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Jackie MacMullan

Finishing touch

Papelbon turns out the lights to seal the deal

DENVER - He immediately identified the sound he hadn't heard once during this postseason: the crack of an extremely well-hit ball that had legs. Lots and lots of legs.

Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon turned around and winced at Jamey Carroll's shot to left field. It carried through the thin Rocky Mountain air with alarming speed, and Jacoby Ellsbury moved back, back, back, until his back was to the wall.

Literally.

"I was hoping it wasn't out," Papelbon said. "I thought it might be a double off the wall. I was thinking to myself, 'Now I'm going to have to bear down and get in strikeout mode here.' "

The ball kept sailing higher and higher, until Ellsbury, the 24-year-old from Madras, Ore., who played in only 32 major league games before these playoffs, and who had been moved to left field in the eighth inning in place of Manny Ramírez for situations precisely like this, leaped up and snagged the ball with his glove.

Papelbon, Boston's mercurial closer, exhaled a huge sigh of relief. He was now one out away from his first World Series ring.

One batter later, Papelbon closed the deal, striking out pinch hitter Seth Smith with one of his signature high fastballs, then hurling his glove to the heavens as the Red Sox became world champions on the strength of a heart-stopping 4-3 win over the Colorado Rockies.

It was a dramatic finish to a Series that will go in the books as a 4-0 sweep. It culminated a season in which old standbys David Ortiz and Ramírez carried the team for much of the year with their power and production, but discovered new help in the form of Dustin Pedroia and Ellsbury.

It was a season in which Josh Beckett established himself as the best pitcher in baseball, and veteran Mike Lowell, who was named MVP of the World Series, cemented his reputation as an indispensable member of the local nine.

And it was a game in which a young pitcher, Jon Lester, who was receiving chemotherapy treatments a year ago at this time, threw 5 2/3 shutout innings of baseball magic.

"The neatest thing I've ever seen," said Curt Schilling. "After all he's been through . . . he pitched the game of his life."

This championship did not carry the historical weight of 2004. There were no declarations of "Now I can die in peace," no mention of any eradicated curse, and those 86-year-old bottles of bubbly didn't need to be dusted off because they had been sent to the recycling bin ages ago, long empty from the celebration three years earlier.

Fine. Let's acknowledge the obvious: This championship was not as epic a sports moment as the 2004 World Series.

So what? None of us has lived in this city long enough to grow accustomed to such triumphs. None of us should view what happened last night any other way than to recognize the superlative efforts of a team that was down, three games to one, in the American League Championship Series and then ran the table over the next seven games to earn the right to anoint themselves the best team in Major League Baseball.

This group of baseball professionals displayed, at precisely the right moments, clutch hitting, impressive pitching, expert base running, and solid defense. They won slugfests and pitching duels. They won with veterans on their last legs, and kids just learning to use theirs.

They maintained their composure in two games where 6-0 and 4-1 leads were whittled to a run.

"We never panicked," said Lowell, who bathed in the glow of championship champagne.

The Red Sox proved from start to finish they were the better team.

Go ahead, I dare you. Walk up and dismiss this Series as anticlimactic to Papelbon, the high-energy reliever with the death stare who strode to the mound with one out in the bottom of the eighth and his club reeling from a two-run shot by Garrett Atkins moments earlier that closed Colorado's deficit to 4-3.

Papelbon threw six pitches to Ryan Spilborghs before he coaxed him into a ground ball to short. He came at Brad Hawpe, who homered off Manny Delcarmen in the seventh, with back-to-back 94-mile-per-hour fastballs, and quickly got ahead of him, 0 and 2. Hawpe cranked a shot to center field, but Coco Crisp, who came in for defensive purposes in that inning, easily ran it down for the third out.

So this World Series came down to Pap in the ninth and the chance to carve out some Red Sox history of his own. The snapshot of him screaming with unbridled joy will undoubtedly have more staying power than the photo of previous World Series closer Keith Foulke, whose heroics in 2004 (only one run in 14 innings pitched, in case your memory escapes you) were compromised in his final two years in Boston because of injuries, ineffectiveness, and ill-advised comments regarding employees at a certain fast-food chain. Those missteps contributed to tarnishing his standing as a beloved figure in Boston sports lore.

Papelbon is no Foulke. He is a power pitcher who blows fastballs by you, then dances an Irish jig to celebrate. If you don't like it, well then, that's too bad. He is emotional, passionate, and, yes, occasionally a little over the top. He is the free-wheeling expressionist on this ball club who, ironically, would have meshed nicely with the idiots in 2004.

But please, don't talk to him about that team. He wasn't there. He doesn't care. The self-appointed leader of the youth movement that swept through this clubhouse reminded his young running mates daily of their motto: Age doesn't matter. Results do.

How is this for results? In 10 2/3 innings this postseason, Papelbon did not relinquish a single run.

The rest of the kids held their own, too. Ellsbury and Pedroia provided a breathless preview of what is to come in 2008, when both will undoubtedly become entrenched at the top of the order. Last night, Ellsbury punched out two more hits to finish this Series batting .437 (7 for 16) with 3 runs and 3 RBIs. Lester's reemergence after his battle with cancer was both inspiring and remarkable.

"The great thing about the kids was they listened, and they learned," said veteran reliever Mike Timlin, who celebrated his fourth World Series championship last night. "Our team was a great blend of the old and the new."

Asked to compare this championship with the one in 2004, Timlin said, "They're all special for different reasons."

Do you think Bobby Kielty was wondering how he measured up to anyone from that '04 team when he stepped up to the plate in the top of the eighth and drilled a Brian Fuentes fastball into the left-field seats? Kielty, discarded by the Oakland A's midway through the season, promised the Red Sox he still had something left when they signed him.

He gave it to them last night, with his arms raised in jubilation the moment the ball left his bat. The solo shot gave Boston just a little more wiggle room, pushing the lead to 4-1. The home run would turn out to be the game-winner.

"I only got one shot [in the World Series]," said Kielty, "so there was no way I was going down any way but swinging."

He was not alone. At various times during this memorable postseason run, Ortiz, Ramírez, Kevin Youkilis, and yes, even Pedroia, went yard. From one night to the next, there were new heroes.

As a healthy population of Red Sox fans invaded Coors Field to celebrate their team's second world championship in four years, they let their feelings be known to members of the ownership group and the front office nearby.

"Re-sign Lowell!" they implored Theo Epstein and John Henry.

"We better do that," said Papelbon, as he was doused with another round of bubbly.

There will be time to determine Lowell's future, and that of Schilling, Timlin, and others.

But last night, all that could wait. The Red Sox were celebrating the here and now, on the field where Jacoby Ellsbury and Jonathan Papelbon made the dreams of Red Sox Nation come to life.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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