Of course, if Stern had missed the ball, it likely would have rolled all the way to the wall for, at the very least, a game-tying three-run triple.
"It was a sinking line drive. I laid out and thank goodness I kept it in front of my glove. I snowconed it," said Stern. "It kept on dying on me. I was like, 'Come to me a little bit.' I thought it was going to hang up there a little longer, but I forgot I was playing a little deeper. I was lucky it hung up long enough."
Closer Jonathan Papelbon raised his arms both with relief and triumph, his club rookie record of seven saves in one month in the books, albeit barely.
"To be honest with you, I didn't think he caught it," said Papelbon. "I was looking at the umpire the whole time and he called him out and I was like, 'Phew, thank you.'"
Television replays showed that Stern's catch was indeed legitimate, and also highly nerve-wracking.
"Thank goodness I caught it, because if not, it's going to the wall and I've got some questions to answer on the other end," Stern said. "[Papelbon] gave me a big hug and said, 'Thanks brother.' I said, 'Whatever, that's what I'm out there for.'"
This was Papelbon's first full-fledged nailbiting save since being thrust into the role on April 5 in Texas. This was the real high wire act, as Papelbon surrendered a single to Carl Crawford and then two-out walks to Travis Lee and Jonny Gomes to load them up.
Then, it was time for pitching coach Al Nipper to make a visit to the mound.
"It was basically a moment where I let the game speed up a little bit on me. I got a little bit too intense and wasn't able to regroup," said Papelbon, who is 7-for-7 in saves and hasn't allowed a run.
Stern did enough regrouping for everyone, hauling in that ball by the narrowest of margins to end a contest that had ups and downs throughout.
"It was a great play. I told him if that ball goes by him, just go out to center field, go all the way out [of the park]," quipped Sox manager Terry Francona. "That was a great play, and at that time of the game, we needed it."
They also needed a huge hit from Kevin Youkilis, who clubbed a two-out, two-run double in the bottom of the eighth that broke a 4-4 tie. The smash by Youkilis came off an 0-1 pitch from Tampa Bay right-hander Chad Orvella.
"I thought he'd throw me a fastball first pitch," said Youkilis. "He threw me a changeup, a pretty good changeup. He was trying to fool me on the speed level. I was just trying to put a good swing on it and not trying to do too much. Just try to barrel it up and hit a ball up the middle, not try to hit it out of the park, because a base hit wins that game."
Up the middle is exactly what Youkilis did, as the ball soared off the wall at the 379-foot marker in center field. Mark Loretta followed with an opposite-field single to right to put the Sox up by three.
Early on, the story of the night seemed to be Manny Ramirez's breakout game of 2006. The star slugger raked two hits and drove in three runs (the same amount of RBIs he had for the season entering the night), and twice untied the game with key hits.
Ramirez's RBI double in the third, his first extra-base hit of the season, snapped a scoreless tie.
Matt Clement, who held the Rays scoreless over the first six innings, surrendered two runs in the seventh to put Boston in a 2-1 hole.
However, in the bottom of the inning, Loretta drove in Wily Mo Pena with a liner to right (ruled a fielder's choice because Youkilis had to hold up on the play and was forced at second). Then came the mashers, with David Ortiz hammering a double off the Monster and Ramirez following with a screaming liner to right that went off the glove of Russell Branyan. Two runs scored on the play, and the Red Sox seemed to be in good shape, up 4-2.
Back and forth it went. Clement started the eighth by walking Lee. That was the last batter he faced. Mike Timlin was greeted by a Gomes double to center and Branyan smashed a two-run double down the line in right, tying it up again.
Then came that big bottom of the eighth for Boston. Mike Lowell roped one high off the Monster for a leadoff double. Pinch-hitter Trot Nixon walked. But Stern's bunt was too hard, forcing Lowell at third. And Alex Gonzalez struck out, leaving it all up to Youkilis.
"The good thing was, we weren't losing," said Francona. "But you could feel it in the ballpark and in the dugout, to get hits like that are huge."
Still, the drama wasn't even close to being finished. Befitting the night, it came right down to out No. 27.
Stern laughed when asked what he might have done had the ball not landed in his mitt.
"Just take it on to the house, take the cab back, don't even shower up," Stern said.
Instead, he got a hero's welcome near the pitcher's mound.
"That's huge," Youkilis said. "At first, I didn't think he had it. It was unbelievable. He made a great play."