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Red Sox enter playoffs with seasoned performers

Pop-up So close, and yet, so far

The last two Saturdays of July changed the 2004 Boston baseball season. Before the final two weekends of the seventh month, the Red Sox were alarmingly average. The Olde Towne Team, swollen with the second-highest payroll ($130 million) in the majors, was finishing a third consecutive month of .500 baseball and a season of great expectations looked like it might go down as the most disappointing campaign in the storied history of the franchise.

And then two things happened, one on the field and one in the executive offices of 4 Yawkey Way. On July 24, after a near-washout because of torrential morning rains, the Red Sox players demanded to take the field for a nationally televised game against the hated Yankees. Just when it looked like they were going to get picked on by the New York bullies once again, Boston catcher Jason Varitek woke up a moribund ball club and a Nation by stuffing his mitt into the loud mouth of one Alex Rodriguez -- the very same A-Rod who had been the dominant figure of the Hub hardball nuclear winter of 2003-04.

A week later, while the Sox were in the visitor's clubhouse of the Metrodome in Minneapolis, 30-year-old general manager Theo Epstein pulled the trigger on the most sensational Red Sox player transaction since Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees in 1920. Convinced that his team could not win the World Series as constituted, wary that Nomar Garciaparra's nagging injury was going to drag down the team, and certain that the star shortstop was going to walk at the end of the season, Epstein traded Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs.

The impact of the deal was felt immediately in Boston souvenir stores, where No. 5 jerseys flew off the racks, and in New England households, where young children cried themselves to sleep. But then an odd thing happened: the Red Sox started playing better. They took better care of the baseball, no longer leading the majors in unearned runs allowed. They started winning one-run games. They started hitting in the clutch. No longer worried about getting 30 outs per game, pitchers suddenly had more confidence. Manager Terry Francona got smarter.

When they started to win, the sprit of 2003 returned. New handshakes were invented. The Red Sox were the Pointer Brothers, kings of congratulations. Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz continued their assault on the 40-homer plateau and possible MVP honors. Kevin Millar started to slug. New shortstop Orlando Cabrera caught everything in sight and most important, played every day. Curt Schilling won just about every time he set foot on the mound and Pedro Martinez made every start. And Johnny Damon let his hair grow down past his shoulders, standing in center field as the symbol of the born-to-be-wild Red Sox.

They went 21-7 in August and won 20 of 22 games in a memorable stretch of August and September, pulling to within two games of the first-place Yankees after trailing by 10 1/2 on the morning of Aug. 16. The streak, which included an 8-1 dusting of the Angels, Rangers, and A's, gave them a firm grip on the American League wild-card playoff spot, which they clinched one week ago today with a champagne-soaked victory at the Tropicana Dome in St. Petersburg, Fla.

So now the Red Sox are in the postseason for the 11th time since last winning a World Series in 1918. They open tomorrow against the Angels in the first game of a best-of-five. Following the philosophy of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, most Sox fans are skeptical idealists on the eve of baseball's Octoberfest.

Here's how they arrived at this critical moment in franchise history:

THE FALL

There is no way to examine this season without beginning at the end of 2003. The Sox were five outs from the World Series on the night of Oct. 16, when a tired Martinez was left on the mound to cough up the game against the Yankees. Grady Little almost became the first manager to be fired in the middle of a playoff game. When Aaron Boone's walkoff homer dropped into left field stands at 12:16 a.m., Little's fate was sealed. He was officially dismissed two days after the World Series ended and the Sox commenced a managerial search that produced Francona. When Francona, a four-year loser in Philadelphia, was hired, some wondered, "Is the guy too nice?" The fear proved to be legitimate.

