After 2004 Title, a New Identity for the Red Sox
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
Not long ago, the Boston Red Sox were defined by a long-haired, bearded center fielder (current address: The Bronx, N.Y., sans shagginess), a slogan-generating chatterbox of a first baseman (current address: Baltimore), a grass-stained, nose-in-the-dirt right fielder (current address: Cleveland) and a prima donna of a right-hander who needed special care (current address: Queens).
That was 2004, when the Red Sox -- in case you missed it -- broke an 86-year hex and won the World Series. Three years ago, Johnny Damon was revered in Boston, when Kevin Millar set a certain (idiotic) tone in the clubhouse, when Trot Nixon was a fan favorite and Pedro Martinez the diva of an accomplished pitching staff.
But the version of the Red Sox that will host Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Friday -- the group that was awaiting word about its opponent, the New York Yankees or Cleveland Indians -- is a fundamentally overhauled team, one stripped down and rebuilt by the staff of General Manager Theo Epstein, who himself briefly left the organization before a reconciliation returned him to the post. This is no longer the group of underdogs who finally slayed the Yankees. This is a unit that can dismantle an opponent using precision as much as power, as it did the Los Angeles Angels in a three-game sweep that finished Sunday.
"So far, I think, this postseason we've played with a lot of efficiency and tremendous execution," Epstein said Sunday in the visitors' clubhouse at Angel Stadium. "In '04, especially against the Yankees, it became more about emotion. So far this year, we've been pretty methodical, pretty systematic in our execution, and it showed with a great result. That's a good team we played, and we outscored them 19-4."
In 2004, the Sox began their run with a sweep of the Angels, one in which they scored at least eight runs in each of the three games. Yet the only players in the lineup in Game 3 on Sunday, a 9-1 victory, who played in Game 3 in 2004 were designated hitter David Ortiz, left fielder Manny Ramirez and catcher Jason Varitek. The only other players on the active roster for both series: right-hander Curt Schilling, backup catcher Doug Mirabelli and reliever Mike Timlin. The latter two did not appear this year against Los Angeles.
That's 19 different players on a 25-man roster.
(Tim Wakefield, another member of the 2004 squad, was left off this year's ALDS roster because of an ailing back. He could be available for the ALCS.)
"I think this team is better," Ramirez said. "We've got better pitching."
That, then, would be the fundamental difference. In 2004, Boston led all of baseball in runs scored, and the inconsistency of a few key components -- hello, right fielder J.D. Drew -- has made the offense sputter occasionally this season. But Josh Beckett's four-hit shutout of the Angels in Game 1 shows that Boston now has another proven postseason stud to accompany Schilling, now 40. The Red Sox' ERA in 2004 was 4.18, a respectable third in the AL. This year, it's down to 3.87, the only AL club under 4.00.
Beckett, who went 20-7 with a 3.27 ERA this season, is the most significant part of that. But consider, too, the back end of this bullpen.
Keith Foulke was the closer Epstein sought before the 2004 season, and he performed admirably in saving 32 games in 39 opportunities with a 2.17 ERA, adding three saves in the postseason, including the World Series clincher against St. Louis. But Foulke relied heavily on his change-up, not the most intimidating of offerings. He is now retired.
Enter Jonathan Papelbon.
"He certainly gives us a different look," Epstein said. In two seasons as the Red Sox' closer, the 26-year-old has saved 72 of 81 opportunities with a 1.35 ERA, an opponents' batting average of .157, striking out 159 men in 126 2/3 innings.
"I'm completely ready for this," Papelbon said Sunday. "In the postseason, it comes down to the bullpen and what we're able to do and accomplish. I think we're all comfortable with the way we can perform."
Though a midseason trade for right-hander Eric Gagne (6.86 ERA in 21 appearances for Boston, including the playoffs) didn't work out as Epstein had hoped, the bullpen appears better now than in 2004. Lefty Hideki Okajima, with a 2.22 ERA, was one of the surprises of the year, and Boston relievers led the AL with a stunning 3.10 ERA.
"The bullpen, they're great," Ramirez said.
Which brings us to what is the same: Ortiz and Ramirez. In 2004, Ortiz had the signature moments during the postseason run, including a game-ending homer that finished off the Angels. But it was Ramirez who was the MVP of the World Series. On Sunday, they hit back-to-back homers for a 2-0 lead that Schilling made hold up. In the bottom of the ninth in Game 2, the Angels walked Ortiz to get to Ramirez, who promptly hit a three-run homer to win the game.
"Me and 'Papi,' we have the best [one]-two punch ever," Ramirez said. "That's how it is."
That argument holds particular weight now that Ramirez is over an oblique strain that kept him out of the lineup for nearly a month. Since returning Sept. 25, he is hitting .385 with a .529 on-base percentage and a .654 slugging percentage.
"When he gets locked in," Epstein said, "it's really hard to get through the middle of our order."
Added third baseman Mike Lowell: "That's why they're superstars. . . . We're going to need them if we want to go all the way."
Which is exactly the point. The roster has changed, but the goal is the same.
"What I want," Ortiz said, "is another ring."