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Sox happily shed the underdog label

There was plenty of reason for manager Terry Francona to be all smiles yesterday, with a division title and baseball's best record. There was plenty of reason for manager Terry Francona to be all smiles yesterday, with a division title and baseball's best record. (JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF)

Isn't this somebody else's script? The Red Sox have the best record in baseball for the first time since 1946. They won their division for the first time in a dozen years and swept their Division Series. They have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Everyone is healthy, rested, and happy. And for once, despite what fans anticipated, the road to the World Series doesn't go through the Bronx.

"That's what everyone expected," says Sox slugger David Ortiz, whose teammates open the American League Championship Series against the Indians tonight at Fenway Park. What this town has expected for generations now is that its ball club will put everyone through medieval torments on its way to the pennant. Until now, the Sox have been eternal underdogs, their rare autumnal successes producing delighted disbelief. But both the Las Vegas and London oddsmakers agree. Odds-on, this is The Yeah.

While owner John W. Henry acknowledges that his team's transition into a favorite's role is under way, the notion that the roles have been permanently reversed makes the front office uneasy. "To say we're no longer underdogs seems to be going too far," says club president Larry Lucchino, tempering annual expectations. "We're in the division where Goliath resides." And while the Yankees were beaten this week by the Indians, the Sox have too many painful Yankee memories from Octobers past to fully shed underdog status.

The 1949 pennant that vanished with two losses on the final weekend. The 1978 implosion, with a 14-game lead squandered and the playoff lost on Bucky Dent's long popup. The 1999 double-beatdown in Games 4 and 5 of the ALCS in the Fens after the giddy 13-1 bashing of Roger Clemens. The 2003 seventh-game nightmare in the ALCS that ended with Aaron Boone's home run in the 11th inning off Tim Wakefield.

Twenty-six titles for New York since Babe Ruth switched uniforms. One glorious exception for Boston. "Something that has lasted for a considerable number of years does not disappear overnight," says Lucchino.

Even the good years were tortuous. The Impossible Dreamers of 1967 didn't clinch the flag until after their final game. The 1986 team was one strike away from losing in five games in Anaheim. The 2004 bunch was down, three games to none, to the Yankees before pulling off the greatest comeback in history.

The players, however, are embracing their newfound overdog stature. "Hopefully, this is the beginning of our reign," Jonathan Papelbon said Sunday in the champagne-drenched clubhouse after Boston's win over the Angels.

Given the hysterical circus atmosphere that engulfs their playoff meetings with Noo Yawk (not to mention the eternal Athens-Sparta, Rebel Alliance-Evil Empire comparisons), the Sox don't mind having the Indians over for dinner for a change. "When it's us and another team, it tends to be more baseball," says manager Terry Francona. "Which is quite all right."

Still, the 2004 resurrection undeniably exorcised more than a few walking ghosts. "Coming back, winning all those games, eight in a row," muses Ortiz, who beat the Yankees on consecutive nights with walkoff swings. "There were no more 1918 signs out there, no more 1986. People say now, 'We won before, why can't we win again?' I see more positive faces around than negative. I don't blame people for the negative, because 86 years is a long time. But we've got guys who are capable of doing crazy things."

That is a novelty for Red Sox Nation, conditioned for decades to believe that bejeweled rings were destined for other fingers. "I was a Red Sox fan all my life," says Manny Delcarmen, who grew up in Hyde Park. "If they got to the postseason, it was great. If not, wait till the next year."

Winning the Series redefined what was possible. "There is something that does make you walk a little differently when you do win a world championship," says Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who did it in 2002. "And I'm sure it happened to their whole organization, especially in the American League East being in the shadow of the Yankees. It's something that you need to break through and they have, and they've continued with their success."

The elevated expectations on Yawkey Way have evolved during the past half-dozen years, since Henry and his group took over and methodically began building a club designed to still be playing when the leaves turned.

"It's not a shock that we are competitive with great regularity," says Lucchino, who won a Series ring with the Orioles in 1983 and a pennant with the Padres in 1998. "Even in years when we haven't been in the playoffs, we've won a whole lot of games."

When the Sox have fallen short - being swept by the White Sox in 2005 and missing the postseason last year - they've moved boldly during the winter, trading for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell and paying more than $50 million just for the right to chat with a Japanese pitcher who might otherwise have opted for the Bronx.

"Because of the rivalry, there's a special dynamic," says Henry. "Are we headed toward changing that dynamic? I hope so. Are we there? I don't think so."

But the step-by-step trend is clear. In the past five seasons, Boston has gone from leading the Yankees in the eighth inning of the seventh game of the ALCS in the Stadium - only to experience heartache - to winning the final two games there in the magical 2004 comeback, to beating them for the division this season.

"I don't think the guys in the clubhouse feel we're underdogs," says Lowell, who sprayed celebratory bubbly with Beckett in the visitors' clubhouse at the Stadium when they were Marlins in 2003. "Our goal since the beginning of spring training was to win the World Series."

Only eight players remain from the Sox club that did it in 2004, when beating St. Louis was almost an anticlimax after the cathartic psychodrama with New York. "Does it feel strange not to have to go through the Yankees to get to the Series?" rookie Dustin Pedroia was asked this week. "I've never been through the Yankees," Pedroia replied, "so I don't know."

This is a new autumnal landscape. The Red Sox are favorites and the Yankees have scattered for the winter.

"I've been here five years and it's been the best five years we've ever gone through," says Ortiz. "We've been in the playoffs, we've won the World Series. You can't ask for more than that, man."

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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