Sox on 3d straight wild ride to playoffs
His business, the one that made him an opulent man capable of buying the Red Sox, is the futures market, so it was apropos that John Henry, in the bottom of the fifth inning yesterday, would be the one to tip off his team. Positioned in Row 1 next to the Sox dugout, the principal owner, at 4:06 p.m., leaned across his daughter in the seat next to him to convey Cleveland's loss -- and, by association, the Sox' clinching of the wild-card playoff spot -- to his club's manager.
But Terry Francona didn't need to listen. Even before coming into view the owner with a child's enthusiasm for baseball and fantasy leagues and slugging designated hitters had disclosed his glee in a most youthful manner.
''I heard him let out a little yelp, kind of," Francona said.
He pondered that statement for a moment, realizing that Henry is his employer, and added: ''Please say that respectfully."
Francona smiled a relaxed smile, the type he's been willing and able to reveal on all too few days this season. But, he could yesterday, as soon as the fifth inning, when the Sox qualified for the postseason for a third consecutive year (all as the wild card) for the first time in the organization's vaunted 105-year history.
The club's 10-1 beating of the Yankees? That was effectively a footnote, given that the Yankees clinched the American League East a day earlier, even though, with yesterday's win, the Sox finished at 95-67, same as the Yankees. The Yankees won the division by way of the tiebreaker, with a 10-9 advantage in the season series. That, however, didn't deter a stadium worker, who last night moved ''BOSTON" atop ''NEW YORK" on the manual metal scoreboard in left field.
And now, it's on to Chicago, for an American League Division Series vs. the White Sox, beginning tomorrow at 4 p.m.
''We went through so much, and it was sometimes so hard to be good," said Francona, now 201-137 as Red Sox manager, postseason included. ''You put so much into it. It sort of hits you at once, and it overwhelms you a little bit."
Was there a time when the Sox, deep down, didn't believe this -- postseason baseball in 2005 -- was even capable?
''After the break," acknowledged David Ortiz, who yesterday knocked in the 148th run of his benumbing season. ''We weren't playing well. We lost a lot of close games late."
If there was a seminal moment, it had to be the night of July 26, in Tampa Bay. The Sox were a 54-45 team, with a tenuous one-game lead in the AL East. That night, Matt Clement was felled by a lined shot that hit him in the head. His team won in extra innings, ripping off the first of eight consecutive wins, 14 in 16 games, and 41 of 63 to end the season.
Though not ideal, perhaps it's fitting that Clement gets the ball opposite Jose Contreras tomorrow afternoon for Game 1 in the city in which he lived and worked the previous three seasons, albeit as a Cub. The Sox were unable to line up their postseason rotation this year as they did a year ago, instead putting everything -- and everyone -- toward simply qualifying.
The Indians, with six losses in seven games to the end the season, gave the Sox 10 fingers, lifting them into the postseason. But the Sox were playing their way in yesterday anyhow, leading New York, 6-0, when the Indians officially called it a year. The Sox got to 6-0 with a five-run fourth, the capstone moment being a two-out, full-count Manny Ramirez missile to center. His 45th homer, which came a pitch after he stayed alive with a defensive swing, pumped a 1-0 lead to 4-0.
That culminated an awesome two weeks out of Ramirez, who swung with intense purpose and impeccable precision over the final 12 games, clubbing nine home runs. Still, he inspired the team as much with his first-to-third hustle Thursday night as he did with his twin 463-foot bombs Saturday and his blistering shot to straightaway center yesterday.
''I think he really understood the impact that he has on our ballclub," Francona said. ''How much we needed him."
And to think, Ramirez came oh so close to leaving just before the July 31 trading deadline. But the left fielder won the game that day with an eighth-inning tie-breaking single against the Twins. Ramirez, in 56 games beginning July 31 and ending yesterday, hit .327, smacked 17 home runs, and knocked in 52 runs.
He and Ortiz combined to crank 21 homers in the team's final 22 games, finishing the season with a sublime 92 homers and 292 RBIs, a season after leaving the park a combined 84 times and delivering 269 combined runs.
''David has had such a tremendous year, he's overshadowed Manny," said Bronson Arroyo, who will be moved to the bullpen for the postseason. ''If that happened then David had one of the best seasons of all-time. But having Manny hot, both of those guys, putting us on their shoulders, we're going to need it, because everyone the rest of the way is going to be throwing pretty decent staffs."
The Sox tacked on another run in the fifth and began replacing regulars, up and down the lineup, in the sixth. Doug Mirabelli, pinch hitting for Jason Varitek in the sixth, iced the game and the cake, connecting for a three-run shot to dead center off Felix Rodriguez.
That, too, was fitting. Mirabelli homered only four times this season at Fenway, but he provided the team's first homer of the year -- in the home opener against the Yankees, the day the Sox received their World Series rings -- and clubbed the team's final blast here at home, where they hit so well that they led the league in runs for a third consecutive season.
That propelled the Sox toward a blowout. The may have lost the season series to the Yankees, 10-9, but in their wins the Sox pulverized New York, 88-19. The big lead allowed them to roll out bench players and empty the bullpen.
Curt Schilling pitched six innings, allowing only one run, before handing off to Arroyo, Jonathan Papelbon, Manny Delcarmen, and Mike Myers. The final out was left to 39-year-old Mike Timlin, who recorded his 81st appearance, eclipsing Greg Harris's team record.
''We really wanted him to be on the mound," Francona said. ''He deserved to be out there when we won."
Timlin punched out Bubba Crosby, looking, to end it. And the celebration began, on the same field as the Yankees celebrated a day before in the most intriguing closing weekend to a Sox season since 1978.
''I don't know how anyone could complain about the excitement generated," Francona said.
And now, a new season begins.
''It's all even," he said. ''It will all take on a whole new life of its own now. There will be new dramas.
''Do I think we're good enough? Yeah."