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October 29, 2007

Playoff Prospectus

World Series Game Four Report

by John Perrotto

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DENVER--Two hours had passed since Jonathan Papelbon enticed Seth Smith to swing through a high fastball to end the game Sunday night. Yet, the celebration on the field at Coors was only just finally starting to break up. Manager Terry Francona, the coaches, and the players began heading back to the dugout, then up the tunnel to the visitors' clubhouse. All had been soaked by the spraying of champagne and beer in a brief clubhouse romp before going back to the field to continue the party with family, friends, and--despite being two time zones away from Red Sox Nation--a group of approximately 5,000 fans who relentlessly chanted and cheered from the lower seating bowl, never coming close to going hoarse. They were in full celebration mode, for the Red Sox had clinched their second World Series title in four years, and seventh in franchise history, holding off the Colorado Rockies 4-3 in Game Four to complete the sweep.

"Look at this scene. We have 16 million people in Red Sox Nation," said pitcher Curt Schilling, referring to the population of New England. "We have a responsibility like no other team to our fans because we're the best-supported franchise in baseball. That's why the goal is to win the World Series every year and it's so sweet when we're able to do it."

The general assumption was that the Red Sox could never enjoy a World Series title more than the one they captured in 2004, when they swept the Cardinals after a historic rally from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. That world title ended the Red Sox' 86-year championship drought. However, the way the Red Sox and their fans celebrated for so long as a pleasant Sunday evening turned into a cold Sunday night suggested that the '07 title ranks right up there with '04. Noted Schilling, "This one is just as special in my book. I don't know how you can compare one with the other. It's like if you have two children. They're both very special to you, and you're not going to love one more than the other."

"Each season presents a different set of circumstances, and that's why this one is as special as the one we won in '04," Francona said. "It's just hard to say this one is more special than that one or vice versa. You get so caught up in the moment and living in the present that you don't really take time to think about comparing what happened in the past to what is happening now. I know this much, though, when that final out is made and you're the champion, there is no other feeling like it in the world. To know you're the last team standing is pretty special."

In a postseason devoid of much suspense, excitement, or classic moments, the Red Sox clearly showed they were the best team in the major leagues. Boston steamrolled the Angels in a three-game sweep of the American League Division Series. The Red Sox then rallied past Cleveland in the ALCS in grand fashion, overcoming a 3-1 deficit by outscoring the Indians 30-5 in the final three games. They topped it off by sweeping the Rockies, who had entered the series having won 21 of their previous 22 games, including sweeps of Philadelphia in the National League Division Series and Arizona in the National League Championship Series. While the Rockies valiantly tried to rally in Game Four, they wound up losing four games in a row for the first time since dropping eight straight from June 22-29.

The Red Sox outscored the Rockies 29-10 in the series and hit .333/.411/.525 as opposed to Colorado's .218/.283/.346. "It all comes down to who executed better and I think there is little doubt that the Red Sox executed much better than we did in this series," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said. "They played great. They were the better team in this series. I don't think anyone would dispute that."

One player who executed throughout the series for the Red Sox was third baseman Mike Lowell. He was named the Most Valuable Player after hitting .400/.500/.800 in 18 plate appearance. His leadoff home run in the seventh inning on Sunday chased Rockies starter Aaron Cook and gave the Red Sox a 3-0 lead. Cook was making his first major league appearance since August 10 because of a strained muscle in his left side, and allowed three runs in six innings.

Lowell also played on a World Series winner in 2003, when the Florida Marlins knocked off the Yankees as heavy underdogs. However, Lowell said he felt a lot more pressure this time: "In '03, we were kind of beating the odds each time we won, but I think it's a little different when from the outset a lot of people are expecting you to win a world championship and if you don't then it's a disappointing year. For us to come through and do what we thought we were capable of doing is unbelievable."

Perhaps not as unbelievable as a 23-year-old kid pitching 5 2/3 scoreless innings to win the clincher only a year after he found himself fighting cancer. That is the story of Jon Lester, who was superb in his first start since September 26 while filling in for injured knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. Lester allowed only three hits while walking three and striking out three. He left with a 2-0 lead; Jacoby Ellsbury doubled and scored on David Ortiz's single in the first inning, and Lowell doubled and scored on Jason Varitek's single in the fifth.

"Jon was phenomenal," Varitek, the Red Sox catcher, said. "We got into tight spots at times but he always kept his poise and found ways to get out of it." "What Jon Lester did was the grittiest and gutsiest performance I've ever seen," Schilling observed.

Francona had downplayed Lester's comeback from cancer in the days leading up to his start. However, the manager admitted to getting teary-eyed when he saw Lester embrace his parents on the field after the game. "That was really special, probably the most special moment of the whole World Series for me," Francona said. "To think that he had cancer at this time last year…well, it's just a great, great story. To go from where he was last year to where he is now…I don't have the words to describe it. It truly is a miracle."

The Rockies finally broke through in the seventh when Brad Hawpe hit a leadoff home run off Manny Delcarmen to cut the Red Sox' lead to 3-1. However, Bobby Kielty, signed as a free agent by the Red Sox in August after being released by Oakland, hit a pinch-hit homer off left-hander Brian Fuentes to lead off the eighth, padding the Sox's advantage to 4-1. That proved to be crucial, as Garrett Atkins' two-run homer in the bottom of the inning off of Hideki Okajima shaved the lead back down to 4-3.

Francona then called on Papelbon to get the final five outs, the third time in the series the closer was asked to work more than one inning for the save. Papelbon retired all five batters in succession, but had harrowing moments in both the eighth and ninth innings. Hawpe hit a deep drive to center that was flagged down by Coco Crisp on the warning track to end the eighth. With one out in the ninth, light-hitting Jamey Carroll pulled a fastball to left that Ellsbury hauled in while crashing into the fence. Papelbon then struck out Smith to end it.

"It was exhausting," Papelbon said as he rubbed his temples. "I had to really work for the save; this whole series was exhausting. People will see the sweep and think we won easily, but the Rockies made us work for everything. It just happened to be one of those series where everything went our way. We got every break, every lucky bounce. Believe me, though, it wasn't easy. You start working on this in spring training in the middle of February and you keep going at it for more than eight months. Then, when you get that final out, the feeling is indescribable. There's elation, relief, basically every emotion you could imagine. But it's a tremendous feeling. To be standing on that mound for the last out of the World Series is something I'm never going to forget."

Notes: Francona became the 19th manager to win multiple World Series titles, as he also led the Red Sox in 2004. … Red Sox starters got the win in all four games: Josh Beckett (Game One), Schilling (Game Two), Daisuke Matsuzaka (Game Three), and Lester (Game Four). That is only the second time in World Series history that four starting pitchers won the first four games for a winning team. In doing so, the Sox joined the 1927 Yankees (Waite Hoyt, George Pipgras, Herb Pennock, and Wilcy Moore). … Kielty became the 32nd player to hit a home run in his first World Series plate appearance, and the 21st player to hit a pinch homer. … The 19-run differential is the largest in the World Series since the Angels defeated the Giants by a total of 55-30 in seven games in 2002. … The 29 runs scored by the Red Sox was the third-highest total in a four-game World Series, topped only by the 37 scored by the 1932 Yankees and the 32 by the 1989 Oakland Athletics. … The Red Sox' .333 team batting average was the second-highest in a World Series behind the .338 of the 1960 Yankees.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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