ROCK ON!! Sox Series-Bound Again

BOSTON—Amid the sights, sounds and smells that battered the senses just after midnight this morning in the Red Sox clubhouse stood Curt Schilling, who tempered the celebration with a reminder.

"We gotta finish this one to do it twice," Schilling said. "Getting here is part of the challenge. Winning it's the next part."

"It" is the World Series, and the Red Sox are headed there again after another stirring comeback in the AL Championship Series. Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon combined for four shutout innings in relief of an effective Daisuke Matsuzaka and the Sox scored eight runs in the final two innings as they beat the Indians, 11-2, in Game Seven of the ALCS in front of a delirious sellout crowd of 37,165.

The Sox won the AL pennant for the 12th time in franchise history and will host the Rockies in Game One Wednesday. The Rockies reached their first-ever Fall Classic by winning 21 of their last 22 games dating back to Sept. 15 and sweeping the Cubs and Diamondbacks in the NL playoffs, but they aren't the only ones bursting with history-making momentum.

The Sox—three years and one day removed from their unprecedented ALCS comeback against the Yankees—outscored the Indians 30-5 over the final three games in becoming the first franchise to ever mount three comebacks from a deficit of at least three games to one in a best-of-seven series. And they are the only team to accomplish the feat in separate seasons. The 1985 Royals came back from a pair of three game to one deficits in the ALCS and World Series.

"I do think that games of a huge magnitude, our guys don't get overwhelmed," Terry Francona said. "It doesn't assure that you're going to win, but it is a good feeling. You look out there and you see Jason Varitek behind the plate, guys like [Josh] Beckett, Schilling—they do what they're supposed to do. Again: You think you have the talent, it'll show through."

The persona of the 2007 team is drastically different than that of the 2004 club, but once they fell into must-win mode, these restrained Sox proved they had the same resiliency and minimalist approach of their boisterous predecessors.

"Different team, same tenacity, same thing built into this squad," Mike Timlin said. "Everybody tries to do too much sometimes. We took a step back, just did what we could handle, and go get ‘em."

The brilliance of ALCS MVP Beckett in Game Five—he allowed one run over eight innings and posted a 1.93 ERA in going 2-0 overall—bought the Sox some time to rediscover their offensive stroke. The Sox hit .365 (19-for-52) with 16 runs scored, 13 walks and 10 strikeouts through the first 14 innings of the series but just .241 (26-for-108) with seven runs scored, five walks and 19 strikeouts between the sixth inning of Game Two and the sixth inning of Game Five.

Beginning with a two-run seventh inning Thursday, the Sox hit .390 (32-for-82) with 28 runs scored, 13 walks and 14 strikeouts. And it was a team effort, particularly over the final two games, when batters outside the middle-of-the-order trio of David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Mike Lowell accounted for 20 of the Sox' 28 hits, 18 of their runs and 17 of their RBI. Ortiz, Ramirez and Lowell accounted for 30 of the Sox' 74 hits, 27 of their 45 RBI and 20 of their 46 runs in the Sox' first eight playoff games.

Dustin Pedroia's two-run homer in the seventh and three-run double in the eighth, both off Rafael Betancourt, symbolized the shift the series took over the final three games. Pedroia was 2-for-16 in the first four games while Betancourt who was being touted as an ALCS MVP candidate when he tossed 5 1/3 scoreless innings in Games Two, Three and Four.

"When your season is almost over—we're down 3-1 and you get that sense of urgency that we're going to play every inning, every pitch, everything as hard as we can," Pedroia said. "And we did that the last three games."

"It's sticking with a game plan and going in there and knowing what we need to do to win a ballgame and never deviating from that," Doug Mirabelli said. "I think our guys, from top to bottom in this lineup, just made their pitchers work so hard. As a pitcher on an opposing team, you can't breathe out there. You have to make one pitch after the other. And sometimes it's just too much."

The Sox were not surprised when postseason icon Curt Schilling (two runs in seven innings) built on the momentum in Game Six, but Game Seven had more twists and turns than the lopsided final score would indicate. The Sox scored a run in each of the first three innings and racked up nine hits in the first four frames but led just 3-2 through six as Jake Westbrook induced three double play grounders and retired the final seven batters he faced.

Matsuzaka, meanwhile, labored after an impressive start—he retired the first six batters on just 21 pitches before throwing 67 pitches and allowing two runs over the next three innings—but he lasted long enough for Francona to go directly to Okajima and Papelbon, the Sox' best relievers this season.

With one out in the seventh, Kenny Lofton—who was thrown out at second trying to extend a single in the fifth—reached second when Julio Lugo misplayed a pop-up. Franklin Gutierrez followed with a single off the third base bag, but it caromed off the tarp in foul territory and into short left field. Indians third base coach Joel Skinner held the speedy Lofton, and Casey Blake hit into a double play on the next pitch.

Pedroia's homer in the seventh gave the Sox a little breathing room and Papelbon came on for the first six-out save of his career after Okajima—who threw two innings for the first time since he lasted a season-high 2 1/3 innings July 7—allowed consecutive singles to start the eighth. Potential tying run Ryan Garko flied out to Jacoby Ellsbury on the warning track in right-center field to end the eighth, and after the Sox piled on in the bottom of the inning.

"We created a lot of opportunities early, but we couldn't put more than one up," Francona said. "Westbrook got so comfortable that it looked like maybe we would have to make a stand. Kenny doesn't score on the ball down the line, has a chance to be 3-3. ‘Oki' makes a great pitch on Blake, gets a double play and, again, it gave us time to start tacking on."

Coco Crisp, a former Indian displaced by Ellsbury in the starting lineup, caught the final out by racing into the triangle to snare a long fly off the bat of Casey Blake. Papelbon flung his glove high into the air and dropped to his knees to set off a raucous celebration.

"I remember sitting in Cleveland when we got beat that third game and trying to find a way to turn this around," Pedroia said. "We worked so hard all year long to have our season get cut short. Nobody wanted to go home, nobody wanted to say goodbye to everybody."

On Sunday, the Sox said hello to history—and the World Series. Again.


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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