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10/17/08 7:45 PM EST

Crisp makes most of second chance

With Ellsbury hitless, embattled center fielder keeps Sox alive

ST. PETERSBURG -- If the Red Sox come back to win this American League Championship Series, Coco Crisp's 10-pitch at-bat, which resulted in a game-tying single to right field during an epic 8-7 victory over the Rays in Game 5 on Thursday, is sure to go down in franchise lore.

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But what makes it all the more compelling is Crisp's storyline.

Flash back to a year ago. Crisp was in a bad slump. The Red Sox, like they are at the moment, were trailing the Indians in the ALCS, 3-2. Beginning with Game 6, Red Sox manager Terry Francona went with top prospect Jacoby Ellsbury in center field, and Crisp shifted to the bench -- without complaint. With Ellsbury playing a starring role, the Red Sox swept the Rockies in the World Series.

When Game 4 of the ALCS arrived this year, Ellsbury was in an 0-for-20 funk. Enter Crisp. This time, Francona looked to Crisp to be the spark the Red Sox needed.

"Coco was great," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "He plays an unbelievable center field, and when he gets going offensively, his speed -- he flies around the bases. He was a huge spark for us last night, and hopefully, he can keep it going."

The Ellsbury-Crisp dynamic isn't your typical young player-veteran competition. Ellsbury is 25, but it isn't as though Crisp, a couple weeks shy of his 29th birthday, is long in the tooth.

For many teams, Crisp, who hit .283 and stole 20 bases in 118 regular-season games this year, would be playing every day.

At the outset of Spring Training, Crisp made it clear that he wanted to start. But when that didn't happen, he didn't brood. He didn't demand a trade. Instead, he did his job when called on.

"Coco's been through a lot," said Red Sox captain Jason Varitek. "He's had different roles and had to do different things. Late in the year -- August, September -- he had a lot of big hits for us. It just adds to it now. It was one of our biggest hits of the year."

Francona referred to the at-bat as Crisp's best as a member of the Red Sox.

Known as a fastball hitter, Crisp was put to the test in that eighth inning when Rays reliever Dan Wheeler threw him all heaters.

Remarkable rallies
Biggest deficits overcome in postseason history
AthleticsCubs10/12/29WS 4810-8
Red SoxRays10/16/08ALCS 578-7
YankeesBraves10/23/96WS 468-6
DodgersYankees10/5/56WS 2613-8

After taking a called strike and then a ball, Crisp fouled one back. Then ball two. This is when the at-bat truly became must-see theater. Crisp fouled off four straight pitches, most of them in the upper portion of the strike zone. Then, Crisp finally got one he liked and did hitting coach Dave Magadan proud, lacing one to right. Fortunately for the Red Sox, Rays right fielder Gabe Gross misfired on the throw, and Mark Kotsay was able to score easily from second.

"It was nerve-wracking, first of all," Magadan said. "When you're fouling off pitches -- and he kind of started timing the pitches, and he finally got one a little more down in the zone -- it's a good sign of his character in that situation, where he wasn't going to get big on a swing. He was going to try to stay inside the ball and put the ball in play hard, and he got a ball down in the zone and hit the line drive.

"He almost hit it too hard. It was looking like there was going to be a play at home. Thinking back, I know when [Gross] fielded the ball, Kotsay was just touching third. I was surprised but happy for it."

For Crisp, it was a moment to savor. Things generally haven't gone as well as planned for Crisp since he came to the Red Sox at the start of the 2006 season with the challenge of replacing Johnny Damon in center field.

Crisp's numbers weren't what they were in his final year with the Indians, and then came the whole Ellsbury dilemma.

So as Crisp came up in that crucial situation in Game 5 -- which the Red Sox once trailed, 7-0 -- it was as if he was determined to make up for anything that had gone wrong in the past.

Red Sox in Game 5s
With a win Thursday vs. the Rays, the Red Sox are 6-1 in Game 5s when they are trailing 3-1 in a best-of-seven or best-of-nine postseason series.
YearSeriesFoeGame 5Series
1903WSPittsburghWonWon in 8
1967WSSt. LouisWonLost in 7
1986ALCSCaliforniaWonWon in 7
1999ALCSNew YorkLostLost in 5
2004ALCSNew YorkWonWon in 7
2007ALCSClevelandWonWon in 7

"I stepped out every time and I was praying," said Crisp. "Pretty much, I was saying prayers. 'This one time, let me come through for the team.' Every now and then, [God] puts you to the test and doesn't allow you to succeed. But He had my back this time."

And Crisp's teammates have his back.

"He's been awesome at his job all year," said Pedroia. "It's tough to accept that role that he was given, and Coco did that role with a smile on his face, and now he's coming up at a huge part in the season and saved our season. We'll get an opportunity to keep playing, and he's a big part of that."

Of course, there was also Francona, who seems to have a knack for pushing the right buttons at this time of year.

"Yeah, it's kind of weird sometimes the way things work," said Francona of the Crisp-Ellsbury role reversal from a year ago. "We tried all year not to let one of them sit very long, because both of them are too valuable to ever have somebody sit for a very long time."

But Crisp doesn't figure to be doing much sitting for a while. He hopes the Red Sox have a lot of baseball left.

"We'll just go in there with the mentality that we finished off with in Game 5, just winning every pitch," Crisp said. "That gives us as narrow a possibility to fail when you try to win every pitch. We're going to go out there and hopefully, keep that same mentality, and we'll see how we finish."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.