Boston Red Sox World Series Champions

Red Sox Go Back-To-Back-To-Back-To-Back

With two outs in the third inning of tonight’s game versus the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox stroked four consecutive home runs for the first time in franchise history. Manny Ramirez started the fireworks with a shot over the Green Monster at Fenway Park, his second of the season, and J.D. Drew followed with his second round-tripper to the right-field bleachers. Mike Lowell then socked his second of the year, again over the Green Monster, and Jason Varitek completed the feat with a shot into the Monster Seats, his second of the season and of the series with Boston’s American League East rival. All four home runs came off of Yankees rookie pitcher Chase Wright and turned a 3-0 New York advantage into a 4-3 Boston lead.

From the MLB.com release :

The Red Sox became the fifth team in Major League history to hit four home runs in a row. The [Los Angeles] Dodgers did it last September 18th in a key pennant-race game against the Padres to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth inning at Dodger Stadium. Drew, with the Dodgers last year, was also involved in that quartet…. It marked the 10th time in Red Sox history that they’ve hit four home runs in one inning, tying a club record.

That’s The Way Love Goes

It’s not easy being a sports celebrity in the Boston metropolitan region, no matter whose uniform you wear; if there was just one word used to describe the fan base in this area, it would be intense. One day, you’re given a parade downtown along with the key to the city; the next day, you wouldn’t win an election for dog catcher. The banter on the airwaves suggest that fans here tend to expect nothing less than perfection on the field; when a player suddenly slips a few notches below the level that we expect them to player, it doesn’t take long for the media to begin questioning how good a player he is, no matter what he’s done in the past. That is soon followed by every arm-chair quarterback and fantasy league manager offering every possible, off-beat solution to the problem, most of which involve shipping that player in an air-tight container to the farthest reaches of the galaxy.

So when the unofficial Red Sox head cheerleader, first baseman Kevin Millar, came to Edgar Renteria‘s defense last weekend and told the club’s fan base to stop giving him so much grief, it wasn’t long before the assault began. As expected, Millar got grief for trying to stick up for his teammate and even more grief for highlighting the fact that his level of play thus far this season had been sub par at best; meanwhile, Renteria continued to hear it from everyone within earshot regarding his lack of offensive output and clutch hitting.

If nothing else, the veteran shortstop has learned quickly in just his first few months in a Red Sox uniform that becoming a member of one of the most storied franchises in baseball means the eventual discovery that Boston fans are among the most passionate sports fans in the world. Every season, we turn on our radios and televisions or make our way to Fenway Park and cheer for our beloved Sox in numbers. We study the box scores, review the upcoming schedules, and follow the team from the very first game right down to the very last out on the last day of the season. Generations of fans from Boston and beyond have stood behind this team and relentlessly cheered every year for that season to be the one that a long-awaited championship was finally rewarded to our team.

The fascination with the Sox is so intense, players who otherwise might have had a rather quiet major league existence find their lives forever changed when they put on a Red Sox uniform. Sam Horn, for instance, played just over a hundred games with Boston over three seasons and accomplished very little in his baseball career, but his name is synonymous with one of the World Wide Web’s most popular chat rooms. Dave Roberts, another player whose career has been relatively quiet, will be remembered until the end of time for his stolen base in the bottom of the ninth in Game Four of the 2004 American League Championship Series that led a moment later to a game-tying run and the beginning of something very magical for Sox fans.

As odd as it sounds, Red Sox fans boo players because they support the team. Go to Tampa Bay or Milwaukee and I bet the home team hardly hears a discouraging word from the crowd during the games, no matter the situation; at least, that would be the impression I’d get looking at those half-empty stands. Boston, however, loves its team for better or worse and, for every time they jeer a player during a prolonged slump or a bad outing, they cheer even louder when he redeems himself with a diving catch, a timely hit, or a quality start. Manny Ramirez, Carl Yastrzemski, Ted Williams, and Babe Ruth – all of these players went through rough stretches in their careers and the fans were quick to give them an earful. In the end, however, when their fortunes turned, those same fans were the ones who applauded these efforts the loudest.

Radio and television shows with overly-opinionated hosts don’t really do it for me because, often times, the discussions border on the level of immature blather; they seem to exist only to work up listeners over the frustration of watching a player struggle on the field, whether or not it has hurt the team. Often time, these diatribes border on the harsh and insensitive and that doesn’t seem fair to our players. That doesn’t mean that I don’t get angry when a guy suddenly goes cold at the plate but, like most fans, I am quick to forgive and forget the next time he sends a pitch into the Monster Seats to tie the score or makes the game-winning hit in the bottom of the ninth. From being a Red Sox fan for many years, I can fully appreciate the fact that a season has its ups and downs and a streak of bad fortune can turn quicker than the tide.

It’s been a week now and, since his 0-for-4 performance last Sunday, Renteria has been on an unbelievable tear; over his last six games, he has gone 16-for-24 to raise his average from .239 to .295. In that time, he’s had three or more hits in four of those starts, two home runs which include a grand slam in Saturday’s thumping of the Yankees, and scored seven runs while knocking in six. When the Sox return to action tonight against the Orioles at home, expect the young ballplayer to hear a resounding cheer throughout Fenway Park and beyond when his name is announced during the pre-game ceremonies and when he makes his way to the plate for his first at-bat. Though it’s unlikely that his recently hitting display will continue, he should finally understand tonight just what it means to play for this club and its fans and that should feel very good indeed.

