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Epstein revels in success

Manny Ramirez (right) and Julio Lugo hug tightly after the Sox won ALCS Game 7. Manny Ramirez (right) and Julio Lugo hug tightly after the Sox won ALCS Game 7. (JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF)

In big markets such as Boston and New York the general manager's job is judged by whether you make it to the World Series.

Yankees GM Brian Cashman is home trying to find a manager and figure out the future of his team. He failed this season. Omar Minaya is trying to figure out the epic collapse of the New York Mets. He really failed this season. Theo Epstein is getting ready for the World Series against the Colorado Rockies. He succeeded.

When the Red Sox trailed, 3-1, in the American League Championship Series, Epstein, with his $143 million payroll, heard about his blunders from Red Sox fans, reporters, and talk show hosts. E-mails flooded to this address concerning Epstein's inept offseason moves. Many of those same fans flooded talk shows whining about the postseason performances of J.D. Drew, Julio Lugo, and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

The Red Sox were trailing a team with a $61 million payroll. If Boston had lost ALCS, it would have been an embarrassment of major proportions, but the Red Sox won three straight when they had to. Epstein, wearing his red AL pennant-winning T-shirt and dripping in champagne, might have felt at peace for the first time since '04.

He had to feel vindicated as Drew knocked in five runs including a first-inning grand slam in Game 6 and added a run-scoring single last night. Drew batted .360 against the Indians. He can say "I told you so." Lugo got a key hit in Game 6, and save for an error in the seventh inning last night, played well. Epstein could pump his chest for the organizational decision to go with Tim Wakefield in Game 4 instead of ALCS MVP Josh Beckett.

The organization's decision to keep faith in Matsuzaka also paid dividends as he went five innings, allowed two runs, and kept the Sox in the game when he left with a 3-2 lead.

The GM in Boston takes hits on a daily basis. Along with the credit comes the criticism.

"That's the nature of Boston," said Epstein. "It seems like our fans like to pick on the guys that make the money, but we're also an organization that's developing a top-tier farm system, a couple of Rookie of the Year [candidates] on the field and hopefully going to operate at a very high level for years to come in the process. It's gratifying. It's not really about the criticism. It's about the people in that clubhouse who believe in one another regardless of what anyone else thinks. It's hard for anyone to quibble with the results. We've been there twice now in four years, three ALCS in five years, won two of them."

With cameras trained on him, it was evident Epstein took great satisfaction in what happened on the field in this series and particularly the people who made it happen.

Baseball here is so emotional. There's reaction to every game. Every moment is a snapshot and in every snapshot there's a judgment. Epstein, who once left this franchise in a Gorilla suit, receives endless e-mails from people who think he's an absolute goof. But he just made it to the World Series. Again.

You still can say Drew makes too much money for the production he provides. You still can say Lugo isn't worth a four-year, $36 million contract. You still can say that Matsuzaka isn't the "special" pitcher they thought they had when they devoted $103 million of payroll to him. But in Game 7 of the ALCS, Dice-K pitched well enough to keep his team in the game.

"A good player is a good player is a good player," repeated Epstein. "If he struggles for a month or a season. The good players stick to it and don't melt under the pressure. J.D. is a good ballplayer."

There's also the other "Theo" guys who performed well.

Hideki Okajima was one of the great finds this season. Signed as the guy who would keep Matsuzaka company, Okajima became one of the best set-up men in baseball. Epstein also has to take credit for hiring the right people. He, along with manager Terry Francona, had a lot to do with hiring pitching coach John Farrell. Farrell gave Okajima a new look, gave Beckett a new confidence, helped reinvent Curt Schilling's career. And we'll give Epstein credit for recognizing, just in time, that Jonathan Papelbon had to be the closer.

Lucky? You bet. There's nothing wrong with luck.

He may not get high grades for the free agent group he brought in, but Epstein has to be given credit for the emergence of Dustin Pedroia, a team leader as a rookie. Kevin Youkilis, who batted .500 in the series and went 3 for 5 with a home run last night, developed under Epstein's tenure. The GM deserves credit for a farm system that developed Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, and Jon Lester.

It also should be pointed out that two of the biggest contributors to this team, Beckett and Mike Lowell, were acquired in trade when Epstein was on his hiatus.

Epstein surely has the backing of his boss.

"Theo's done a great job since he came here," said Sox owner John W. Henry as he celebrated on the field, rolling a big cigar on his fingers. "Theo and Larry [Lucchino] and our entire baseball operations people work their hearts out. This is what we play for. It's so hard to get to the World Series. People don't realize how hard it is to get to this position. Now that we're here I think we have a really good shot."

Henry often finds himself defending Epstein and his expenditures. That's not easy. It's his team and his money and for the longest time it didn't appear the expenditures for Drew or Lugo or Matsuzaka were wise.

"It's hard to hear some of the criticism but it comes with the territory," said Henry. "We keep the long term view no matter what."

Henry acknowledges that once in while he does have pep talks with Epstein. Last night was not one of those nights.

There was a lot of failure in baseball this season. But not here in Boston.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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