Trailing, 8-4, after the fifth inning, the Red Sox rallied thanks to a three-run home run by Mike Lowell in the seventh to tie the game, and then took the lead in the eighth on a pinch-hit single from Dustin Pedroia. The lead held until the ninth, and it looked like Boston would tie its longest winning streak this season.
Enter Papelbon, who had not blown a save since Sept. 14, 2007, at Yankee Stadium.
Papelbon went right after recent Triple-A callup Matt Joyce. Papelbon fooled Joyce with a splitter, but Joyce tapped a check-swing grounder to the left of the mound, and he beat Julio Lugo's throw to first.
"Check-swing hit, I guess you could call it," Papelbon said. "What can I say about that?"
Next was one of the most pivotal plays of the inning. Edgar Renteria dribbled a soft grounder to Lugo, who had to charge the ball. He took a glance to his left, looking to see if the double play was still possible, but then the ball squirted out of his mitt, giving the Tigers two runners on with nobody out and putting the winning run aboard.
"I thought I had a chance to go to second, and I was trying to be aggressive with one out and get the lead runner," said Lugo. "I bobbled the ball. That's it."
Ivan Rodriguez's perfect sacrifice bunt in front of the plate moved the runners to second and third. Up next was Curtis Granderson, who had already struck out three times in the game. Papelbon wanted to make it four. He went for the strikeout.
Papelbon fell behind Granderson, 2-0, and tried to get back in the zone with a splitter. Granderson chopped it into the ground, but to the right side of the infield, allowing pinch-runner Ryan Raburn to score the tying run from third.
"You always say you want to get ground balls," Papelbon said, "but I was able to get ground balls, and those ground balls ended up turning into runs."
Placido Polanco, who already had four hits at that point in the contest, strolled to the plate. Papelbon fell behind him, 3-0, but battled back to make it 3-2, and looked for the strikeout as he threw a well-placed pitch running in on Polanco's hands.
"It was a great pitch," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "He did a great job."
Polanco thought so, too.
"It was a good pitch, but sometimes things are going to go your way," he said.
Polanco broke his bat, sending the ball looping into short left field. Papelbon watched from the mound as Lugo gave chase, the crowd noise steadily rising as it looked more and more like it would fall in. But Papelbon wasn't sure.
"I knew I got in on him. I knew that I executed the pitch," he said. "It was one of those things where I knew [Lugo] had a chance at it, [but] you don't know if he's going to get there or not."
He didn't. The ball fell inches beyond Lugo's glove and Renteria trotted home for the winning run.
It erased what the Red Sox had done the previous three hours. They trailed, 4-0, after three innings, then 5-2 after four and they rallied behind Kevin Youkilis' first of two home runs to cut the deficit to one. Detroit went back up by four with three runs in the fifth to make it 8-4. But back came Boston, getting a Youkilis solo shot and Lowell's three-run homer to tie it.
The loss erased Pedroia's heroic effort. The second baseman, who was initially given the night off, battled Tigers reliever Francisco Cruceta, eventually drilling a grounder inches past the glove of diving third baseman Carlos Guillen to put the Red Sox on top, 9-8.
"We had a great comeback and we couldn't finish it," Francona said.
But it did not erase the Red Sox's spirit after the game. They had just won five straight games, and one loss on a broken-bat walk-off bloop single would not severely damper their mood.
"It's like a heavyweight fight: One little jab punch ain't going to knock me out," Papelbon said. "The beauty of it is, we still have a chance to win the series tomorrow. We're right where we want to be."