Fenway Park Forever

For just once, the little guy won, and I’m not speaking to last year’s amazing run to a World Series title by the Red Sox. I refer instead of those fans of Fenway Park, Boston’s majestic old ballpark, who launched a campaign that opposed the former owners’ plans to tear her down in favor of an exact replica but with all the amenities of the modern sports facility. Save Fenway Park!, a grassroots campaign, was launched in 1998 soon after these plans were announced and most individuals familiar with Fenway, including yours truly, viewed them as another far-reaching group just looking to stir emotions when it seemed obvious that a new facility was the answer to the park’s shortcomings. I was most interested in losing those cramped seats and obstructed views in the grandstands where I have sat on many evenings hoping that this would be the year.

Fast-forward seven years later; suddenly, with several changes made to the park over the past few years by a new Red Sox ownership, there is renewed commitment to the oldest active park in the majors. With a championship team playing to a packed house every night, the organization announced in late March that the club would remain at Fenway for generations to come. As John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino stood before the media publicizing a foregone conclusion, you could almost hear the soul of the park breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Fenway Park may be the most aesthetically-pleasing park in major league baseball today, although I admit that I may be slightly biased in that opinion. True, it still has shortcomings that will never be solved even with extensive renovations, but perhaps that is part of the attraction. Enter the gates, circle underneath the grandstand to find your section, and then climb the concourse to emerge to perhaps the most inviting site: the clay infield, the fresh-cut grass, and that left field wall that arises high above the playing field, beckoning batters to try and scale its heights with a perfectly-executed swing of the bat. Foul lines hug the walls as the park wraps itself right around the action on the field, with the attention of nearly 35,000 pairs of eyes on every delivery to home plate and the outcome that follows.

Less than two weeks ago, we were witness to an ugly incident in which a fan not only interfered with play in the right field corner near Pesky’s Pole but, on camera, appeared to take a swing at an opposing player. That fan was subsequently ejected from the ballpark and ultimately lost his season ticket privileges, a move made by the organization to make an example of that individual for trying to smear the spirit of the game. While some might see the punishment as harsh or extreme, the purpose was to save the intimacy of the park. While the owners want to keep fan interaction as a part of Fenway’s attraction, they don’t want fan interference to detract from its beauty.

Witness one hundred years ago when the Red Sox, then commonly referred to as the Americans, played at the old Huntington Avenue Grounds just across the tracks from the South End Grounds that the old Boston Braves called home. It was not uncommon for fans to stand along the foul lines and wrap themselves around the infield dirt. How often do you suppose that fan interference played a role in deciding the outcome of those games? Even after moving into Fenway Park in 1912, fans use to sit on what was known as “Duffy’s Cliff” in left field, the slight incline in front of the left field wall as the action took place.

These days, at many other ballparks around the majors, the average ticket holder sits far away from the action, so much so that you need binoculars just to recognize who’s playing where. Even those who get front-row seats usually find themselves with generous amounts of foul territory that buffer them from the action. That’s part of what makes Fenway such a unique place to watch a ball game; that intimate feeling, even with the addition of several thousand seats before all is said and done, has not vanished. The place where we watch today’s players like Curt Schilling, David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, and Manny Ramirez is not much different from the time that saw such greats like Tris Speaker, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, and Carl Yastrzemski cover the field. While the names have changed, the aura of Fenway is still there.

Over the years, baseball stadiums have come and gone, like Ebbets Field, Sportsman’s Park, the Polo Grounds, and Tiger Stadium; some day, they may be joined by other storied stadiums like Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium, and our beloved Fenway Park. For now, the Red Sox have realized that while Fenway, like a classic car, may not have the attractions of these modern stadiums, but it’s the simple beauty of the old girl that continues to bring fans through the turnstiles.

2005 Season Preview

It’s almost with sad reserve that we open the 2005 season after Red Sox fans enjoyed the fruits of a successful 2004 campaign. Yes, Boston will often be referred to as the defending World Series champions this season but, for all intent and purpose, last season’s amazing accomplishment doesn’t count for anything in this year’s standings. Still, with renewed enthusiasm, this team is looking to realize something even more astounding: repeating as champions for the first time since the Red Sox won back-to-back titles in 1915 and 1916. The team returns looking pretty much the same as last season’s squad, even with a few additions and subtractions, so how will this season compare to last? Hopefully we answer some of those questions here.

How much with the loss of Derek Lowe and Pedro Martinez hurt?

Both guys played key roles in the 2004 post-season; Lowe was the winning pitcher in all three series-clinching games and Martinez dazzled in his only World Series appearance. They also combined to win 30 games during the regular season and both stayed healthy for the entire season. Only time will tell if Matt Clement, Wade Miller, and David Wells will be able to combine their efforts to repeat, but we have to remember that the Sox also have one of the best lineups at the plate. While the win totals were impressive, both Lowe and Martinez had their earned-run averages jump considerably, combining for a 4.59 ERA. Lowe’s 5.42 ERA was almost three runs higher than his stellar 2002 campaign numbers, and Martinez’s 3.90 ERA was almost double his Red Sox career average. The point is that, barring an unlikely drop-off in production at the plate, the Sox will continue to win, even with these two wearing different uniforms this season.

