Finale The Start Of Something Big?

BOSTON—A year ago Sunday, the only thing Terry Francona wanted to do was get home before the rain arrived and enjoy a barbeque.

Even that didn't work out, which was a fitting end to a miserable season for Francona and the Red Sox. Torrential rains delayed the start of the game by more than three hours and Devern Hansack managed to throw five no-hit innings against the Orioles before the rains returned and officially ended a regular season finale witnessed by a sparse "sellout crowd."

"You know what I did last year?" Francona said. "I found the fattiest foods—potato chips, all that stuff—and went home.

"I'm not doing that this year."

The only similarity to last year is that game no. 162 for the Sox was completely meaningless (the Sox fell to the Twins, 3-2). But this time, Francona is preparing for the playoffs. The Sox, who finished with the best record in baseball (96-66), will begin the best-of-five AL Division Series against the Angels Wednesday at Fenway Park.

"I'm a heckuva lot happier today than I was a year ago today," Francona said before the game Sunday. "To endure what we did at the end of last year was very difficult."

The Sox suffered a remarkable run of injuries and illnesses in the second half of last year. Three regulars (Jason Varitek, Alex Gonzalez and Trot Nixon) went on the disabled list over the final two months while David Ortiz missed eight games due to an irregular heartbeat and Manny Ramirez missed 28 of the final 38 games with right knee problems.

The scariest ailment was suffered by Jon Lester, who was diagnosed with cancer in late August. So it was an appropriate symbol of the Sox' rebirth that Lester, who underwent chemotherapy last fall, opened spring training with the Sox and returned to the majors July 23, tossed two innings of relief—his first-ever major league relief appearance—Sunday.

Ortiz has battled knee ailments most of the season, but he enjoyed a scorching September (.396 with nine homers and 27 RBI), reached base in 13 of his final 16 plate appearances and led the AL with a .445 on-base percentage and 88 extra-base hits. And, of course, he has quite the track record in October: He delivered three walk-off hits, including an ALDS-winning homer against the Angels, during the 2004 postseason.

"We talked all year that when he hits, we seem to be a different team," Francona said. "He gives us that left-handed bat that can hit the ball off the wall, hit the ball out of the ballpark.

Ramirez missed 24 games with a strained left oblique, but played in each of the Sox' final six regular season games and looked comfortable at the plate (.389 with two RBI, three walks and three strikeouts in 21 plate appearances), in the field and on the bases. Kevin Youkilis missed more than a week with a bruised wrist but played in all six games—and started four—over the final week.

"I think we are definitely going in the right direction," Francona said. "That doesn't assure you're going to win. But I think we have made a huge effort during some trying times to not panic, not do something that would put us in a bad position down the road. And this isn't the easiest place to do that, but we tried to keep our thoughts in order and our goals in mind. And it ended up working out really well. We won enough games and we seem to be very healthy."

As for Francona, Sunday was the last—and perhaps first—off-day of the year for his nerves. "We get to play a game with our sights set on bigger things," Francona said. "It's not a bad way to come to the ballpark. I love the other days too, because you come and you're nervous.

"It's enjoyable to be out there and to be nervous and to know that—or think that—you're going to win. I enjoy that feeling a lot."

He hopes to have it for another month.


Diehard managing editor Jerry Beach can be reached at diehardmag@yahoo.com. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-501-5752. To subscribe to Diehard or diehardmagazine.com, please CLICK HERE.

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