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October 28, 2007

Playoff Prospectus

World Series Game Three Report

by John Perrotto

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DENVER--The Red Sox are justifiably labeled a large-market team. For one thing, they play in a large market, which is usually the most important requirement. Throw in the fact they are also the only major league team in their region of the country, and that they own their own lucrative television network and have the second-highest payroll in the game, and Boston is undeniably one of the big boys.

Yet, as the Red Sox moved to the doorstep of their second World Series championship in four years on Saturday night, beating the Colorado Rockies 10-5 in Game Three at Coors Field, they showed some of the definitive characteristics of a small-market team needs to succeed. Rookies center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and second baseman Dustin Pedroia were the first and second hitters in the Sox's lineup. The reliever they called on to pitch the eighth inning, Manny Delcarmen, is homegrown and has yet to log a full season in the major leagues. The closer who recorded the final four outs for the save, Jonathan Papelbon, has only two full seasons in the majors. And the left-hander manager that Terry Francona will give the ball to tonight in an attempt to complete the series sweep, Jon Lester, hasn't completed his first full major league season yet, either.

"I think a lot of people have this perception of the Red Sox as an organization where we just go out and spend unlimited money on players, and buy our way to the playoffs," Lester said. "That's not the case, though. We have a lot of young guys who contribute. We have a lot of guys making a lot of money, but us guys making around the minimum (salary) do our part, too."

Never was that more evident than in Game Three, as Ellsbury and Pedroia combined to go 7-for-10 at the top of the order with four doubles, three runs scored, and four RBI. Ellsbury was 4-for-5 with two doubles, three runs scored, and two RBI, and became the third rookie in World Series play to have a four-hit game, joining Fred Lindstrom of the 1924 New York Giants and Joe Garagiola of the 1946 St. Louis Cardinals. Pedroia was 3-for-5 with a double and two RBI, while Delcarmen helped hold a 9-5 lead in the eighth before Papelbon was called on to finish off first the inning, and then the game.

"They did exactly what you hope the number one and two hitters would do. It created a lot of opportunities for the middle of the order and we cashed in," Francona said of Ellsbury and Pedroia. "It's great to have young players with talent and our young guys can all play. They've all made a difference in one way or another this season. Everyone has some young players, but to have young guys who can play at the level our young guys have performed at, especially when you're playing on a big stage like Boston and an even bigger stage now in the postseason, is something that is very, very important."

Just as impressive as the Red Sox youngsters' physical tools is the way they have been able to handle the pressure of playing in the postseason. All of the aforementioned players look and act like they have been down this road 10 times before instead of playing in the postseason for the first time in their careers. Pedroia is hitting .304/.365/.518 in 63 postseason plate appearances. Ellsbury supplanted Coco Crisp as the starting center fielder in Game Six of the American League Championship win over Cleveland, and has delivered .333/.417/.476 line in 24 plate appearances.

"It's really a credit to our organization," Francona said. "We're fortunate enough to have the resources to have a chance to go out and we get what we need with free agents or trade, but you've got to give our player development department their fair share of credit for the success we've had. They send us a lot of players who help. We reap the benefits here of all the hard work our managers and coaches and instructors do down in the minor leagues."

Papelbon has not allowed a run in nine innings and six relief appearances. Lester has given up two runs in 3 2/3 relief innings, but is moving back into a starting role with Tim Wakefield sidelined by a shoulder problem. Delcarmen has allowed three runs in 3 1/3 innings, but the way he was utilized Saturday night shows the faith the Red Sox have in him.

"What impresses me when these guys come up is how prepared they are to play at this level," Sox utility infielder Alex Cora observed. "Usually, guys are nervous when they first get called up or when they first play in the postseason. These guys, though, are so calm. They know how to play the game, and they know how to act. They are totally prepared, and that's a complete credit to the player development people. The way the game is these days, everyone relies on young players to one extent or another. The Rockies have a bunch of young guys and they are in the World Series. The team they beat to get here (the Arizona Diamondbacks) has a lot of young players, too. You need your farm system to produce if you are going to win and it's clear they are doing something right in this organization."

Francona believes the veteran players in the Red Sox' clubhouse help make the transition easy for the young players, and Lester concurs. "We have the type of veteran leaders who are very accepting of the young players," Francona commented. "They create an environment where the guys who get called up feel really comfortable and that enables them to perform up to their capabilities." "There is no pressure on any of us younger guys," Lester said. "The veterans make sure of that. They keep us relaxed. You look at a guy like (Ellsbury). He wasn't even supposed to be here this year and he's playing great. Everything is gravy for a guy like him. It's that way with all of us--nobody is putting the weight of the world on our shoulders."

The Red Sox certainly don't have much weight on their shoulders now, as no team in World Series history has ever blown a 3-0 lead. None of the 22 teams down 3-0 has ever even forced a Game Seven, which isn't good news for the Rockies, whose first World Series trip has been nightmarish.

"It looks like we're in groundbreaking territory," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said. "We need to go out and win Game Four. I don't think you need to overreact or under-react. You just show up, get ready to play, and find a way to win Game Four."

Colorado starter Josh Fogg didn't give the Rockies much of a chance to win Game Three, as he was tagged for six runs and 10 hits in 2 2/3 innings. The Red Sox scored the game's first six runs during a third inning that was fittingly started by a double by Ellsbury and then a single by Pedroia. Winning pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka had the big blow in the sequence, chopping a two-run single through the left side of the infield. Dice-K went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in two inter-league road games during the regular season, his first at-bats in the major leagues after a stellar career in Japan. "I can't say I'm a great hitter," Matsuzaka said with a smile. "I'm a confident hitter, though. I love hitting."

The Red Sox invested a total of $103 million last winter because they loved the way Matsuzaka pitched. He came through with his second solid outing in a row, taking a shutout into the sixth inning before being relieved after giving up two walks, runners that eventually scored. Matsuzaka held Cleveland to two runs in five innings in winning Game Seven of the ALCS. "I think I felt more pressure going into Game Seven of the ALCS, so today was easier mentally, even though it was my first World Series game," Matsuzaka stated. "The team won, and I didn't wind up being the one to stop our momentum. So, in that sense, I feel very relieved."

The Rockies closed the gap to 6-5 in the seventh when Matt Holliday hit a long three-run home run to center field off of Hideki Okajima, who had not allowed a run in his first 7 2/3 postseason innings. However, Okajima got out of the inning with the one-run lead intact, and the Red Sox scored three runs in the eighth--two coming on a double by Pedroia--and then one more in the ninth to win going away.

The Red Sox can finish things off in style tonight. A win would give Boston its second World Series sweep in four years after going 86 years between championships, and it will have Lester on the mound to try and seal it just 14 months after he was diagnosed with cancer. "When you're out in the backyard playing wiffleball as a kid, you always dream of being that guy who wins the last game of the World Series and then throws his glove up in the air with everyone else when the final out is made," the young lefty reminisced. "It's exciting to be in that position."

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

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