Should we be concerned with Curt Schilling missing the opener?

If you believe Schilling, the only reason that he is heading to the DL to start the season is because he needs another week or so to work on his mechanics. His infamous ankle, which was surgically repaired last November nearly a week after the World Series ended, is not the problem; it has fully healed and trainers gave him the green light early enough in spring training that he would otherwise be in the Bronx next Sunday night to open the season for Boston. Luckily, the Sox have enough off days during the first two weeks of the season to go with a four-man rotation and Schilling should be available before the schedule becomes more demanding.

Has Edgar Renteria stabilized the shortstop position?

Renteria should cement himself in that position for many years to come, especially given that the Sox signed him to a four-year contract at $10 million per season. He is a year younger than fellow Colombian Orlando Cabrera, whom he replaces in the Red Sox lineup and a couple years younger than Nomar Garciaparra, who seemed to be a permanent fixture in Boston until last year. Like Cabrera, he is a Gold Glove winner and has flashed the leather many times this spring, already winning over the hearts of Red Sox fans. He also adds more punch in the lineup, with a lifetime batting average of .289 and 10 or more home runs each season over the last six years. Prospect Hanley Ramirez, who impressed coaches and the front office this spring, waits in the wings in Portland but don’t be surprised if he’s never seen in Boston, so long as Renteria performs as expected.

What more can we expect from David Ortiz this season?

There is just so much beauty in that man’s swing, it almost brings a tear to my eye. Looking at his statistics from last season through the regular season and into the playoffs, it’s just amazing what he has done since the Sox picked him off waivers from Minnesota. Last year, “Big Papi” amassed 41 home runs and 139 RBI, spending more than three-quarters of the time in the DH role, and his post-season heroics earned him MVP honors in the American League Championship Series. This spring, it’s evident that his powerful stroke has not diminished, even if he’s taken off a few pounds during the off-season. Terry Francona expects to use him as the everyday DH, so there’s no reason that he can’t continue to compile the numbers that make jaws drop everywhere.

Who will be the surprise of the season?

Jay Payton grabbed headlines when he was traded to Boston in December for Dave Roberts, but perhaps overlooked in that deal was the acquisition of infielder Ramon Vazquez. The four-year veteran from Puerto Rico, who has averaged 78 games in that time, plays all four infield positions and sports a .979 fielding percentage. Remember how valuable Pokey Reese was for Boston last season? Perhaps he might not get as many opportunities as Pokey, who took advantage of Nomar’s absence for the first half of the season, but he should prove valuable as a late-inning defensive replacement. Plus, when one of the veterans needs an off-day to recover from aches and pains, Vazquez should prove adequate with a .262 lifetime average.

Will Adam Stern remain with Boston for the entire season?

Being a Rule V pick-up, Stern would be shipped back to the Atlanta Braves if the Sox are unable to find a permanent place for him on the major league roster. Unfortunately, there are five Red Sox outfielders in front of him: Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Trot Nixon, Payton, and Kevin Millar. Adam Hyzdu has already been sent packing this spring for that very reason. Barring an injury to one of the fore mentioned players, Boston will not jump through hoops to retain his services, so expect him back with Atlanta by mid-summer.

Isn’t Francona deserving of an extension now?

Francona managed in his first year at the Red Sox helm to win a World Series championship, something that no Boston manager had done since Ed Barrow, also in his first season as manager, in 1918. To some, that would seem like reason enough to sign him to a new contract right now; however, the Red Sox front office is not going to rush to get him guaranteed for anything past the current length of their agreement with him, at least through this season. Should his fortunes continue, then it’s possible that he would be granted an extension after that, as well as a statue right next to Ted Williams‘s, but both Francona and the Sox are content to let sleeping dogs lie for now.

Will they or won’t they?

It bears repeating that all roads to the championship will lead through New York and the Yankees spent the winter reloading the arsenal as usual. However, the Red Sox are just as strong themselves and should be able to rise to the challenge once more. Winning the division has become inconsequential thanks to the Wild Card draw; Boston should do well enough again to earn at least that prize and make the playoffs. As long as they play to their potential and Francona continues to make smart coaching decisions, the Red Sox should get another chance to meet a National League opponent in late October for all the marbles.

Happy New Year, Finally!

About a week ago, I was suddenly regretting the thought that 2004 was coming to an end; after all, that was the year for long-suffering Boston Red Sox fans and perhaps I was reluctant to let go so soon after enjoying everything that went the excitement of a World Series championship. From the first day of spring training right, through the trials and tribulations of the regular season and an even wilder post-season, and culminating with the awakening of my 18-month-old son to have him in front of the television when Foulke softly tossed the ball to Mientkiewicz at first, it was almost too difficult to detach myself from the emotions that I felt.

2004 will be a year that no one who was a fan of the Red Sox will soon forget. 2004 was the year that a prodigal son returned to the fold and joined the ace-in-residence to provide a one-two punch that few teams could match. 2004 was the year when Jason Varitek and his teammates collectively shoved their mitts in the face of the New York Yankees at Fenway Park on a warm July afternoon and sent a message that the season would not end that day. 2004 was the year that a young general manager took the biggest gamble of his brief career and traded the Franchise. 2004 was the year that it wasn’t over until Big Papi took one last cut. 2004 was the year that a bloody sock characterized what this “team of idiots” was willing to do to end the years of frustration. 2004 was the year that it was someone else’s turn to choke at the worst possible moment. 2004 was the year that, finally, was the year.

