- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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BOSTON -- J.D. Drew is more popular than the Honey Bee Festival in his boyhood home of Hahira, Ga. But his along-for-the-ride demeanor hasn't always resonated with fans in 10 major league seasons.
When you make $14 million and hit 11 homers in 466 at-bats, as Drew did for the Red Sox this season, the line between "easygoing" and "invisible" tends to blur. And the die-hard fans in Boston, who like their players sweaty and dirty in the Kevin Youkilis mold, don't much care that you're a regular presence at Baseball Chapel.
That's the beauty of the baseball season. It drags on long enough for first impressions to change, momentum to shift, plot changes to play out and perceived "busts" to become heroes.
The prospect of Drew receiving an October curtain call when he was going homerless in 76 at-bats in May? Not so good. Now it's destined to be a featured attraction on the Red Sox 2007 season highlight film.
Every Cleveland fan's biggest fear -- a Fenway-inspired revival for the Red Sox -- came true Saturday night. Drew's first-inning grand slam put the Indians in a huge hole, and Curt Schilling took care of the rest to give Boston a 12-2 victory in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series before 37,163 revelers at Fenway Park.
So now it has come to this: Daisuke Matsuzaka vs. Jake Westbrook at Fenway Park on Sunday night with a trip to the World Series at stake. A Cleveland club that seems flustered and intimidated by Fenway will take on a Boston team that seems comfortable and in its element.
"We'll show up tomorrow and do the same thing we try to do every day," said Boston manager Terry Francona. "Kick [Dustin] Pedroia's [butt] in cribbage and try and win a baseball game."
This matchup is taking on the look of the 1999 American League Division Series, when Boston lost the first two games to Cleveland, then steamrolled the Indians 9-3, 23-7 and 12-8 to advance to the next round. That year, the Red Sox rode six innings of emergency relief from Pedro Martinez to win the series finale. This time, Francona has Tim Wakefield and Josh Beckett at his disposal if necessary.
As an added bonus, Francona isn't quite sure which player will take the lead role in sparking his offense. On a night when David Ortiz managed only a double in four at-bats and Manny Ramirez went hitless, it was all about Pedroia, Youkilis, Julio Lugo and, most tellingly, Drew.
The Red Sox went the extra mile to dredge up some positive karma Saturday. Bill Mueller, author of the hit that began Boston's comeback from three games down against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, threw out the ceremonial first pitch. And someone hung a clip in the Boston clubhouse from an Ohio columnist who predicted the Indians would beat the odds and clinch at Fenway. The column included a quote from Indians first baseman Ryan Garko, who observed, "The champagne tastes just as good on the road as it does at home."
In the old days of the Celtics dynasty, it was said that Red Auerbach stationed a leprechaun on the rim to knock away opponents' shots. The Red Sox seemed to have a touch of that magic working for them Saturday.
In the top of the first inning, Grady Sizemore drove the third pitch from Schilling high over the right-field pole, but Sizemore's shot was ruled foul and Schilling proceeded to set the Indians down in order.
Boston's good luck continued in the bottom of the inning, when Pedroia and Youkilis scratched out infield singles off Fausto Carmona in front of a walk to Ortiz.
Carmona nearly wriggled off the hook by striking out Ramirez and retiring Mike Lowell on a fly ball to shallow right. But it was not to be. Drew worked the count to 3-1, hammered a 95-mph fastball over the fence in center field and returned to a full-fledged pounding in the dugout.
Although some Cleveland players later complained about umpire Dana DeMuth's tight strike zone -- particularly on the first pitch of Drew's at-bat -- the Red Sox celebrated Drew's proudest and happiest moment in a turbulent season.
The Red Sox, in the eyes of many, bailed out agent Scott Boras by offering Drew a five-year, $70 million contract this past winter. Although no one has questioned Drew's talent, his body language creates the widespread impression that he lacks passion for the game. Drew also has been criticized for a willingness to take a walk rather than expand his strike zone and drive the ball with men on base, as the big boys do.
Drew endured some off-field issues this season when his 17-month-old son, Jack, broke his collarbone, then underwent extensive hip surgery. But his personal problems earned him just a temporary respite from the columnists who ripped him, the fans who booed him and the talk show callers who excoriated him.
For much of this season, Drew ranked right up there with Spygate references, Big Dig jokes and presidential candidates who use the phrase "Manny Ortez" on the list of things that drive the average Bostonian crazy.
"J.D. Drew is a special player," said Schilling, echoing a classic Boras line. "I'm sure he's not real proud of the year he had. But if it were anybody else -- any of the media here or the fans who've railed on him for six months -- you wouldn't produce because you'd be squeezing the bat. You'd be stressed.
"I think part of J.D.'s personality that goes both ways with people -- that upsets people or makes them have confidence in him -- is that he's the definition of 'even-keeled.' He doesn't get too high or too low. He just goes out and plays the game."
Before his big at-bat against Carmona, Drew was 2-for-17 with five strikeouts and no extra-base hits this season with the bases loaded. Once he'd made the score 4-0, he assumed his position in right field and heard the Fenway fans chanting his name in tribute. It was a heck of a lot better than some of the other things he has heard this season. But he refused to get too caught up in the hero worship.
"If you get too high, you're going to find yourself in a bad situation out there listening to fans versus catching fly balls," Drew said. "Your first priority is to play defense. But it does kind of put an inward smile on you, I guess."
It will be nothing compared with the smile Drew will wear if the Red Sox complete their comeback and win Game 7 on Sunday. After finally experiencing what it means to be accepted in Boston, Drew is about to discover whether there's a World Series appearance in his near future.
The prospect of J.D. Drew receiving an October curtain call was an unlikely one. Until he drove the Red Sox one step closer to the World Series, that is.