Commentary

Red Sox thisclose to another championship

Originally Published: October 27, 2007
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

DENVER -- And so we find ourselves typing a sentence that used to reduce 17 generations of New Englanders to tears (not to mention nervous breakdowns -- and an uncontrollable urge to unearth Babe Ruth's piano from the bottom of a lake):

The Boston Red Sox are one victory away from winning the World Series.

The last time we typed those words, just three short years ago, we typed them with great trepidation. They were, after all, still the Red Sox. So you never knew what cataclysmic event might be just over the horizon to curse them yet again.

But this time around, in this World Series, what exactly is there for these Red Sox and their own little nation to fear? A blizzard? An earthquake maybe? How about a meteor shower?

We're thinking that might be about it. Because this time, they've got the baseball part of this down cold.

A team that was once 21-1 (i.e., the Rockies) hasn't stopped them. Hasn't been much more than a bug on their windshield, actually.

The fabulous humidor and the crazy, mile-high ballpark that houses it? Nope. That couldn't stop them, either.

Throwing a first-base mitt on David Ortiz couldn't stop them. Handing Daisuke Matsuzaka a bat couldn't stop them. Benching a guy with a .483 postseason on-base percentage (Kevin Youkilis) couldn't stop them.

Two rookies (Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia) hitting first and second? Not an issue. Heck, couldn't have done this without them.

A minor bullpen meltdown that almost made a six-run lead disappear? No problem.

This team plays through it all. And wins through it all.

And now this team -- the Red Sox -- leads this World Series, 3 games to nada. Yet even after a 10-5 bludgeoning of the Rockies in Game 3 Saturday night, the calm that now pervades this group was right where they'd all left it the game before. And the game before that. And the game before that.

Yeah, they need just one more win to finish this Series off. But there was closer Jonathan Papelbon standing at his locker, reaching for a quote from one of the great Dominican philosophers of our time to help explain what it means to be in this spot.

[+] EnlargeJacoby Ellsbury
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireRookie Jacoby Ellsbury had four hits, including three doubles, in Boston's 10-5 win in Game 3.
"I think I heard Manny [Ramirez] say it best," Papelbon said. "You can't eat your cake before your birthday. Or whatever it was he said."

You realize, of course, that there's an excellent chance that even Manny himself isn't sure what he said. So quoting him seems awfully precarious at a time like this.

But nothing else about the Red Sox and their new niche in the universe seems even mildly precarious anymore.

They made this game look way too easy -- except for that part where they turned a 6-0 lead into a 6-5 lead in one surreal midgame trip through the Rockies' lineup. But in reality, there was no bigger test of what this Red Sox team is about than this game.

The altitude changed. The lineup changed. Even the rules changed.

Which meant that all the pieces that have been fitting together so tightly lately were scattered all over the Rocky Mountain landscape.

But one thing didn't change.

"I don't think our attitude changed," said Mike Lowell. "I think we felt confident with the guys we had going out there."

Just three of the guys who went out there -- Manny, Ortiz and Jason Varitek -- were on the field when the Red Sox won their last World Series. Which meant there were as many of those kinds of guys in their lineup as there were rookies -- Ellsbury, Pedroia and Matsuzaka.

So think about what we're saying here. No team had started three rookies in a World Series game in four decades -- since the 1967 Red Sox posted a Game 6 lineup that included Mike Andrews, Reggie Smith and Gary Waslewski. But Terry Francona made it sound practically normal.

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And when Francona wrote Ellsbury's name into the leadoff slot and Pedroia's name right beneath it, it marked the first time in World Series history that any team's lineup card had rookies batting 1-2. But even that is no big deal for this outfit.

Ellsbury promptly went out and became the first rookie to get four hits in a World Series game since Joe Garagiola Sr. in 1946. And Pedroia added three hits himself, making him 12 for 27 (.444) since Game 5 of the Cleveland series.

And then there was Dice-K, who blew this game open with, of all things, his bat, in the Red Sox's five-run third inning.

