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October 22, 2007

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Game Seven Report

by John Perrotto

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BOSTON-The Red Sox have embraced the ideals of statistical analysis and sabermertic evaluation as much as any organization in the major leagues. By following rules like only bunting with the game on the line or stealing a base in high-percentage situations, Terry Francona has led Red Sox to three postseasons in his four years as manager.

However, Francona is also an old-school baseball man. His father, Tito, was an outfielder in the major leagues from 1956-70, and Terry had to forge a playing career more on guile than ability after being hampered by knee injuries. Thus, Francona also understands that intangibles can also factor into building a winning team.

That was never driven home more than in the 2007 American League Championship Series. The Red Sox went in as the favorites but appeared finished when they fell behind 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, and were up against the wall by having to face the Indians co-aces, C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, both rested and ready. Yet Francona never panicked, and e refused to lose faith that his team could come back and win the series. "We have good players, first and foremost, and you're never going to make it this far if you don't have talent," Francona said. "But the key for us is we have good players who also have great leadership characteristics. When you look out on the field and see pros like Jason Varitek catching and Mike Lowell playing third base, it gives you a good feeling. It makes you feel that everything is going to be all right, and that even being down three games to one against a great team like the Indians isn't insurmountable."

Francona's good feeling was warranted. The Red Sox completed their big comeback in the ALCS Sunday night with an initially taut eventual rout of the Indians in Game Seven at Fenway Park, capturing their 12th AL pennant. The Red Sox overwhelmed the Indians in the final three games of the series, outscoring them, 30-5. This ALCS victory might not been quite as dramatic as when the Red Sox became the first team in major league history to overcome a 3-0 deficit in the postseason by rallying past the New York in 2004.

Still, more than an hour after the game, Francona couldn't stop smiling as he stood against a post in the Red Sox's champagne-drenched clubhouse and talked with a small group of reporters. "This was pretty darn special in its own right," Francona said. "What we did in 2004 would be hard to duplicate but I'm just as proud of this team as I am of the '04 team. These guys battled and never gave up and we're going to the World Series. It's tough to beat that feeling."

It used to be that bad things would happen to the Red Sox, the team that went through life with the Curse of the Bambino hanging over it, with the Curse used to explain when the ball rolled through Bill Buckner's legs in 1986, or when Aaron Boone sent Tim Wakefield's knuckleball deep into the Bronx night in 2003. "Everybody in this town used to fear the worst from the Red Sox," said Boston reliever Manny Delcarmen, born and raised in Boston, and who claims he has sat in every section of Fenway Park at some point in his life. "Now, everyone expects good things from the Red Sox. It's a different team and a different era. We have guys who know how to win, guys who know they are capable of doing special things. We weren't hanging our heads when we were down 3-1. We always believed we were going to win."

While the Red Sox have their share of sturdy veterans like Varitek, Lowell, Wakefield, and ageless reliever Mike Timlin, they also have their share of characters in sluggers Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, along with free-spirited youngsters such as ace pitcher Josh Beckett and closer Jonathan Papelbon. Francona believes having that mix helps make the Red Sox winners: "Baseball is more than just about numbers or strategy, it's also about people and we don't lose sight of that as an organization even though a lot of people think of us as numbers crunchers. We try to create an atmosphere where we don't smother people. We let them just go out and do their jobs. I think that's an atmosphere conducive to winning. That's why we're able to do thing like win three in a row in this series with our backs to the wall."

That may explain help explain how the Red Sox stayed loose in Game Seven when a 3-0 lead after three innings was trimmed to 3-2 in the fifth. While the Indians helped take themselves out of the game with a series of baserunning and fielding blunders in a tight game, it was the Red Sox who eventually turned it into a rout by scoring two runs in the seventh and then six more in the eighth. Seven of those runs came off Rafael Betancourt, the Indians' best reliever, and who had not allowed a run in 8 2/3 postseason innings.,/p>

While the Red Sox spent the postgame extolling the virtues of their veteran leadership and character guys, it was second baseman Dustin Pedroia, the favorite to win AL Rookie of the Year, who broke the game open by driving in five of the Red Sox' late-inning runs. Pedroia's two-run home run over the Green Monster in the seventh off Betancourt pushed the lead to 5-2, and his three-run double into the left field corner was the back-breaking blow in the eighth-inning outburst. "That's the great thing about this team, everybody can be the hero, even the 5-foot-2 guy hitting the home run," Delcarmen said with a laugh as he referred to Pedroia, generously listed at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds.