However, perhaps there is much to look forward to with the dawn of 2005. For the first time in our lives as Red Sox fans (making the assumption that none of you reading this truly remember the last time it happened), we will watch our team play a season as defending world champions. For the first time, we won’t be wondering if this will finally be the year but if our team can repeat the feat. For the first time, perennial doubt has been replaced with renewed excitement and we can walk around with our chests held out a little further and our heads held up a little higher.

Am I aware that the other teams in the league will now approach their games against us with the intent of knocking us down from our lofty perch? Am I worried that Pedro Martinez has flown the coop after seven seasons in Boston to nest in the confines of the Mets organization next season? Do I dread the knowledge that Randy Johnson and Carl Pavano will be wearing pinstripes next season, as might Carlos Beltran, and that the Yankees will be looking to administer some payback for what happened in the American League Championship Series? My only response to these and other questions like those is that, if these are the dilemmas that come with being crowned as world champions, it’s good to be the king!

There is no promise that this season will be anything like last season; it would be next to impossible to recapture the essence of that run a year ago. Nevertheless, I look forward to another exciting season of Red Sox baseball as I have every spring since I can remember. Varitek will be back behind the plate as captain of the team and no one will need to see a “C” sewn on his jersey to understand that. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez will be back with their bats to provide that awesome one-two punch at the plate. Curt Schilling will be back on the mound every fifth day to expend every ounce of energy available to keep opposing teams frustrated at the plate. Johnny Damon will be back leading the charge in center field and in the lead-off spot. Terry Francona will be back in the dugout and Theo Epstein will be back in the front office, doing everything they can to assemble and develop another championship team.

Best of all, on the second Monday of April, just a little before three in the afternoon, no matter what happens the rest of this season, a championship banner will be raised high above Fenway Park for everyone to see. The fact that the rival New York Yankees, no matter how many guns have been hired, will get a front-row seat to the festivities only makes it that much sweeter. With no more talk of curses, 1918, the Bambino, or any other ghosts of the past 86 years that always seemed to stand by, waiting for the most inopportune moment, it’s truly going to be a happy new year.

2004 World Series Preview

Well, so far I’m six-for-six in calling these match-ups, but then you won’t see me jetting off to Vegas anytime soon to test my abilities in the World Series of Poker. Instead, I’ll concentrate on the original World Series of baseball where each team needed all seven games of their respective championship series to win the pennants of the American and National Leagues. Now before us, to the excitement of baseball buffs everywhere, are two teams who have met twice before in the battle for the title, once in 1946 and once in 1967. In both instances, St. Louis and Boston went to a deciding Game 7 and the Cardinals won over the Red Sox each time. While the days of Enos Slaughter, Ted Williams, Bob Gibson, and Carl Yastrzemski are long gone, there is no doubt that we have the makings of another Fall Classic.

St. Louis (105-61) vs Boston (98-64)
Season series: No games played

The Red Sox, facing the possibility of getting swept in the American League Championship Series by New York, were down to their last three outs when they rallied to tie the game. From there, they went on to win the final four games, including the last two in front of a raucous Yankee Stadium crowd, to clinch the AL pennant for the first time in 18 years. Meanwhile, the Cardinals returned from Houston down 3-2 in the National League Championship Series with the Astros and needed to win both games; they did just that, winning with a walk-off home run by Jim Edmonds in Game 6 and coming back late in Game 7 against Roger Clemens to clinch their first NL pennant in 17 years. On paper, these two teams look evenly matched, so who has the advantage over whom?

For Boston, they have a stronger starting rotation, even with Curt Schilling and his tender tendon that was held in place by two stitches so that he could pitch the Sox to victory in Game 6. The other pitcher of the moment for Boston is Derek Lowe, who pitched brilliantly in the deciding seventh game and, even with a seven-run cushion, allowed just one run on one hit in six innings of work. Of course, there is the arm of Pedro Martinez, who was strong in his two starts as well. Opposing them will be a strong rotation in itself, with Matt Morris, Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis, and Woody Williams looking to stifle the Sox. Suppan delivered a clutch performance in the deciding game of the NLCS, out-dueling Clemens and a hungry Astros lineup. Williams is expect to start the first game and has great command, having earned a win in his first start of that series and going seven innings in his second start, allowing just one hit and no runs. Marquis and Morris both won 15 games this season on a staff that, like Boston, had five pitchers win ten or more starts but have struggled slightly in the post-season.

The bullpen match-up is also interesting; Boston has Keith Foulke as its closer, who appeared five times in the ALCS and earned a save in Game 6. His best work came in Game 4 when, with just one out in the seventh and Boston down by a run, he was asked to try and keep New York off the board; he responded by walking just two batters while not allowing a single hit in 2-2/3 innings to set up the late-inning dramatics for the Red Sox. St. Louis counters with Jason Isringhausen, who led the NL in saves with 47; he pitched six times in the NLCS and earned three saves. While he did blow a save, it was when he was asked to get the final nine outs of the ball game but only managed to get the first eight. He also had one loss, but that was on the road in extra frames with the score knotted at zero. The rest of the bullpen is evenly matched and both were key in helping get to this point of the season.

