Ten Magic Sox Moments (Part One)

The Red Sox led the AL East for the final 166 days of the season, but don't let the nearly wire-to-wire run fool you: There were plenty of pivotal twists and turns along the way to the franchise's first division title in 12 years. Here's 10 particularly memorable moments. Part one of three. (FREE PREVIEW OF COMMEMORATIVE CHAMPIONSHIP ISSUE CONTENT!)

Apr. 8: Papelbon dominates Rangers Can the path of a world champion be traced all the way back to a decision made in spring training? Perhaps this is the type of question that is best answered with another question: Would the Sox have won the World Series if they actually went through with their American Idol-esque closer audition in Ft. Myers instead of returning Jonathan Papelbon to the role in which he thrived as a rookie last season?

It didn't take the Sox long to realize just how valuable Papelbon is in the ninth inning—or, sometimes, the eighth. With the Sox nursing a 2-1 lead over the Rangers and needing a win in the series finale to avoid dropping both series on the season-opening road trip, Terry Francona went to Papelbon with one out in the eighth and runners on the corners and watched a Papelbon pen the latest chapter in his burgeoning legend. Papelbon needed just 15 pitches to retire all four batters he faced—including three via strikeout—and preserve a pivotal win.

That set the tone for a dominant season in which Papelbon recorded 37 saves, led all relievers in opponents batting average (.148) and strikeouts-per-nine-innings (12.96) and unfurled a perfectly-suited-for-closing mound presence that straddled the line between histrionic and psychotic.

"You can't understand how unbelievable that is," winning pitcher Curt Schilling told The Boston Globe afterward. "Until you're on the mound, you can't understand that there are very few guys in the history of the game who can do that, much less right now."

It's difficult to imagine that any of the pre-Papelbon closer candidates would have been able to do that. Of the four pitchers who vied in spring training to replace Papelbon, only Mike Timlin—who went 2-1 with a 3.42 ERA and one save in the regular season but took two trips to the disabled list—pitched for the Sox in the playoffs. Joel Pineiro, the favorite entering Florida, was relegated to mop-up duty and had a 5.03 ERA when he was traded to the Cardinals July 31. Brendan Donnelly was effective but never healthy and underwent Tommy John surgery in early August. And Julian Tavarez spent most of the season as the Sox' fifth starter but pitched just five times after Sept. 1.

Apr. 20-22: Sox sweep Yankees
Yes, it's more than one moment. But in just three days, the Sox exposed the Yankees' weaknesses, served notice they had a bullpen that went beyond just Papelbon and unveiled a new staff ace.

In the opener, the Yankees tagged Curt Schilling for five runs in seven innings, but the Sox scored five runs in the bottom of the eighth off Mike Myers, Luis Vizcaino and Mariano Rivera before Hideki Okajima earned the save in a 7-6 victory. It was a coming out party for Okajima, who had struck out six batters in his previous 2 2/3 innings and earned the save opportunity because Jonathan Papelbon had thrown 47 pitches in the previous two days.

"We've got something to build off of," said Kyle Snyder, who earned the win by stranding two runners in the eighth that kept the deficit at four runs. "We're a good ballclub—not that we never believed that—but as the days go on, wins like this, you know they're going to help us out."

The next day, Josh Beckett exorcised some demons in tossing 6 2/3 solid innings and leading the Sox to a 7-5 win. Beckett, who allowed 22 runs in 20 innings against the Yankees in 2006, gave up four runs in the first two innings Apr. 21 but settled down to retire 17 of 19 batters between the third and seventh. He whiffed seven—including six on corner-painting fastballs that symbolized how he'd begun to transition from thrower to pitcher—in a win that improved his record to 4-0.

"His stuff is so out of the ordinary that when he's on, he's going to freeze guys," Schilling said. "He's just commanding his fastball to both sides of the plate. And even when you're looking for it—at 95, 96 [and when] guys put it on the corner, it's next to impossible to hit.

"I think he's in for a really special year."

The Sox were in for a really special night in the finale, when they hit back-to-back-to-back-to-back homers for the first time in team history and only the fifth time in big league history in a 7-6 win. Beleaguered rookie Chase Wright—one of a record nine starting pitchers used by the Yankees in April—gave up all four blasts to Manny Ramirez, J.D. Drew, Mike Lowell and Jason Varitek within a span of 10 pitches with two outs in the fourth inning.

"I was feeling better as the number mounted," Terry Francona said.

He'd soon feel the same way about the Sox' AL East lead. The Sox, who maintained a 1 ½ game lead with the sweep, were already in first place for good and would expand the lead to double digits by May 18. The Yankees, meanwhile, would play from behind all season thanks to their wide-spread pitching problems.

May 13: Oh Mother!
For all the talk about how it's never over until it's over, there's a time when even cliché-spouting ballplayers begin to figure it's not their day. And with Josh Beckett long gone due to an "avulsion" on his right middle finger—it would force him to the disabled list for 15 days—and Orioles rookie Jeremy Guthrie in the midst of a three-hit shutout through 8 1/3 innings, well, the Sox could be forgiven for looking towards the next day.

But Orioles catcher Ramon Hernandez misplayed a wind-aided pop-up in front of the plate by Coco Crisp to begin a shocking six-run rally by the Sox that lifted them to a euphoric 6-5 Mothers Day win.

The next eight batters reached via four hits, three walks and a fielder's choice against relievers Danys Baez and Chris Ray. David Ortiz had an RBI double, Kevin Youkilis drew a bases-loaded walk and Jason Varitek laced a two-run double before Julio Lugo hit a high chopper to the right of first base. Ray beat Lugo to first, but Kevin Millar's throw clipped off Ray's glove and trickled into foul territory as Varitek and Eric Hinske scored the tying and winning runs to cap the Sox' biggest ninth inning comeback since 1998.

"Here at Fenway Park, somehow, we find a way to win games," Youkilis said. "And just to have that happen that inning—after a day of frustrating at-bats and some unlucky stuff—it's great just to get that big win."

"The Orioles game was a loss—5-0 in the ninth inning, that game's over," Schilling said in June.

While the win lent a magical air to the Sox' season, it marked the beginning of the end for Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo, who was heavily criticized for lifting Guthrie—the right-hander had never thrown more than six innings as a big leaguer—and was fired June 18.

(Part two will appear Saturday)

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

Diehard Magazine Top Stories