"You talk about character guys, there's a kid with character," Francona said of Pedroia. "He got off to a bad start and young guys aren't allowed to have bad starts in Boston. It would have buried a lot of kids but he kept battling and had a heckuva year." Pedroia was hitting just .180/.306/.230 in his first 72 plate appearances through May 3, but went on to finish third on the club with a 35.9 VORP, trailing only Ortiz and Lowell, as he had a .317/.380/.442 line in 581 plate appearances. Pedroia credits the veterans' influence for helping him right his season and allowing him to come through in Game Seven, particularly a conversation with utility infielder Alex Cora during the Red Sox' sweep of the Angels in the American League Division Series. "Us younger guys have never been through this before, playing on the biggest stage," Pedroia said. "I remember when we were playing the Angels and I was nervous. Alex told me to settle down, be myself and have fun, because this game is meant to be played to have fun. Ever since then, I've just went out there and only worried about playing hard."

Pedroia's hard hits gave the Red Sox breathing room after the embattled Daisuke Matsuzaka and set-up man Hideki Okajima got the game to Papelbon in the eighth. Matsuzaka, hastily labeled a failure by some after posting a 6.75 ERA in his first two postseason starts, gave up two runs and six hits in five innings for the win. Okajima then held the Indians scoreless in the sixth and seventh before being yanked after giving up two hits to start the eighth inning. Papelbon came on to protect the 5-2 lead, and struck out Travis Hafner to begin working his way out of the jam. Papelbon then got Victor Martinez to ground out, and watched as rookie center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury ran down Ryan Garko's fly ball to the warning track in right-center field just in front of the Red Sox's bullpen to end the inning and the Indians' last chance. "That was scary," Delcarmen said. "The ball just kept coming toward us is in the bullpen and I'm thinking, 'oh no.' But Jake tracked it down. That's the way it goes for the Red Sox now. Good things happen to us." Papelbon stayed in to throw the ninth, clinch the win, and record a season-high two scoreless innings for the save.

In contrast, nothing good seemed to happen for the Indians. Kenny Lofton was called out trying to stretch a single into a double in the fifth inning, though replays showed that umpire Brian Gorman missed the call. That factored large in an inning when the Indians wound up scoring just once despite having three hits and a sacrifice fly to close the lead to 3-2. Lofton later reached second on an error with one out in the seventh when shortstop Julio Lugo dropped his one-out popup to shallow left field. Franklin Gutierrez followed with a single down the third base line that caromed off the temporary photographer's box in shallow left field and away from left fielder Manny Ramirez. While it appeared Lofton would easily score the tying run, Indians third base coach Joel Skinner held the speedy outfielder at third base. Casey Blake then hit into an inning-ending double play.

"It's a tough corner out there when the ball heads down that way and ricochets," Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "It's tough to read if it's ricocheting back to the shortstop or to left-center. It was a tough read (for Skinner). That's baseball. It's disappointing not to finish things off in this series but that's the way the game goes sometimes."

It wound up going right for the Red Sox in the end of this ALCS. "I remember sitting in Cleveland when we got beat for the third time and were trying to find a way to turn this around," Pedroia said. "We worked too hard all season long to get our season cut short. Nobody wanted to go home. Nobody wanted to say goodbye to everybody. Now, we don't have to."

Notes: Beckett was named the ALCS Most Valuable Player for going 2-0 with a 1.93 ERA in two starts, allowing three earned runs in 14 innings while striking out 18 and walking just one. The Red Sox became the third team in major league history to win three straight games in the postseason after losing three straight. The Red Sox won four straight against the Yankees in 2004 ALCS, while Florida won three in a row to overcome a 3-1 deficit against the Chicago Cubs in the 2004 National League Championship Series. Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis batted .500 (14-for-28) to set a record for the highest batting average in a seven-game ALCS; Bob Boone batted .455 in 1986 for California. Matsuzaka's win was the first-ever in the postseason for a Japanese-born pitcher. Pedroia became the first rookie to homer in an ALCS Game Seven. The Red Sox hit .318, a record for a seven-game LCS. Toronto hit .301 in the 1993 ALCS. The Red Sox have hit into 20 double plays in the postseason, breaking the record of 17 set by St. Louis last year. Hafner struck out an ALCS-record 12 times, which tied the overall LCS mark set by the Mets' Darryl Strawberry in 1986 and later matched by the Dodgers' John Shelby in 1988.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  Boston Red Sox,  ALCS,  Red Sox,  Character,  The Who,  Terry Francona

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