Sunday, October 28, 2007

On winning.

Papelbon throws a high-90s fastball past the bat of a pinch-hitter in Denver, and suddenly it's the end; a good feeling, but not the all-encompassing euphoria we felt as we watched Johnny Damon's grand slam in game 7, 2004; even the 3-1 comeback against baseball's other best team, the Cleveland Indians, didn't have the drama of the earth-shattering '04 series, which saw the rise of David Ortiz as the best clutch hitter in baseball.

But it wasn't bad.

This year, everyone who follows baseball knew that the Sox had all the components necessary to get the championship. A few big free agents padded the already-impressive lineup; mostly, they've worked out, although Dice-K hasn't looked as dominant as he did in the World Baseball Classic, and I'd still rather have Trot Nixon out in right than J.D. Drew. (Nixon is a gamer, and we saw him rise to the occasion in the ALCS game 2, even if Drew has more natural talent.) The question was only if the Sox would return to pre-2004 form and fold.

Folding to the Yanks ended up being out of the question; they did something amazing by making the playoffs after a spectacularly bad start, and seemed to bring the ghosts of the past with them when they played the Sox in the second half of the season. In the end, it wasn't enough to get them past the Sox for the division, even with Boston's nonchalance towards winning at the end of the season.

Folding to the Angels wasn't in the cards either: the Angels couldn't bring a healthy team to Fenway, and Manny Ramirez woke up to play some baseball with a spectacular walk-off homer in Game 2, off the excellent K-Rod no less.

Folding to the Indians seems like a distant memory as well -- despite being down 3-1 to Eric Wedge's well-balanced team, the comeback seemed almost preordained. Beckett's win in game 5 over C.C. Sabathia, who before a mediocre-to-bad postseason might have won the Cy Young, was almost inevitable: Beckett is now the game's best big-game pitcher, as Curt Schilling hands over the torch, Clemens (who never really wore that crown anyway) retires, again, and the Yank's Chien-Ming Wang foundered badly this fall. Beckett's slow walk off the mound will doubtless be seen again in October.

There were surprises -- Manny showing up to hit was a big one, after his worst big-league season. Mike Lowell leading the team in RBIs was another; the arrival of Jacoby Ellsbury was huge (I think he might have won himself an opening-day start by hitting over .400 in the World Series, sorry Coco) not to mention Dustin Pedroia hitting over .300 as a rookie, despite a ludicrously long swing. The biggest, of course, has to be Clay Bucholz' unheard-of no-hitter, in his 2nd start in the bigs. The fates were smiling on Boston that day.

But still...this is all a bit new to us Red Sox people. I'm sure half of us were expecting Matt Holliday to hit a 7-run, 3-game-winning homer in the bottom of the eighth today, but the modern, professional management in Boston had put victory out of reach of even the hottest team in baseball.

So we'll see. The Sox are still 19 world series short of the Yankees (and also trail the Oakland Athletics and Cardinals in that category). I also suspect that the reports of the Yankees' demise may have been overstated a bit (unless they lose Posada and Rivera in addition to letting A-Rod go) and there are a couple of great teams in the central division that aren't going anywhere. The Tigers still have all the talent they need to win, though the Indians' pitching should keep them at the top of their division unless Fausto Carmona loses his nerve. The Angels will be tough if they can get another bat behind Vlad (although he's got to stop expanding his strike zone in the postseason.) But there's no getting around it -- the Sox are the top dogs now, just like they were a century ago. Last time, the Yanks knocked us off our post in the early 20's. If we can stay on top that long this time, I'd be very surprised.

So let's enjoy it now -- hats off to the 2007 Boston Red Sox, who, whatever else you might say about them, just proved themselves the best in the game.
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