On offense, the Red Sox boasts a strong infield that committed just one error in the ALCS. Bill Mueller gobbles up balls hit anywhere close to him at third base, as does former Gold Glove winner Orlando Cabrera at short. Late in the game, Boston brings Pokey Reese in at second and Doug Mientkiewicz in at first, giving them three Gold Glove winners in the infield to back up Foulke and the rest of the bullpen. In the outfield, Johnny Damon patrols center field and, while his arm is a little weak, he gets to the ball fast. For the Cardinals, the human highlight reel in center field, Edmonds, who has made enough impressive catches in his career that would make fishermen jealous, leads them on offense. They also have Edgar Renteria playing short and Scott Rolen at third; together, they allowed just 24 errors in the regular season, making it unlikely that a mistake will come from the left side of the infield.

The lineup on either side of the field boasts some heavy hitters. Boston has the dynamic duo of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Ramirez did not drive in a single run in the ALCS but scored three runs and batted .300; Ortiz, on the other hand, was the offense for Boston late in the series, batting .387 with 11 RBI and collecting game-winning hits in Games 4 and 5, good enough for series MVP honors. He also led off the deciding game with a two-run home run and Boston never trailed in that game. Jason Varitek was also money against the Yankees, collecting seven RBI while batting .321, and Damon awoke from his ALCS slumber in Game 7 to plate a record six runs. For St. Louis, they are led by Albert Pujols, the NLCS MVP, who stroked four home runs, drove in nine, and batted .500. They also have Edmonds, Rolen, and Larry Walker launching baseballs into the stratosphere; Edmonds stroked a walk-off home run in the 12th inning of Game 6 and Rolen stroked a long ball to finish a rally by the Cardinals late in Game 7.

If there is one X-factor to watch in this series, it will be what Boston will do with Ortiz, the everyday designated hitter, when they travel to St. Louis and must play by National League rules. Ortiz did start 31 games at first base this season, so it’s almost certain that he’ll be there for the middle three games at a minimum; his bat is so hot right now that to remove him might psychologically deflate the potent offense. That also means that Kevin Millar will likely sit on the bench and only appear late to pinch-hit for a pitcher, but Francona may give Trot Nixon a rest in one game and let the Millar adventure to right field. If Ortiz can shake the rust, then there shouldn’t be much of a letdown.

Again, this has all the makings of a classic; Boston fans feel strongly that their time has finally come after 86 years of failure. St. Louis fans, though not quite as rabid, are just as loyal and would love to see the Cardinals bring home a championship trophy for the first time in 22 years. It’s almost too close to call, but Boston gets the edge in my book for two reasons. At the moment, they have a stronger pitching staff that proved in the final four games of the ALCS that they are ready to do whatever is called upon them to accomplish; the Yankee lineup was no less strong than what the Cardinals will throw at them. Second, in contrast, Boston has the potential to light up any rotation and have shown the ability this post-season to rally late against an even stronger closer, Mariano Rivera, who blew two consecutive saves for the first time in his experienced post-season career. This series will more than likely go the full seven games but, in the end, New England fans will get a second chance this year to watch a championship parade wind through downtown Boston.

2004 Championship Series Previews

Unfortunately, there will be no champagne celebrations in the locker rooms of Atlanta, Los Angeles, Anaheim, or Minnesota; these four teams have the rest of the off-season to reflect on what might have been. Now, with four teams just eight wins away from a World Series championship, they must set aside that lofty goal and concentrate on the task at hand; that is, they must win the pennants of their respective leagues. Boston, New York, and St. Louis had little trouble getting through the division round while Houston needed all five games to take care of those pesky Braves. Now, the stakes have been set higher and each team is ready to prove themselves, but only two will survive to move on to the next round.

New York (101-61) vs Boston (98-64)
Season series: Boston won, 11-8

Anyone who has paid attention this season knows by now that these two teams were destined to face each other in the American League Championship Series for the second year in a row. With nineteen meetings between these two teams in the regular season, there should be no surprises left to spring on each other and the only advantage left seems to be psychological. Boston was just five outs away from the pennant when Grady Little had a brain cramp and left Boston ace Pedro Martinez in the game to try and work through a jam; his strategy failed and the Red Sox lost to the Yankees in extra frames. Now, a year later, Boston believes, to paraphrase unofficial team spokesman Kevin Millar, that the club this season is five outs better than the team from a season ago. New York, however, has the uncanny ability to seemingly pull an invisible string and make the impossible become reality, which has translated to several world championships in the 86 years since Boston won its last.

This series is about as evenly matched as you will ever find two teams coming face-to-face in the playoffs, so who will come out on top? This wouldn’t be much of a Red Sox fan site if we didn’t believe that Boston would triumph in the end, but we aren’t just showing favoritism. The key to the club’s success will lie in its ability to score runs early, which was critical to the success of the regular season; when the number nine hitter in the lineup is last year’s AL batting champion, you would think that they are capable of pushing people across the plate. With a relatively weak starting rotation, New York must find a way to subdue the Boston lineup, led by the Monsters of the Fenway Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, or it will find itself in a hole very early. What also gives Boston an edge is its starting rotation, which features Curt Schilling, who was nothing less than dominant in the regular season, and Martinez who, despite rumors to the contrary, is nobody’s daddy in the major leagues. Throw in Bronson Arroyo and you have the answer to keeping the always-dangerous Yankee lineup at bay.

