By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 22, 2007
BOSTON, Oct. 21 -- They will tell the story of 2007 for generations in New England, along with all the others, the great Game 7s in Boston Red Sox lore -- 2004, 1986, 1975, 1967 and on down the line, some wins, most losses. They will tell of the way Fenway Park bulged and creaked beneath all the drama Sunday night, the way the players gladly performed duties beyond their normal calls, and the way all those blessed rookies, too young even to remember most of the previous Game 7s, took to this grand stage, sent the Red Sox to the World Series and became part of the never-ending story.
Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched five innings, Hideki Okajima added two. Dustin Pedroia had the night's biggest hit, a two-run homer in the bottom of the seventh inning, scoring Jacoby Ellsbury ahead of him. Matsuzaka, Okajima, Pedroia, Ellsbury -- rookies, every one.
Thanks to that fresh-faced quartet, and a few of their more experienced brethren, the Red Sox are back in the World Series, following their 11-2 win over the Cleveland Indians in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.
For the sake of the Colorado Rockies, whom the Red Sox will meet in the World Series beginning here Wednesday night, one hopes they weren't watching these past few nights, as the Red Sox, down three games to one and facing three straight elimination games, outscored the Indians by a staggering 30-5 in Games 5, 6 and 7 -- absolutely overpowering the very sound, 96-win champions of the AL Central.
"When your season is almost over, and you're down 3-1," said Pedroia, who, besides his two-run homer in the seventh, added a three-run double in the eighth, as the Red Sox broke the game open, "you get that sense of urgency that we're going to play every inning, every pitch, everything as hard as we can."
Despite the final score -- which reflects the Indians' meltdown in the eighth, and a piling on of runs by Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis (two-run homer) and Co. -- the game itself was a classic for much of the night, full of subtle twists, mind-blowing turns and, in the pivotal seventh inning, a heaping dose of drama on every pitch.
There was an early, fortuitous sign -- a bad bounce on a grounder by Manny Ramirez, which shot past Indians shortstop Jhonny Peralta in the first inning, bringing home the Red Sox' first run.
There was a redemptive performance from Matsuzaka, the Red Sox' $103 million import, whose reputation, constructed in his native Japan, for big-game heroics had taken a serious nose dive with sub-par performances in his first two postseason starts. His five innings Sunday night were not always pretty, but he became only the fourth rookie in history to win a Game 7.
"I thought he pitched his heart out," Manager Terry Francona said. "They were some tough innings."
There was a defensive gem from -- of all people -- Ramirez, the Red Sox' goofy left fielder, who gathered in Kenny Lofton's smash off the Green Monster leading off the fifth inning and gunned out the speedster as he tried to leg out a double.
There was bullpen drama, as Francona called upon lefty Okajima -- typically his eighth-inning man -- to replace Matsuzaka in the sixth, ordered ace Josh Beckett to warm up twice in the middle innings (Beckett, named the most valuable player of the series, never got in the game), and had closer Jonathan Papelbon up in the seventh.
There was a potentially devastating fielding error by Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo, who dropped Lofton's pop up in shallow left with one out in the seventh, allowing Lofton, the tying run, to advance to second.
And there was an apparent mistake by Indians third base coach Joel Skinner, who held up Lofton at third base after Franklin Gutierrez followed by smashing a hit over the third base bag. It appeared Lofton would have scored easily, but Skinner, playing it conservatively, threw up the stop sign. The next batter, Casey Blake, grounded into a 5-4-3 double play.
"It ricocheted [off the wall], and I couldn't tell exactly where it was going," Skinner said of Gutierrez's hit, defending the decision. "But with one out, [if you send him] you have to be sure."
And finally, there was Pedroia's home run -- a towering drive over the Green Monster in left-center -- that pushed a 3-2 lead to 5-2. It came off an untouchable Indians pitcher, Rafael Betancourt, who had faced 20 batters in the series entering Sunday night, and had retired 19 of them.
"People think he can't play, because he's too small and he swings too hard," Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein said of the 5-foot-7 Pedroia. "But none of that matters when you have his heart and his coordination."
Okajima had not thrown two innings in a game since July, yet not only did Francona leave him in for two full innings, the sixth and seventh, he also sent him back out in the eighth -- only to yank him in favor of Papelbon after the first two Indians batters singled.
Papelbon was in uncharted territory as well, having never been asked to lock down a six-out save in his career, but he blew away Travis Hafner on a 98-mph fastball to launch himself through the eighth inning, then, after the Red Sox' six-run explosion in the bottom of the eighth, performed what amounted to mop-up duty in the ninth.
Nearly an hour after the game, a begoggled Papelbon was still on the field, leading teammates and family members in a sloppy, loose-legged Irish jig. Several thousand fans remained in the stands, cheering and laughing.
"This is how we roll!" slugger David Ortiz yelled as he plunged into the madness on the infield, spilling champagne over red dirt that has seen other Game 7s before this one, but perhaps never a Red Sox team like this.