THE WINTER

Never has a Boston baseball team been a bigger newsmaker during an offseason. It proved embarrassing to Epstein and his staff. At one point, Young Theo implored the New England media to turn its sights on the local football team, which was experiencing a fair amount of success. Didn't matter. The Sox dominated the headlines. Two days after the manager was fired, Ramirez was put on irrevocable waivers, but no team claimed him. Still, the message was loud and clear. Epstein went to Arizona for Thanksgiving dinner with the Schillings and came away with a pitcher who would win 21 games. After agreeing to a contract (waiving a no-trade clause), Schilling made the first of one million Curt commentaries, announcing, "I guess I hate the Yankees now." The Sox also signed Oakland closer Keith Foulke.

But it was the A-Rod negotiations that dominated the hot stove during the cold months. Sox owner John W. Henry received permission to court the Texas MVP shortstop and the ultimate bombshell dropped when the Sox, Rangers, and White Sox agreed on deals that would have landed Manny in Texas, A-Rod in Boston, Nomar in Chicago, and slugging White Sox outfielder Magglio Ordonez in Boston. Alas, union chief Gene Orza blocked the deal, and before you could say "George Costanza" the Yankees swooped in, got A-Rod to agree to play third, and completed a trade that landed the quarter-billion-dollar man in the Bronx. The Red Sox looked ridiculous and Henry compounded the folly by complaining about the Yankees' deep pockets. To stop the name-calling, commissioner Bud Selig had to put a gag order on the front offices. Who would have guessed that in 2004, Ramirez would be a more valuable asset than Rodriguez?

THE SPRING

Epstein, along with seven or eight young co-workers, moved into a large house in Cape Coral, Fla., at the beginning of spring training. Sox clubhouse attendant Tommy McLaughlin dubbed it "Phi Sign-a Player." The GM was under great scrutiny because Garciaparra, Martinez, Derek Lowe, Varitek, and David Ortiz were all entering the final years of their contracts. It was a dominant issue throughout spring training. Ortiz eventually signed and Garciaparra was traded, but the other three are potential free agents as the Red Sox wade into playoff waters.

Damon set the tone for the Delta House Red Sox when he arrived in Florida looking like a cross between Charles Manson and Jesus Christ. Epstein immediately told Damon it was OK to keep the long hair and beard, establishing the Sox locker room as the Hair Club For Men throughout 2004. The theme was, if it feels good, do it. If anything went wrong, it was left for the suddenly happy Ramirez to tell everyone to "turn the page."

Other than a couple of over-hyped exhibitions with the Yankees (spring training seats fetching $500?), the big news out of Fort Myers was Garciaparra's mysterious Achilles' injury. Citing an alleged batting practice incident when a ball hit off his heel, which nobody saw, Garciaparra sat down and didn't come back until early June. He went 0 for 8 in Florida and did not play an inning after St. Patrick's Day. Francona kept saying he expected Garciaparra to be ready for Opening Day, almost right up until the opener in Baltimore. The other bad news in Florida was Trot Nixon's back pain, which also put him on the shelf to start the season.

The Sox lost the opener on a frigid night in Baltimore and Pedro made news by leaving the ballpark before the game was over. Francona promptly took the blame for his ace, saying he hadn't explained the rules properly. That would be a theme throughout 2004; no matter what his players did, the manager would say, "I love these guys," and take the blame.

Making A-Rod and Jeter look like bums, the Sox won six of seven against the Yankees in April and finished the month with a record of 15-6. On the first of May in Texas, Martinez complained about his contract status and accused Sox management of lying. The remarks were followed by a five-game losing streak and three months of .500 ball.

In the miserable months of May and June, and most of July, the Sox floundered because of poor defense, lack of timely hitting, and disappointing performances from some starters, particularly Lowe. They seemed to lose all the close games. Garciaparra didn't come back until June 9, and then he was a part-time player who could no longer make routine plays in the field. Nixon added a quadriceps injury to his back woes and seemed to be lost for the season. Batting champ Bill Mueller required knee surgery and went on the shelf in late May.

