8.15.02: From the Where Were You When (Unpleasant Memory Here) Happened File:

In a season of few thrilling victories and numerous crushing defeats, the worst loss remains the most improbable.

Unlike 10/25/86 and 10/2/78, 7/23/02 will not be a date that lives in infamy for Red Sox fans.  Less than one month later and the disaster of that summer night has been largely obscured, sandwiched as it was between the back-to-back heartbreakers in the Bronx and the cruelty of Terrence Long's "best catch ever."

But for the astute fan, no loss this season compares to the meltdown of July 23, when despite outscoring the Devil Rays 26-0 over a span of 15 innings, the Sox managed to split a doubleheader by blowing a 4-0 ninth-inning lead in the second game.

We're not quite to the Look Back in Anger phase of the season, but it is fast approaching, so - unlike certain Sox outfielders - we might as well get a good jump. 

While it may not have been as vexing as watching it unfold live, I experienced 7/23 in a most unique - uniquely excruciating - manner.  Bursting with joy at Nomar's birthday bash in the opener and brimming with confidence as D-Lowe took the hill for the nightcap, I settled in for the second game, knowing I'd have to leave midway through for  a business dinner.  But thanks to NESN's Sox in 2 replay, I'd be able to catch the second half of the game in a nice, condensed package when I got home.  As I headed out, the boys had just taken a 4-0 lead, fairly insurmountable against a team with baseball's worst record.

Dinner ran late and by the time I got home it was already the bottom of the eighth inning.  With all the resolve of an Olympic hockey fan in 1980, I had made sure not to hear the final on the radio or see it on an indiscrete ticker in the restaurant's bar.  I sensed trouble immediately.  It was only 10:15.  The rebroadcast runs to 11 p.m. on the West Coast, which meant there were still 45 minutes of replay remaining.  Uh-oh.

Okay, deep breaths, maybe the Sox will push across a crooked number here in the bottom of the eighth and eat up most of this 45 minutes, setting the stage for a 1-2-3 top of the ninth. 

No such luck.  The Sox went quietly and - after the commercial break - there were still 38 minutes of replay.  Chris Haney was on the mound.  Ugueth Urbina, who had an off day to recover from his brutal loss to the Yankees on Sunday, looked on from the bullpen.  The score was 4-0, not 9-0 as Grady Little's managing over the next few minutes might have indicated.

Haney, a reclamation project best known for serving up Wade Boggs' 3,000th hit via a home run, entered the 2002 season with a career ERA of 5.11 and a staggering career WHIP of 13.2.  When he surrendered a leadoff double to the left-handed hitting Aubrey Huff, I figured we'd see some stalling at the mound and the call to the pen.  Nope.  But surely when John Flaherty followed with a base hit to left that would be it for Haney.  Nope. 

The clock was ticking but not fast enough.  With 33 more minutes of rebroadcast, I realized the Sox were destined to bat in the bottom of the ninth, so I was reduced to hoping the Rays only tied it. 

Haney continued his unraveling act by hitting Ben Grieve to load the bases, apparently waking Grady from his slumber in the process.  The Head Bumpkin signaled for Urbina, summoning him into every closer's favorite situation:  bases loaded, nobody out.  The pitching change ate up a few minutes, but barring a flurry of streakers on the field or a bench-clearing melee (not out of the question with these two teams) the Sox were going to have to bat in the ninth.  The only remaining question was how in the name of Andy Sheets (.095 in his brief career with the Red Sox) were the Rays going to score their runs.

Before you could say Skip Lockwood, Sheets had ripped a ringing two-run double off the Monster and Jared Sandberg had cracked a three-run homer to make it 5-4 Tampa Bay.

So now I needed as much time on the clock as possible, since the Sox would have to stage a rally in the bottom of the ninth.

But truth be told, I couldn't take anymore.  I switched to ESPN News just in time to see Esteban Yan strike out Manny, the final highlight before that sickening score panel slid across my screen. 

When Rey Sanchez led off the ninth with a walk, the obvious move was to bunt him over to second, where he might have scored the tying run on Nomar's two-out base hit.  But Grady, citing bullpen fatigue, decided instead to play for the loss.  Only Grady could lose the same game twice for the same reason.  He left Haney in because he wanted to save Urbina for... winter ball?  And then didn't bunt because... he wanted to save Wayne Gomes for...?

For the most part NESN's two-hour replay has been a kind public service.  Checking the final score on-line at work then watching the replay at home on the couch has kept my blood pressure in check and my ragefests to a minimum.

But on 7/23 I was so confident of victory that I tried to have it both ways.  Silly me, I thought that maybe, just maybe, that 26-0 run would be enough to carry us to a sweep.  But thanks to Grady, no such luck.