What the Red Sox must watch for, as was true in the Anaheim series, is a close score late in the game. The Yankee bullpen, led by Cy Young candidate Mariano Rivera and bolstered by Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill, is nearly unhittable and, with what’s on the line, the chances of a late-inning rally are small. Also, the Red Sox cannot afford to give the Yankees extra outs; those are the types of mistakes that New York does not miss the opportunity to take advantage of when the game is on the line. Do not think for one minute that it will be easy for Boston to take the series but, in the end, the Red Sox should finally be able to dispatch their archrivals and move on to the World Series.

St. Louis (105-57) vs Houston (92-70)
Season series: Houston won, 10-8

St. Louis ran away with the National League Central division and dispatched Los Angeles in four games in the Division Series. They accomplished this, to no one’s surprised, by lighting up the scoreboard with seven home runs, including five in the first game of the series. Led by Albert Pujols, Larry Walker, and Edgar Renteria, the Cardinal’s offense was too potent for the Dodgers to handle. Houston, on the other hand, needed five games and two wins in Atlanta to win their series, which was not decided until the Astros scored five runs in the seventh inning of Game 5 to put the contest out of reach as the Braves watched yet another team celebrate a division series win at Turner Field.

These two teams, like Boston and New York, had the opportunity to face each other multiple times this season (18, to be exact), so they should have a good idea of what is in store for them. Houston, of course, continues to roll after a late-season surge pushed them into the playoffs as the wild card while St. Louis cruised through the final two months in preparation for some late October baseball. In September, Houston took five of six games between the two teams, including a sweep at home in the final week, but that success was more likely a result of the Cardinals resting themselves for the coming weeks; had it been more decisive, perhaps the outcome would have been different. So, take away that late season success and the Cardinals were 7-3 when there was more that mattered.

Houston also comes into this series with a starting rotation that is nearly burned out from the NLDS. Astros starters Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt each pitched on three day’s rest, so Phil Garner may have to try and save these two for Games 3 and 4 in the series. That leaves Brandon Bracke (5-3, 4.30) and Pete Munro (4-7, 5.15) in the first two games, unless Clemens feels good enough to come out in Game 2 on just three days of rest again. In contrast, for the Cardinals, starters Woody Williams (11-8, 4.18), Jason Marquis (15-7, 3.71), and Matt Morris (15-10, 4.72) will have enjoyed plenty of rest when their turn in the rotation comes.

Even though it looks like St. Louis should be better rested for this series, Houston has fought tooth-and-nail to make it this far. Clemens would love to add another ring to his collection along with the Cy Young award that he’s sure to collect after the season ends. Phil Garner would love to be the guy who turned a team around at mid-season and turned them into champions. The Cardinals, though, have been at this point in three of the last five seasons and were unable to advance in the first two attempts and they don’t intend to let that happen again. Add it all up and St. Louis finally comes away with their first NL pennant since 1987.

2004 Division Series Previews

Perhaps no season in recent memory has come down to the final day of the regular schedule before the playoff picture became clear. Even with three American League teams clinching playoff spots almost a week or more before the season ended, every team that finally did make it spent the last few games trying to jockey for a more favorable position in the post-season, with Anaheim getting the edge over Minnesota to host one of two division series match-ups. Meanwhile, in the National League, Los Angeles needed until Saturday to claim the stake on its division and the Houston Astros, who seemed out of playoff contention at the All-Star break, enjoyed a late season surge and won the final seven games of the regular season to earn the National League wild card spot. Now that the marathon has passed the 26-mile mark, it’s time for the eight remaining teams to sprint to the finish, starting with the four division series.

New York (101-61) vs Minnesota (92-70)
Season series: New York won, 4-2

One of the biggest weaknesses of the Yankees this season was its starting pitching staff; despite winning 100-plus games for the third straight season, its starting rotation was not intimidating to opposing teams. In contrast, the Twins have Johan Santana, the likely AL Cy Young award winner (sorry, Curt Schilling and Mariano Rivera), who won 20 games, struck out a league-leading 265 batters, and posted a 2.61 ERA, Brad Radke (11-8, 3.48), and Carlos Silva (14-8, 4.21). However, what got the Yankees to 101 wins was the strength of its offense, led by MVP candidate Gary Sheffield; the team scored an eye-popping 897 runs this season and stroked 242 home runs, a team record. Last week, the Twins paid a visit to Yankee Stadium and got swept by the Bronx Bombers in three games; the results will be no different for Minnesota against New York this week. In other words, the division series is just a formality for the Yankees as they make their way to yet another ALCS.

