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Ringing endorsement

Team of stars and hidden jewels dazzled its fans in a season filled with special diamond moments

It's the celebration of the year for the Red Sox after they finish off a four-game sweep and take home another world championship. It's the celebration of the year for the Red Sox after they finish off a four-game sweep and take home another world championship. (BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF)

It was intended as a throwaway line, designed to deflect attention from his newlywed status.

Instead, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"You wear rings in October," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said in spring training, explaining why his left hand was unadorned, "not in April."

To borrow a term Jonathan Papelbon laid on David Letterman days after winning the World Series, they were the bedazzlers, these Boston Red Sox of 2007, a team that sparkled and glittered like the appliques on David Ortiz's customized hats and shades, jackets and jeans, from the first fastball Josh Beckett unleashed in the second game of the season in Kansas City in April to the final swing and miss orchestrated by Papelbon in the World Series finale in Denver in October.

The Sox led the American League East for the final 166 days of 2007, from April 18 on, the longest consecutive stretch in club history. They won 96 games, tying Cleveland for most wins in the majors. After the season's first 40 games, they were ahead by 10 games, only the second time in big league history a team had jumped to a double-digit lead at that stage of the season. On July 5, the lead was 12 games, the earliest the Sox ever led by such a wide margin.

The Yankees? On May 29, they were eight games under .500 and 14 1/2 games behind the Sox. That was too much to overcome, though they came within 1 1/2 games with a week to go in the season.

In the postseason, the Sox swept the Angels in the Division Series, fell perilously close to being eliminated by the Indians when they lost three of the first four games of the American League Championship Series, then ran the table, reeling off seven straight wins in overtaking the Indians and sweeping the Rockies, much like their spiritual forebears, the Sox of '04, did in staging the greatest comeback in history against the Yankees by winning the last four games of the ALCS, then sweeping the Cardinals.

A team that bludgeoned opponents in 2004 transformed into a run-prevention machine in 2007. With Beckett becoming the ace the Sox thought they'd dealt for before the 2006 season, winning 20 games, and under new pitching coach John Farrell, the Sox finished second in the majors with a 3.87 ERA, and with a run differential of plus-210. Tim Wakefield won 17 games. Curt Schilling came within an out of a no-hitter, floundered, came back reinvented as a finesse pitcher, and went 3-0 in October.

The Sox also caught the ball, finishing second in the league with a .986 fielding percentage and actually allowing fewer unearned runs (39) than they had in 2006 (52), when they set a major league record for fielding percentage at .989.

Ace up their sleeve

Beckett, all sinew and steel, won all four of his playoff starts, drawing comparisons to Bob Gibson.

"He's on top of his game, he's probably pitching as well as any pitcher I've come across, watched or faced or seen pitch in the postseason," said Rockies manager Clint Hurdle. "Command of all his pitches, pounding the strike zone. What's he got, 30 innings, 2 walks and [35] strikeouts? Come on. He's got Nintendo numbers going off the mound."

The Sox won with a pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was already a rock star in his native Japan and was given similar pampering by the Red Sox, who did everything but provide him with his own dressing room - he had his own interpreter, masseuse, media liaison, free plane trips for the family, golf privileges at the finest clubs, and an introductory press conference in a mobbed Fenway that was carried live in two nations. A minor league catcher partnered with Matsuzaka on his first day of camp, George Kottaras, watched the madness and thought of Graceland. "Elvis Presley?" Kottaras said. "Wow. This guy just wanted to play catch."

Someone asked Epstein that spring how many interviews he did on Japanese TV. "If you let me go upstairs, I can tell you almost exactly, because I've got a bottle of saki for every one," Epstein said. "Count the bottles of saki."

Matsuzaka merely had to cope with a new country, new language, new culture, new league, new strike zone, new baseball. There were times he struggled, but in the end he won 15 games, struck out 201 batters in 204 2/3 innings, won Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, then knocked in two runs with a base hit in the World Series. The only Sox pitchers to drive in two runs in a Series were Babe Ruth and Cy Young. He goes back to Japan this winter bigger than the Emperor, which recalls Ruth's supposed response when told he was asking to be paid more than the president at the time, Herbert Hoover: "Why shouldn't I?" Ruth said. "I had a better year than he did."

