BOSTON -- The celebration simply came out of him, flowed, a biological reaction like sweat or tears or maybe the word 'ouch,' muttered after a big toe is stubbed on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Shane Victorino knows how the game of baseball is supposed to be played. He knows that good fortune can be celebrated but not exaggerated. He knows. He knows. He simply couldn't help himself.
His right arm was in the air two steps out of the batter's box, his index finger pointing at the heavens…
He pumped his fist as he crossed the first base bag…
He pounded himself on the chest, both fists, again and again, as if he were Tarzan, himself, king of this particular jungle, as he circled the rest of the bases…
"No disrespect to the Detroit Tigers, to anyone," the 32-year-old outfielder said after his grand slam in the seventh inning Saturday night at Fenway Park powered the Boston Red Sox past the Tigers, 5-2, and into the World Series. "I was definitely excited, pounding my chest like that. This was a special moment for me, for the team, for the city."
This was the glorious little picture inside the glorious big picture. The team that went from worst to first in the American League took its final step with a guy who went from worst to first in this series. Small comeback (man who was two-for-23 at the plate in the series hits home run to win it) finished big comeback (team that finished 26 games out of first a year ago now gets ready to play the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday to start the Series.) Improbable sparked improbable.
"Shane was probably the perfect guy to win it for us," manager John Farrell said. "This was the way we went all year. Just when we looked like we were in trouble, people starting to count us out, we came back strong. That's what Shane did."
Victorino, one of the assorted B-level free agent faces the Sox added to their roster this year, was troubled as he came into the game. There was no doubt about that. The Tigers' grand parade of starting pitchers had put him in handcuffs, locked him in a box. He was no problem. The stats were so bad that he went back to being a switch hitter two nights earlier against right-hander Anibal Sanchez, moving to the left side of the plate. How did that work? He gave it up after three fruitless at-bats, went 0-for-5 on the night. He was batting .095 for the series. He heard rumblings that he might be dropped out of the second spot in the lineup to sixth.
He understood all of that. Undersized and overlooked at 5-feet-9, 190 pounds for much of his career -- "a scout told my mother I never would be a major-league player" -- he always has used negatives as inspiration. This was a fine negative. Thinking about dropping me in the line-up? We'll see about that.
First off, he decided that he would be a right-handed hitter, period. In his career, he had made himself into a switch hitter because he wanted the edge, the extra ability to offer any employer. A pulled hamstring muscle and back pain forced him to hit solely right-handed for much of the last half of the season and he had done fairly well. The attempt to go back to switch hitting had been a desperation move. The desperation was finished. He was a right-handed hitter. Even with right-hander Max Scherzer on the mound.
"It's another challenge," Victorino decided. "It was a challenge to earn how to switch hit. It's a challenge here not to switch hit."
The new challenge, alas, seemed to be as rugged as the old challenge. In the first inning, he grounded out routinely against Scherzer. In the third inning, he did worse. Scherzer walked consecutive batters on 3-2 counts. Victorino came to the plate with no outs. His job was to bunt, move the two runners into scoring position. He failed. The bunt became a soft pop-up that the pitcher came off the mound to catch. The Red Sox scored no runs in the inning.
"The thought went through my mind that I was going to be the goat of the game," Victorino said. "I said, 'How am I going to explain not getting that bunt down?' I thought about that. How would I explain?"
This was still a thought when he came to bat in the fateful seventh. The bases had been loaded on a double by Jonny Gomes, a walk to Xander Bogaerts, and a startling error by Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias on a double play ground ball by Jacoby Ellsbury. There was one out.
Scherzer was gone from the game. The pitcher now was right-hander Jose Veras. The crowd was on its feet, singing the Bob Marley song about "every little thing is going to be all right," Victorino's choice of entrance recording. Veras removed his hat and seemed to pray before throwing a pitch. The confrontation began.
"I just wanted to get a pitch I could handle," Victorino. "I'm not down and out. I'm positive. That's the way we play the game here. Play the day, play the pitch, play down to the last out. When I got up there, I said,'let it all out.'"
These first two pitches from Veras were curve balls. They were good curve balls. The third pitch also was a curve ball. This was not a good curve ball, 0-2, a pitch that never ever is supposed to be left over the middle of the plate. This curve ball did not break the way it was supposed to break. It hung there like the fat October moon.
"I got a curve ball I could handle," Victorino said.
He swung with precision and abandon.
He made good contact.
The ball headed toward left field, toward the Wall, toward the celebrated Green Monster. This was a fly ball that would be caught in most major-league parks. This was not one of those parks. This was Fenway. Victorino hoped at first that he had put enough air under the ball to score a run on a sacrifice fly, to tie the game. He amended that thought to a hope it might hit the wall. He amended that thought to yes, this could be your basic thrill of a lifetime. All of this thinking was completed in nanoseconds.
The noise surrounded him in a wave. The Tigers, all of them, lowered their heads. This was the ballgame, even though two more innings were left to be played. This was the series. This was the season.
"Shane Victorino is a clutch hitter," David Ortiz said in the Red Sox clubhouse. "Is anybody going to be talking about that 2-for-23 now? He is clutch, man."
And he is going to the World Series.