Anaheim (92-70) vs Boston (98-64)
Season series: Boston won, 5-4

Five weeks ago, the red-hot Angels strolled into Fenway Park and were swept in three games by the even more red-hot Red Sox as Boston continued its climb on top of the wild card standings and Anaheim fell four games behind the Oakland Athletics in the American League West division. While Boston spent the rest of the season trying to catch the Yankees, eventually finishing three games behind New York in the AL East, Anaheim won 17 of its remaining 29 games to win the division by just a game over Oakland. Anaheim hopes to demonstrate that World Series title they collected in 2002 against the San Francisco Giants in seven games was no fluke. Boston, which won 19 of its last 30 contests, is looking to win its first World Series in 86 years. The teams are evenly matched in most facets and this has all the makings of a fall classic, even if it is just the first round. However, Boston should win because they have 21-game winner and Cy Young candidate Curt Schilling, the Monsters of the Fenway, Manny Ramirez (43 HR, 130 RBI, .613 SLG) and David Ortiz (41 HR, 139 RBI, .603 SLG), and a supporting cast ready to finish what was started in 2003.

St. Louis (105-57) vs Los Angeles (93-69)
Season series: St. Louis won, 4-2

Unlike most of the playoff contenders this season, the chances for St. Louis were never in doubt, having surged well ahead of its fellow NL Central division opponents by mid-summer on its way to its fourth division crown in five years. Starter Chris Carpenter (15-5, 3.46) led the rotation this season but will miss the first round with an injured bicep; however, the remaining four starters all won 10 or more games, equaled only by Boston this season. At the end of the game, the Cardinals have Jason Isringhausen, who converted 47 saves while posting a respectable 2.87 ERA. On offense, Albert Pujols, were it not for a San Francisco Giant named Barry Bonds, would be the most prolific offensive force in not only the NL but all of baseball as well (my god, is he really just 24 years old?). The Dodger Blue were led by Adrian Beltre on offense, who clocked 48 home runs and posted a .334 batting average, a resurgent Jose Lima, who posted 13 wins and a 4.07 ERA, and a relentless Eric Gagne, who collected 45 saves this season. On paper, it appears that St. Louis has the better team, and on the field, the same is true; expect to be seeing the high-flying Red Birds cruise to the NLCS.

Atlanta (96-66) vs Houston (92-70)
Season series: Tied, 3-3

Give credit to Bobby Cox, the one constant in the Braves clubhouse, who led his team to a playoff appearance for the 13th straight year (not including the strike-shortened 1994 season). Very few people picked Atlanta to repeat and most had them finishing fourth; perhaps the lesson learned is, like the Yankees, they find a way. Likewise, Houston fired Jimy Williams at the All-Star break after a poor start and no one expected that they would see action in October. However, Houston had other plans and, with Phil Garner at the helm, went 49-25 the rest of the way to clinch the wild card spot in the National League. In other words, we have two teams that no one thought would be in the post-season, but here they are, warts and all. Neither team has impressive numbers on offense or defense, so who has the advantage? It’s a toss-up; Houston won left and right over the last six weeks of the season, going an amazing 31-8, while Atlanta was almost as hot, going 25-13. However, the edge goes to Houston for the reason that Atlanta went 51-25 this season against what proved to be relatively weak competition in the NL East, making it easier than expected to take the division. Houston, however, played almost evenly against St. Louis this season and had to battle Chicago in the standings in the final weeks; winning nine of the last ten also has them on a roll that will be tough to stop.

“Impossible” Still Possible?

Red Sox fans this morning were ecstatic, albeit still a little sleepy, after staying up late to catch the end of Boston’s sixth straight victory won in dramatic fashion, thanks to back-to-back, late-inning home runs from sluggers Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, over the nose-diving Chicago White Sox. It was the first time since late April that the Red Sox had swept a road series and earned Boston some revenge after losing two-of-three last weekend at Fenway to these same White Sox. It also meant that, after being 10-1/2 games behind New York at the start of last week, they had climbed back to with 5-1/2 games thanks to New York, who had lost five-of-six last week and were swept over the weekend at home by the red-hot Anaheim Angels.

Just last week, a lock for the American League East title in 2004 seemed like a foregone conclusion for the Yankees and, for the seventh straight season, the only chance for the Red Sox to see the post-season would be to focus on two or three other teams that were competing for the coveted wild card playoff spot. Suddenly, with the Yankees sputtering and the Red Sox flying high, even the most pessimistic Boston fan is paying attention once again to the division race.

It’s still going to take quite an effort for Boston to catch New York in the standings. If the Yankees play just over .500 ball for the rest of the season (20-19), the Red Sox would need to win 27 of the remaining 40 games left on the schedule. Put another way, with 12 series that remain to be played, the Sox could not afford to lose more than one game in each series. Two of those series will be played against the Yankees: one three-game weekend series at “The House That Ruth Built” followed by another three-game series at “Friendly” Fenway.

Boston also has a more difficult schedule left to play. 13 games remain against West Division opponents and three of those teams are in the playoff hunt: the Angels, the Oakland Athletics, and the Texas Rangers. The Red Sox play two of those series at home against Anaheim and Texas, then fly straight to Oakland to play three more games before wrapping up the road trip with four in Seattle. Meanwhile, other than Boston, New York will face just one other team that has a record better than .500: the Minnesota Twins. The rest of these games include three series with Toronto, two each with Cleveland and Baltimore, and one each with Tampa Bay and Kansas City; New York is a combined 31-8 against all these teams, not including the slumping Indians with whom they have yet to play.