THE SUMMER

On the first day of July, the Sox and Yankees engaged in an epic 13-inning bout at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees won it, 5-4, with a two-out rally in the bottom of the 13th, but the lasting memory is of Jeter diving into the stands to catch a popup in the 12th while Garciaparra sat and watched the entire game from the Sox bench.

While Garciaparra pouted and missed balls when he did play, Ramirez was a new man. He joked with fans, teammates, even reporters. He enjoyed every moment. And he crushed every baseball. Ramirez joined Ortiz, Schilling, Damon, and Martinez as fan favorites.

The Sox still were giving away runs and games in early July when Epstein made the decision to trade Garciaparra. The game in New York was a loud statement that something had to be done. On the day Varitek challenged A-Rod, in the most dramatic game of the season, the Sox beat the Yankees, 11-10, on Mueller's walkoff homer off Mariano Rivera. The next night, while Presidential nominee-to-be John Kerry watched from Henrytown on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, the Sox beat the Yankees again, 9-6, then hit the road for Baltimore, Minnesota, and Tampa. Garciaparra popped to Jeter in his final Red Sox at-bat at Fenway Park. While the team was in Baltimore, Garciaparra told the training staff and Francona that he was going to need more time off, maybe even have to go back to the disabled list. Already bothered by Garciaparra's inability to play average defense, the uncertainty of the situation forced Epstein to pursue a trade. The deal was struck in the final hours before the deadline and Garciaparra became a Cub while Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz joined the Red Sox, bolstering the team's infield defense.

The Red Sox lost the first two games after the trade, then went on a tear that has yet to subside. Ramirez and Ortiz became only the second Sox teammates (joining Carl Yastrzemski and Rico Petrocelli) to hit 40 homers in the same season. Millar became the hitter he was in the first half of 2003. Mueller came back and beefed up the bottom of the order. Damon hit over .300, reached 20 homers and put his name on some MVP ballots. Schilling won every start. Martinez made every start. Helped by the new infield defense, Lowe started to win regularly. All five Sox starters stayed healthy the entire season.

Cabrera stabilized the entire team. He made all the plays, contributed offensively, and gave his pitchers new confidence. Francona went to his bench and got help from Dave Roberts, Gabe Kapler, and Doug Mirabelli. Mark Bellhorn drove everyone crazy with his walks and strikeouts, but he was a surprisingly effective offensive weapon. There was skepticism when the "new" Red Sox beat up the likes of the Blue Jays, White Sox, and Tigers, but then they swept Anaheim at Fenway and the A's in Oakland and spawned a Nation of believers. Varitek said he thought the Red Sox were the best team in the AL.

As always, there was more business with the Yankees. New York never had blown a first-place lead of more than six games. The Sox cut it to two Sept. 8 and to 2 1/2 when they rallied to beat Rivera again Friday night, Sept. 17, at Yankee Stadium (with the key hits by Cabrera and Damon). However, the Yankees routed Lowe Saturday afternoon, scored eight runs off Martinez in another rout Sunday, and went into cruise control to win another AL East title. When New York beat Martinez yet again ("The Yankees are my daddy," said the ace) Sept. 24, the Yankees led by 5 1/2 games.

The Sox routed the Yankees in the final two Fenway showdowns, 12-5 and 11-4, finishing the year with an 11-8 record against the Bombers. They clinched in Tampa Bay and spent the next six days being eliminated by the Yankees and trying to figure out whether they'd be flying to Minneapolis, Oakland, or Anaheim last night. At the end of the season, the greatest concern was a slumping Martinez, who lost his final four starts and, it seemed, much of his confidence. Meanwhile, Lowe struggled badly at the end of September and lost his spot in the postseason rotation.

In the end, they finished second to New York for a record seventh straight season, but they also won 98 games, more than any Boston team since 1978, when the Red Sox tied New York for first place before running into Bucky Dent. The 2004 Sox won more games than any of the last three Red Sox World Series qualifiers. But none of it will mean anything unless they win the World Series for the first time since 1918.

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