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Reasons to believe

Sox just may be the team no one wants to face

So, just why is it that the 2004 Red Sox are so much better equipped to silence the "1918" chants than their immediate predecessors? What is the reason, as Kevin Millar said last weekend, repeating a commonly held belief in the Sox clubhouse, that no one wants to play this team in October?

Must be the team's insatiable offense, led by twin Most Valuable Player candidates Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Well, yes, the Sox scored 949 runs, most in the majors, but last year's team hit for a higher average, scored more runs, hit more home runs, and stole more bases. Gone from that team is a two-time batting champion, Nomar Garciaparra, who is now mocked for having a miserable October (one RBI) but delivered a triple that keyed the Game 6 rally that forced a deciding game in the ALCS last season against the Yankees. Gone, too, is Todd Walker, who had a mythic postseason, topping that of another second baseman who came up big in 1986, Marty Barrett, by batting .500 against the A's in the Division Series, then .370 against the Yankees. Walker's replacement, Mark Bellhorn, had his moments this season, but also struck out a club-record 177 times. Any predictions of Bellhorn magic?

And yes, Ramirez had a great year, maybe a better one than 2003, but his on-base percentage dropped by 30 points, and last season Ramirez entered October on a Vladi-like roll, responding to his day-after-Labor Day benching by batting .375 with 6 home runs and 14 RBIs. Ortiz, meanwhile, put up the kind of numbers this season that he would have had in 2003 had the Sox not begun the season infatuated with Jeremy Giambi, who ended this season busted in Las Vegas, an injured member of the Dodgers' Triple A farm team. There is also the Nixon factor. Trot Nixon hit four home runs in the postseason last October; can he reasonably be expected to duplicate that performance after missing most of this season with back and quadriceps injuries?

So, then, it's the defense, which we all know is vastly improved from a year ago, right? Well, yes and no. The 2003 Sox didn't have magicians like first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz and second baseman/shortstop Pokey Reese last season, and Orlando Cabrera is a major upgrade over Garciaparra, who gimped around short when he played at all.

But while it is true the Sox drastically reduced the number of unearned runs they were leaking (74 in the first 102 games, just 18 in the final 60), they still made 118 errors, five more than last season and more than all but three AL teams -- the Devil Rays, Tigers, and Royals -- this year. Mientkiewicz and Reese, remember, are just part-time players, and while they are wonderful as late-inning defensive replacements, there are as many games won or lost, as Mientkiewicz notes, in the first five innings as in the last four. Teams still will run on Johnny Damon in center, Millar still will have to outhit his shortcomings at first, and Nixon's leg could affect his mobility in right.

And while your eyes may tell you differently, it may surprise you to know that a healthy Garciaparra in '03 actually had a higher fielding percentage (.971) than Cabrera has with the Sox this year (.966). Bellhorn is a defensive upgrade over Walker (and does anyone else close their eyes and imagine Pokey running down Jorge Posada's broken-bat blooper in Game 7?), but assuming Damon doesn't knock himself out again as he did last year when he collided with Damian Jackson, the rest of the cast is essentially the same.

So it has to be the bullpen, with Keith Foulke a dramatic improvement over last year's closer by committee, right? Well, sure, except that Derek Lowe and Scott Williamson, who got last call in the playoffs last season, combined to save four games in the playoffs, Lowe striking out Terrence Long for the ALDS clincher. Who knows how ALCS Game 7 would have played out last season if Little, instead of fretting over whether Williamson was up to the task of closing out the Yankees, had had Foulke, who will be called upon for Mariano Rivera-like duty -- two-inning saves -- by manager Terry Francona. But Foulke, who blew a save for the A's in Game 4 against the Sox last season, has hardly distinguished himself as a Mr. October. And can anyone reasonably expect setup men Mike Timlin and Alan Embree to combine for another scoreless postseason, as they did last October?

Manager? Last season, the Sox went into October with a manager who had never been there and was run out of town as soon as the playoffs ended. This season, the Sox go into October with a manager who has never been there and has the Nation on edge for the way he, in a Little-sized death wish, elected to stay the course with Pedro Martinez against the Yankees, flouting folk wisdom as fundamental as not slowing down when entering a rotary.

Intangibles? These guys have cast themselves as lovable rogues, and with Garciaparra out of the mix, no one is casting an unhappy shadow in the clubhouse. But last year's bunch bonded through countless late-inning rallies and Cowboyed Up, and Garciaparra's aloofness was not held against him, merely understood as quirkiness.

There is, of course, the Schill factor -- and now we're onto something. In 1998, Martinez's first season with the Red Sox, his running mate was Bret Saberhagen, whose shoulder had undergone more reconstruction than the Central Artery. Pete Schourek, with his ravaged elbow, was called upon to stave off elimination, and while he pitched nobly, the Sox were eliminated in Game 4 of the Division Series by Cleveland.

In '99, the situation had hardly improved, Jimy Williams trying to coax a miracle out of not one but two bad shoulders, those of Saberhagen and Pedro's older brother, Ramon, along with a lefty emergency starter, Kent Mercker, whose name in German means "mediocrity." Pedro Martinez, battling his own shoulder woes, made a miraculous appearance out of the pen to pitch six no-hit innings in the Game 5 Division Series clincher against the Indians, then pitched through some of the worst pain of his career to beat Roger Clemens in Game 3 of the ALCS, but with Mercker making two starts in the series, the Sox fell to the Yankees in five.

Last season, it was Pedro the lone ace at the barricades again. Tim Wakefield came up huge, beating the Yankees in two ALCS starts, but while the Yankees were rolling out one ace after another -- Clemens, David Wells, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte -- Little crossed his fingers and hoped for the best from an erratic Lowe and a mushballer, John Burkett, who was at a point in his career where he threw only slightly harder than he bowled.

This season, for perhaps the first time since Clemens and Wakefield (coming off the season of his life) carried the 1995 team, or surely since the Clemens-Bruce Hurst-Oil Can Boyd troika responsible for the last Sox Series appearance in 1986, the Sox have dual aces in Curt Schilling, who has already been to the mountaintop as co-World Series MVP in 2001, and Martinez, even if Pedro showed alarming signs of mortalty in September, when he lost his last four starts. Schilling is the difference-maker, the man who makes all the boats rise, the guy who has never taken his eyes off the prize, no matter how many Dunkin' Donuts spots he shot this summer. It was precisely for the chance to do this that Schilling stayed up on Thanksgiving night, posting Internet messages to the members of the Nation in cyberspace, so many of whom instantly grasped the implications of the Schilling trade.

Martinez must give a passable imitation of the good Pedro than the put-upon version who surrendered to the "daddy" Yankees, then pitched in disconnected fashion against the Devil Rays. Given the stakes, there's a fair chance he will. He would prefer a legacy with more dignity than a Grady bobble-arm doll. Bronson Arroyo, with the kind of calm confidence that a man, non-Pokey division, must have to braid his hair, has become the team's third-best pitcher, and Wakefield has done it before. It would appear then, that the Sox have four pitchers capable of getting into the sixth inning or better, game in and game out, while the Sox hitters, with their infinite patience, wear down the opposition.

The great hitting, the more committed defense, the closer with a pedigree, the deepest bench the team has had in memory, plus the kind of confidence that comes only when a team puts together a run of sustained excellence like the Sox had when they repulsed all three challengers in the West -- all of these combine to make the Sox a formidable opponent in October. But it is Schilling who gives these Sox their best shot at a ring in over a generation, and makes him the most likely player to be immortalized if it comes to pass. 

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