The Anaheim Angels were still looking for the license plate of the bus that ran them over repeatedly for three straight days at Fenway Park, having been swept by the surging Boston Red Sox. The win gave Boston a 4-1/2 game cushion in the American League wild card race over the same Angels and a six-game lead over the Texas Rangers, who will pay a weekend visit to Boston starting tonight. The win also kept Boston just 3-1/2 games behind the New York Yankees, whose once seemingly insurmountable lead of 10-1/2 games had been whittled away in just over two weeks. Life is good for the legion of fanatical Red Sox fans that is suddenly savoring the possibilities of some exciting October baseball.
Looking back just over a month ago, this same legion was scratching its collective head as it tried to make sense of a team that seemed to be underachieving. Was this not practically the same team that just last year was five outs away from heading to a World Series for the first time in many years at the expense of the dreaded Yankees? Were they not that much better with the addition of Curt Schilling in an already strong rotation and Keith Foulke as the dominant closer?
Even more so was the question of the team’s leadership. Was manager Terry Francona, who has not much more experience than his predecessor, Grady Little, just not the dugout leader this team needed to motivate the club to win consistently? Had the young general manager, Theo Epstein, gone mad by trading one of the most popular players in Red Sox history, Nomar Garciaparra, in return for a one-time Gold Glove first baseman and an anonymous shortstop from a lame-duck Canadian team?
Much has been said about the roles of these two gentlemen on this team and not much of that has been positive. Francona, with just four years of head coaching experience at the major league level, did not carry with him the awesome respect of a Joe Torre or a Jim Leyland when he was brought in during the off-season to take over for the disgraced Little. Epstein, at age 30 years the youngest GM in MLB history, had been given leeway during his first year in 2003 and was applauded for his success, but some wondered if that aura was wearing thin.
While it would have been easy to make excuses in relation to the injuries and the clubhouse distractions, the two instead ignored these critics and did their parts; Francona continued to find a game plan that worked while Epstein continued to look for ways to improve the club. Now, the team has gelled at the right time and has left a path of destruction over the last month of baseball like a twister through a trailer park.
For that, you almost have to tip your cap to these two for staying poised and true to task. The two have also put the club on a road to future success; Francona has shown the flexibility to go with the flow of the game and Epstein, with Nomar in his rear view mirror, has set the club up to sign two of its key players that will become free agents at the end of the season, Pedro Martinez and Jason Varitek.
True, at this point, even with 30 games that remain to be played, there are no guarantees. A team does not make the playoffs because the club is more deserving; to paraphrase former actor John Houseman, it must earn that shot. However, with a team an upstart general manager has assembled and a no-nonsense manager now leads, you must feel pretty good right about now. At least, you must feel better than the Angels.