- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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No matter what obstacles arise, the Red Sox believe that plastic wrap will adorn the locker stalls come October. They expect closer Jonathan Papelbon to dance a jig eventually, designated hitter David Ortiz to man the clubhouse stereo with flair, and the home clubhouse carpet to require about four industrial strength cleanings over a four-week span.
But some scenarios, like summer rainstorms, materialize without warning and contrary to all logic. And all the advance scouting reports and Bill James statistical formulas in the world can't predict how the story line will end.
"Baseball is a funny game," said Boston shortstop Jed Lowrie, and never has a cliché sounded quite so profound.
The Red Sox took another step toward their third pennant in five years with a 3-2 victory over the Los Angeles Angels in the deciding Game 4 of the American League Division Series on Monday night. But it was the way Boston won, as much as the result, that could help define this team's place in franchise history.
Lowrie, the starting shortstop for Triple-A Pawtucket in April, singled to drive in Jason Bay, the Pittsburgh Pirates' 2008 Opening Day left fielder, with the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning.
The Red Sox won with third baseman Mike Lowell deactivated because of a hip injury, Jon Lester (and not Josh Beckett) filling the role of big-game pitcher du jour, MVP candidate Dustin Pedroia going 1-for-17 in the series, and Papelbon sitting idle in the bullpen while his fellow relievers nearly cost the Sox the series lead and a flight back to California.
The Red Sox benefited from a botched squeeze play by the Angels in the top of the ninth, and saved manager Terry Francona some second-guessing for his decision to pull Lester after 109 pitches and seven innings of work.
Less than an hour after it was over, Bay stood in the infield with his family and reveled in the moment amid the crowd noise. A little more than two months ago, Bay was playing before minuscule crowds on an afterthought team in Pittsburgh. Now he has an honest-to-goodness postseason moment to savor as he awaits the start of the American League Championship Series on Friday against the Rays.
It was enough for Bay to ignore a cut on his left little finger and the flecks of blood on his arm that he incurred from a nearly flawless half-gainer into home plate after Lowrie's hit.
"It's just a tiny little nick," Bay said, "but it hurts when I get champagne in there."
If the Red Sox's success in recent years has taught them anything, it's the importance of striking hard and fast when the stakes are high and the bubbly is on ice. With a loss Monday night, they would have had to hop a cross-country flight back to Anaheim, and the mere thought of loading their suitcases onto the bus to the airport was enough to evoke a wave of nausea.
"I left all my stuff in the car, because I didn't want to jinx anything," Pedroia said.
After Lester and Angels starter John Lackey matched zeros for four innings, Boston took the lead on Jacoby Ellsbury's RBI groundout and a run-scoring double by Pedroia in the fifth. When Lester kept mowing down the Angels through seven, he seemed like a decent bet to come out for one more.
But the Red Sox, mindful that Lester could have a few more outings on his agenda this month, chose to be cautious with their young lefty. And Francona saw something in Lester's body language on Erick Aybar's inning-ending fly out that convinced him going to the bullpen was the proper call.
"If you watch his reaction after the last out, in his mind that was his last hitter," Francona said of Lester. "He was very willing to go back out. But I think you can make a mistake to ask a pitcher when he kind of emotionally shuts it down or turns a switch off to ask him to rev it back up."
According to Papelbon, who had thrown 31 pitches in Game 3 on Sunday, he was available to pitch one inning only if the Red Sox had a lead. So Francona went with Hideki Okajima and Justin Masterson in the eighth, and Torii Hunter's two-run single pulled the Angels into a short-lived 2-2 tie.
It was the kind of sequence that might have spelled doom for the old Curse of the Bambino Red Sox. In this case it simply spelled opportunity for Lowrie, who got his chance this year when Julio Lugo went down with a torn quadriceps in July.
Lowrie ranked fifth among major league rookies with 39 RBIs after the All-Star break and showed the poise of a veteran. This time, he jumped on a first-pitch curveball from Scot Shields to wreck the Angels' season and send 38,785 fans into a frenzy.
"I played against [Lowrie] in college, and he's a real mature player," Pedroia said. "You wouldn't know he's 23 or 24 or whatever the hell he is. He's got this presence about him that he's going to succeed. That's huge at this level, because you're going to have your ups and downs."
While the Angels led the majors with 100 victories this year and were anointed by many as the most complete team in the game, the ALCS matchup seems fitting in many ways. The Red Sox and the Rays went at it hard during the regular season, with Tampa winning 10 of 18 meetings and outlasting Boston for its first division title.
These teams know each other so well, there will be no surprises in the next round. All Francona wanted late Monday night was an opportunity to take a deep breath before he gets into hard-core baseball analysis.
"We just beat a phenomenal team," Francona said. "We're going to play another phenomenal team. It will be very exciting. We're looking forward to that."
They're not the only ones.