Stars Rise in AL East

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 7, 2008

BOSTON, Oct. 6 -- Every day seems to reveal another member of the Boston Red Sox to be a mere shell of his heroic 2007 version. The once-dominant October ace is now achy and barely effective. The veteran third baseman, barely able to walk, is on the shelf until further notice. The burly designated hitter, sore of knees, is not quite so fearsome without his dreadlocked former running mate, long since traded, hitting behind him.

And yet, into the American League Championship Series ride the Red Sox, who seem to fill all their holes, and some they didn't even know existed, with the fruits of a player-development machine that might be the best in baseball, its tire prints all over Monday night's clinching 3-2 victory over the Los Angeles Angels in Game 4 of the division series at Fenway Park.

The Red Sox, the defending World Series champions, will face the upstart Tampa Bay Rays in the ALCS beginning Friday in St. Petersburg, Fla., and while the Rays' collection of young talent is the envy of baseball, the Red Sox' might be even better.

On Monday night, with the Red Sox struggling to put away a formidable, 100-win Angels team, shortstop Jed Lowrie finally drove home the winning run with two outs in the ninth inning on an RBI single through the right side of the Angels' infield, sending a crowd of 38,785 into ecstasy and spawning a wild, teeming scrum of Red Sox flesh in the grass just beyond first base.

Lowrie's hit followed seven exceptional innings from lefty Jon Lester, who has inherited the title of staff ace from 2007 hero Josh Beckett; a pair of fifth-inning runs off Angels starter John Lackey on an RBI groundout by center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and an RBI double high off the Green Monster by second baseman Dustin Pedroia; and, finally, a ninth-inning escape from right-hander Manny Delcarmen -- aided by a cataclysmic failure by the Angels on a suicide-squeeze attempt.

Those protagonists -- Lowrie, Lester, Ellsbury, Pedroia and Delcarmen -- all have something in common. All were drafted, developed and sent to the major leagues within the past four years by the Red Sox' scouting and player-development departments. Oh, and let's not forget first baseman Kevin Youkilis, who moved across the diamond Monday night upon the news that veteran third baseman Mike Lowell had been deactivated, and closer Jonathan Papelbon, who has yet to allow a postseason run in his career.

"The organization, we've brought some kids up and they have done such a phenomenal job of competing," Red Sox Manager Terry Francona said. "I think our organization should be proud."

In Orange County, where fans of the Angels have now seen their team eliminated in the first round by Boston for the third time in five seasons, the game will forever be known as the "Botched-Squeeze Game," for the awful way in which the Angels -- the undisputed kings of "small-ball" -- squandered the potential go-ahead run in the top of the ninth inning of a 2-2 game.

With Angels pinch runner Reggie Willits on third base, shortstop Erick Aybar at the plate, Delcarmen on the mound, one out and a 2-0 count, Angels Manager Mike Scioscia called the suicide squeeze. But with Willits barreling down the line, Aybar missed on an inside fastball from Delcarmen.

"We kind of expected [the squeeze] at some point in that at-bat," said Lowrie. "Manny threw a good fastball by him."

Willits, realizing he was cooked, tried to reverse course and return to third, but catcher Jason Varitek sprinted at him, faked a couple of throws, then applied the tag just before falling forward and losing the ball. Umpire Tim Welke ruled correctly on the play that Willits was out, despite a vigorous argument from Scioscia that Varitek had dropped the ball while applying the tag.

"I thought it was a good situation for us," Scioscia said of the squeeze attempt. "With [Willits's speed] at third base, with [Aybar] at the plate and the count we had -- and it didn't work out. . . . It was a bunt-able ball. Erick just didn't get it done."

As the inning ended, the deflated Angels tried to put aside the notion they had just seen their best, last chance to win the game disappear, while Fenway Park swelled and heaved with the notion the cosmic reversal that resulted from the botched squeeze could have only one outcome -- a ninth-inning, walk-off victory, which was about to occur.

A one-out double from right fielder Jason Bay. A smashed line drive from Mark Kotsay, which Angels first baseman Mark Teixeira snagged with a brilliant, diving play. And finally, Lowrie's single to right.

Bay. Kotsay. Lowrie. None was in Boston at the start of July. The Red Sox plow forward with a new set of characters, but otherwise October here feels the same.

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