Monday, October 20, 2008

Just 1 game Shy of the Series

It's never easy winning two successive World Series championships. Nobody has been able to perform the feat since the Yankees won the World Series three straight years, from 1998-2000.
When a team jumps as many hurdles as the Red Sox did in 2008, that task gets even tougher.

Truth be told, Boston didn't win 95 games in the regular season and force a Game 7 in the American League Championship Series the easy way. The Red Sox endured, clawed and battled their way to within one game of reaching another World Series on Sunday, then fell short with a 3-1 loss to the Rays at Tropicana Field.

"To say we were going to get to Game 7 of the ALCS with all the injuries we had and what we've been though as a team, it's a pretty good accomplishment," said Dustin Pedroia, who may end up winning the AL MVP Award in the offseason. "We still felt like we had a championship-caliber team. We just ran into a team that played a little bit better than us."

General manager Theo Epstein was proud of what the Sox accomplished this season.

"This was a year where we had to survive almost from Day One right to Game 7 of the ALCS," said Epstein, who noted Boston overcame a lot of obstacles. "These players grinded through everything. Along the way, great camaraderie and sense of team and a sense of purpose developed, including a lot of magic. These guys really pulled hard for one another. That's really what we tried to preach as an organization. These guys are the organization. They make us proud with what they do out there."

There were road struggles in the season's first half, the trade of future Hall of Famer Manny Ramirez on July 31, and injuries that popped up again and again to prominent members from the team's 2007 World Series championship run.

But look no further than the team's performance in the ALCS as an indication of how tough the Red Sox were. Trailing, 7-0, in the seventh inning of Game 5 -- and behind, 3-1, in a best-of-seven series -- the Red Sox rallied for an 8-7 win, then took Game 6 in St. Petersburg to force their third ALCS Game 7 in five seasons -- all of which included Boston late-series rallies.

Yet another miracle comeback -- the same type the Sox became known for throughout the decade -- was there for the taking.

They just fell a little short.

There were obvious inconsistencies throughout -- compare the Red Sox's 21-29 road record at the All-Star break to their 36-11 home mark. Boston won 13 in a row at home from May 2-June 5 but lost 12 of 17 on the road in that same span. The Red Sox rallied to finish the season just four games under .500 on the road.

Despite not reaching the World Series, closer Jonathan Papelbon was proud of how his club performed this season.

"I said to myself, 'I'm proud of us,'" said Papelbon. "I'm proud of what we went through this year and how we overcame things. We put ourselves in a situation to get to Game 7. When you do that and you battle all the way back to a Game 7 and you try to put yourself in a position to win, which we very well did tonight, that's all you can ask for."

For every Red Sox setback, it seemed there was an answer that exceeded expectations.

It started early, with a right shoulder injury to Curt Schilling that prevented the 2001 World Series Most Valuable Player (while with the Diamondbacks), who was also a pivotal part of the Sox's title runs of '04 and '07, from throwing even one pitch in 2008.

The answer? Boston relied not only on the steady growth of Jon Lester, who went 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA and became the team's most consistent starter throughout the season, but the insertion of new starters into the rotation to fill voids. Justin Masterson, Bartolo Colon and Paul Byrd all found themselves winning games in the starting rotation.

That trio went 12-7 while starting in 2008.

On May 31, David Ortiz injured his left wrist and missed nearly two months. Instead of crumbling, the Red Sox's offense received a boost from J.D. Drew, who took Ortiz's No. 3 spot in the batting order and hit .337 with 12 homers in June.

"This team had a lot of heart," said Drew who won the AL Player of the Month Award in June. "We fought through it and dealt with injuries all year. To be in this position, you don't want to lose in this round of the playoffs. To get here through all we've been through is pretty impressive."

When the Red Sox's bullpen began sputtering in mid-July -- a period when the club looked to find a steady reliever who could consistently pitch the eighth inning and preserve a lead for Papelbon -- manager Terry Francona called on Masterson again.

Masterson was sent to Triple-A Pawtucket to be converted to a reliever, and it worked, as the 23-year-old went 2-2 with a 2.36 ERA in 27 relief appearances. He allowed just six earned runs in July and August combined.

By the non-waiver Trade Deadline, it was obvious that Ramirez's future was no longer with Boston. The team traded him to the Dodgers in a three-team swap that moved Jason Bay to the Red Sox as Ramirez's replacement.

Bay did his part, batting .293 with nine homers and 37 RBIs through the end of the regular season, and he was an upgrade defensively in left field.

Stints on the disabled list again set in. The Sox lost right-hander Josh Beckett for a period in August with a right elbow injury, then a right oblique injury. Drew spent a month nursing his lower back, and Triple-A prospect Jed Lowrie became the everyday shortstop when Julio Lugo was lost for the season. Mike Lowell, the 2007 World Series MVP, didn't play after Game 3 of the AL Division Series because of a right hip injury.

The Red Sox made the necessary adjustments.

Lowrie made all of the routine plays in the field and became a legitimate offensive threat in August, collecting 16 extra-base hits. Kevin Youkilis, an AL Gold Glove Award-winning first baseman, became the everyday third baseman in the playoffs during Lowell's absence.

A late-August deal for Mark Kotsay gave Boston a viable option for a backup outfielder and a first baseman. Kotsay filled in for Drew in right until Drew returned, then he took Youkilis' spot at first while Youkilis played third for Lowell.

For every setback, there was an answer.

"We had a lot come together this year," said Jason Varitek, who will be a free agent this offseason. "Our bullpen solidified itself. Our pitching took steps at becoming better. We were able to play a little different offensively and manufacture runs and added some speed in there. This team has a lot to be proud of."

It was enough to help the Red Sox earn an AL Wild Card berth in September, then knock off the Angels -- the Majors' only 100-win team -- in the ALDS. And down, 3-1, in the ALCS, the Red Sox battled to beat the Rays in Games 5 and 6, forcing a winner-take-all Game 7 with a World Series trip on the line.

Other teams facing such difficulty might not have seen October at all. Boston took it all in stride, building character and growing together as the adversity mounted.

Every time it seemed there was no chance at another trip to the World Series, the Red Sox responded.

They came close. It was just one game short.

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