His two-run single through the left side made it a 5-0 game. But more importantly, for you trivia fans, it made Matsuzaka the third pitcher in Red Sox history to drive in more than one run in a World Series game. You might have heard of the others -- two fellows named Cy Young (via a two-run triple off Brickyard Kennedy in 1903) and Babe Ruth (who thumped a two-run triple himself off Lefty Tyler in 1918).

"Hey, he told us he once hit a home run in Japan," Lowell said. "So we figured at least he knew what he was doing."

Three years ago, when The Idiots were the stars of the curse-lifting hour, Ellsbury was hanging out at Oregon State. Pedroia was a Scottsdale Scorpion, playing in the Arizona Fall League. And Matsuzaka was a gyro-balling 24-year-old matinee idol in Japan.

Now you find them in the same places where you once found Johnny Damon, and Mark Bellhorn, and Pedro Martinez. And somehow, it all looks as if this is how it's supposed to be. How it was always supposed to be. And that's much tougher than it seems.

"We have a great blend of youth and veterans who are able to mix off each other and say, 'OK, this is what we're doing,'" said reliever Mike Timlin. "These guys learn around here -- and they learn quickly."

Saturday night's Red Sox also faced the biggest DH-induced World Series crisis in over a decade.

Not since the 1993 Blue Jays had to wrestle with whether to bench their best offensive player, Paul Molitor, or a guy who had just won the batting title, John Olerud, had an American League team faced a mess like this.

We have a great blend of youth and veterans who are able to mix off each other and say, 'OK, this is what we're doing.' These guys learn around here -- and they learn quickly.

--Red Sox reliever Mike Timlin

How many other teams, after all, could sit a guy like Youkilis who (A) hadn't made an error all season, (B) had a .396 average/.483 on-base percentage/.771 slugging percentage in this postseason and (C) had forced the Rockies to throw 54 pitches just to him alone in the first two games -- and act like it was the only way to go?

But when the alternative was benching the face of the franchise, Big Papi, there really was no other way to go.

"It's not a big deal to me," Youkilis said. "We're winning a World Series here. You've got to throw your egos and other stuff aside here. If you really care about playing time at this point in the year, you need to go to a different team, a team that's not winning, because it's all about winning. So you've got to take a back seat.

"I mean, David Ortiz is playing first base. So if you're me, you kind of don't have a chance of playing over David Ortiz."

Then again, the way this bullet train is roaring down the October tracks, it might not matter if Ortiz plays, Youkilis plays or the bat boys play. The result never seems to change.

They chewed through yet another starting pitcher in this game. But what else is new? The latest designated victim was Josh Fogg, who failed to make it out of the third inning.

So that makes five times now in the Red Sox's past six postseasons games that the opposing starter failed to make it through the fifth inning. Is that supposed to be possible in October?

And over the three games in this World Series, this lineup -- in whatever its permutation du jour -- has forced the Rockies' three starters (Fogg, Jeff Francis and Ubaldo Jimenez) to throw an insane 261 pitches just to get 34 outs. Is that supposed to be possible in the World Series?

But this Red Sox team makes just about anything look possible. It's that good, that relaxed, that sure of itself.

"We're just going out and playing and having a good time," Timlin said. "I turned to a couple of guys in the dugout and said, 'You know what? We have a great team.' And we do. I'm proud of these guys."

[+] EnlargeDaisuke Matsuzaka
Jerry Lai/US PresswireDaisuke Matsuzaka got into the act offensively by hitting a two-run single in a six-run third inning for the Red Sox.
Timlin is one of just seven players on this World Series roster who was on the 2004 roster. He is trying hard not to compare the two. But he also can't help himself.

"This team here is a very different team than three years ago," he said. "But it's also a very similar team."

He ticked off the similarities -- "good defense ... good hitting ... great starting pitching ... a damn good bullpen."

Then he ticked off the differences -- "a little bit younger ... a little bit more patient than we used to be at the plate."

But in reality, there's more to it. Way more. This is, after all, the Red Sox.

And so, Timlin conceded, he'd forgotten to mention one other little difference.

"This time," he said, "we don't have to hear about 1918 every time we go out on the field."

Oh, really? And you can only imagine how much these guys miss that kind of talk. Right?

"Oh yeah," chuckled Timlin. "I miss it like a line drive off the shins."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com