The wild card edge, without a doubt, goes to Boston, and I don’t say that just because of my loyalty to the Boston nine. Head-to-head against the other three contenders, Boston is even in strength and should stand toe-to-toe with them; with two of these series coming at home, the Red Sox should have a slight advantage. Also, Anaheim, Oakland, and Texas must all play each other several more times before the season ends while Boston has several division series against weaker opponents that should be easy to take. Thus, the three West Division rivals should tear each other apart while Boston enjoys the view from the sidelines and moves further ahead in the wild card lead.

So, with the wild card so easily within reach, are the Red Sox only hurting themselves if they attempt to catch New York? To quote a well-known former Yankee great: “It ain’t over until it’s over.” History proves that New York is resilient and that they will fight right down to the final out. Plus, given an easier schedule over the next few weeks, perhaps some young pitching staffs will help New York regain it offensive edge while the club’s own pitching staff tries to regroup. However, nothing is set in stone and, if the Sox can stay hot, those two series between the two clubs could prove interesting. To say that I would love to see a reversal of fortune come in favor of Boston would be wonderful but, to put it in another perspective, a division crown is not the most impressive piece of hardware that can be placed in the trophy cabinet at the end of the season.

2004 Mid-Season Review

Well, you certainly cannot look back on the first half of the season and wonder if it would have been the Yankees that were seven games back at the break and thinking wild card had the Red Sox had the lineup that was drawn on paper by Theo Epstein during the off-season. However, even as it stands, Boston enjoyed what, for many teams, would have been a successful first half: ten games above .500 and poised to make a run at a playoff spot in October. There are 76 games left to play in the 2004 season; as we enjoy the All-Star break, we look back on the studs and duds of the first 86 games.

Team MVP: Manny Ramirez
First runner-up: Curt Schilling

Even though this is his fourth season in Boston, it almost seems like we are meeting Ramirez for the first time, and the faithful are enjoying his company. The suddenly easygoing left fielder is enjoying a banner year: his .344 batting average, 26 home runs, and 77 RBI are tops on his team and have him at or near the top of the American League leader board. Not only is he a legitimate AL MVP at this point, he has a chance to become the first batting Triple Crown winner in nearly forty years. It’s hard to imagine that he was nearly sent packing over the winter; never have the cheers been louder when he comes to the plate or he makes a sensational catch in left field.

Team Goat: Derek Lowe
First runner-up: Kevin Millar

Perhaps he feels that he is being picked on, but Lowe has certainly not carried himself well enough on the field to be worthy of a multiyear deal that his agent, Scott Boras, is looking to get him this off-season in the $11 million per year range. His ERA of 5.57 is one and a half runs per nine innings higher that Tim Wakefield‘s as a starter. His seven wins do not look good next to eight losses in seventeen starts. It’s true that his defense has not always been there to support him; the 21 unearned runs scored against him are the most on the team. Still, he should be doing better than this and he knows it; hopefully we will see him turn things around in the second half.

Biggest Surprise: Pokey Reese
First runner-up: Johnny Damon

When Boston signed this two-time Gold Glove winner, they knew that they should expect greatness in the field and he has not disappointed. If you went through a reel highlighting the ten best plays of the first half by the Red Sox defense, we’re certain that he would be in better than half of those. With a career .250 batting average, you would not expect him to contribute much at the plate, but he has driven in 26 and scored 50 runs. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that we will see him anywhere but in the number nine spot in the lineup and, with Nomar Garciaparra back from injury, his playing time will be limited, but everyone knows how valuable he’s been to this team; those cheers for him whenever he comes to bat are backed with respect for his efforts.

Biggest Disappointment: Cesar Crespo
First runner-up: Byung-Hyun Kim

He was given ample opportunity to prove his worth and, by his own admittance, he blew it. In 79 plate appearances, Crespo batted .165 while driving in just two runs, never walked, and struck out 20 times. Perhaps you can argue that, given his limited playing time, he never had a chance to find his groove. Explain then how Doug Mirabelli, with seven less plate appearances, hit .306 with seven home runs and plated 17 runners. Sorry, but when you wear a major league uniform, you have to player like you belong.

Second Half Outlook
Let the good times roll!

It’s well known by anyone who had followed Boston this season that, after a 15-6 start, the Red Sox barely maintained a .500 pace (33-32) while New York surged from 4-1/2 games back at one point to seven games ahead in first place. The second half is not going to be any easier as Boston will play 24 games in 25 days following the All-Star break. This includes a trip out west, then three games in two days at Fenway against that pesky Baltimore, followed by a weekend home series against the rival Yankees, then ended with two weeks on the road against Baltimore, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and Detroit.

At the moment, they also stand one game ahead of Oakland in the wild card race. Knowing that, it doesn’t mean that Boston could not pile on the wins in the second half and surge past New York into first place in the AL East. However, the point is to make it to October and perhaps the collective energy of the Red Sox is better spent trying to stay ahead of the wild card rivals. They have enough strength in the starting lineup and depth in the bench that they should be able make a run for that elusive World Series title.

As a side note, don’t forget that this might be the last chance to see Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez, two recent Red Sox legends, playing in a Boston uniform. Without a doubt, one or both of these fine players will be gone at the end of the season. Say what you will about them, but they have enjoyed some sensational years here and are have contributed mightily to the recent success of the Red Sox. We don’t know yet just how much we will miss either of them.