Series," he said, "and I'm all alone."

What. A. Moment. Just four other Red Sox hitters have ever hit a go-ahead home run with two or more runners on base that late in a postseason baseball game. But no Red Sox hitter ever did that in a World Series game. Wow.

And all because Shane Victorino's back went out -- on just the right October evening.

Or something like that.

"I had to 'Tonya Harding' Victorino," Gomes quipped to the Tampa Bay Times' Marc Topkin.

Now clearly, a lot more went into this game than merely one unforgettable swing of Jonny Gomes' bat. The Red Sox had to survive on a night in which they had to pinch-hit for their starter, Clay Buchholz, after just four innings. They also needed to run five relievers out there behind him, including Lackey, who hadn't ambled out of anybody's bullpen in nine years. And then there was the daily Bizarro Final Out.

It was impossible to top Saturday night's Obstruct-off grand finale. But this one, in its own way, was just as historic.

With two outs in the ninth, closer Koji Uehara -- who hadn't picked off a single baserunner in more than two years -- abruptly wheeled and caught pinch-runner Kolten Wong in dream land over at first base. And that's how this became the first postseason game in history to end on a pickoff. With Carlos Beltran at the plate. Incredible.

"It felt like the same thing as yesterday," Ross chuckled. "Their dugout had to be, like, 'What just happened?' And yesterday, we were, like, 'What just happened? You've got to be kidding me.' It's the same kind of weird walkoff -- a walk-off pickoff and a walk-off obstruction play. It was just weird. I was dumbfounded. But I was sure excited we were on the winning end of that thing."

And that made this an extra-exciting evening at the old ball yard for this group -- because there might be no player on this roster who is more beloved by his teammates than Gomes.

"That was pretty special, for all of us," bench coach Torey Lovullo said. "These guys loved watching him do what he did. He's a guy who always wanted to play every day. And he wasn't playing in this game when the day started. So for him to have this moment, it's good for all of us."

"He's a baseball junkie, man," Dempster said. "He lives and breathes it. … And he just has this way of keeping you positive. He's always, like, 'Let's talk about being great today.' There's never talk about yesterday. Ever. It's, 'Let's move on to today. How can we be great? What can I do as an individual to help my team win today?'"

So on this day, as his team was trying to put its most painful October nightmare in the rearview mirror, Gomes sneaked into the lineup and hit a home run that will be traveling in his mind forever.

His team is now two games away from winning its third World Series in the past 10 seasons, after more than eight decades of convincing their fans they would never win one. So if these men find themselves riding on a bunch of parade floats next week, they'll be even more thankful for Gomes' magical homer than they were on this night.

But understand that the man who hit it will be the most thankful of them all -- because he had to play for five teams in six years just to get here.

"When you talk about a guy like me," he said, "I mean, pretty much every single at-bat, every pitch I see, my career's on the line. Every punchout, it's, 'See, I told you so.' And then with every hit, it's, 'That wasn't supposed to happen.' But I don't need any pats on the back or to make it a sob story. I'm just grateful for the opportunity."

Well, on this night, opportunity knocked. And Gomes knew just what to do with it. Accidents will happen, you know. And for this man, this accident was as beautiful as it gets.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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