The Sox won with another Japanese pitcher, Hideki Okajima, who arrived with little fanfare, pony to Matsuzaka's Secretariat. "I'm willing to become a hero in the dark," Okajima said modestly in March, then became the indispensable bridge to closer Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen.

Closing thoughts

And what if the Sox had stuck with their decision to convert Papelbon to starter, their stated intention at the start of spring training because of the uncertain condition of his shoulder, which had become unhinged the previous September? The Sox held auditions for a closer throughout camp, until Papelbon told captain Jason Varitek he couldn't sleep at night, that's how badly he still wanted to close. Varitek hustled him into a meeting with Terry Francona, and Curt Schilling broke the news on his blog, that Paps was back in the pen, Papelbon's personal preferences dovetailing nicely with the desperate state of the Sox' search for a successor.

It may have been Francona's finest piece of managing, the way he regulated Papelbon's usage throughout the season, preserving him until he was needed most in October, when he sent him unfettered to save three of the four Series games against the Rockies. Papelbon saved 37 games during the season, held opposing hitters to a .146 batting average, struck out batters at the rate of 12.96 times per nine innings, developed a death stare, then step-danced his way into legend with a celebratory jig imitated on schoolyards across New England.

They won with Manny Ramírez, who came to camp late, having advertised an appearance in Atlantic City to auction one of his cars, a blue 1967 Lincoln Continental convertible. Manny was a no-show at the car show, but later posted an ad on eBay to sell a Jenn-Air barbecue grill ("I bought this amazing grill for about $4,000 . . . but I never have the time to use it."). Ramírez turned 35 in May, missed 24 games with a strained oblique muscle, said he never felt right at the plate all season, then morphed back into Manny being Manny just in time for the playoffs.

He hit his first-ever walkoff home run for the Sox off K-Rod, Francisco Rodriguez, in the Division Series against the Angels, an occasion so momentous he broke radio silence.

"It feels great, man," he said. "It's been a long time I don't do something special like that. But I haven't been right all year round. But I guess, you know, when you don't feel good and you still get hits, that's when you know you are a bad man."

Bad to the bone

You are all bad, David Ortiz reminded his teammates, adding a polysyllabic profanity for emphasis, during a players-only meeting after the Sox had fallen behind the Indians, two games to one. Don't look to anyone else for salvation, he said. Take care of your own business, and they will be OK.

Ortiz played the entire season with a right knee that became increasingly problematic. Coming off a season in which he hit a club-record 54 home runs and knocked in 137, he had just 14 home runs and 52 RBIs at the All-Star break.

But Big Papi returned with a vengeance in the second half, batting .352 with 21 home runs and 65 RBIs. His finishing kick in September was reminiscent of Yaz in 1967. In the last 16 games of the regular season, Ortiz batted .441, with an on-base percentage of .548. He hit 7 home runs, 8 doubles, and knocked in 19 runs. That carried over to October, when he batted .370 with three home runs and 10 RBIs, his 14 walks giving him a postseason on-base percentage of .508.

But if the Ramírez-Ortiz combination evoked comparisons to Ruth-Gehrig, Mays-McCovey, and Mantle-Maris, the supporting players in the Sox lineup were remarkable in their own right. Rookie second baseman Dustin Pedroia, batting .172 May 1, hit .335 the rest of the way. Third baseman Mike Lowell hit .324 with 120 RBIs, both career bests. Lowell had 10 hits in Boston's four-game deconstruction of the White Sox in August, when they scored in double figures in all four games, and he came up biggest in the World Series, when he was named MVP. Kevin Youkilis had career highs in batting average (.288), home runs (16), and RBIs (83), put together a 23-game hitting streak, third longest in the majors, and didn't make an error at first base in the regular season. Varitek bounced back from a subpar season offensively in 2006 and did all the heavy lifting behind the plate. Coco Crisp played a Gold Glove center field, and when he faltered near the end, was replaced by rookie Jacoby Ellsbury, who provided the season's most electrifying moment, scoring from second base on a wild pitch ("He's got lightning in his feet," Varitek said), then leading the team's starters in hitting with a .438 average in the World Series, including two doubles in one inning of Game 3.

Contributing factors

Julio Lugo spent the first half of the season below the Mendoza Line (.197), rebounded to hit .280 in the second half, and in Tropicana Field followed Varitek's tying ninth-inning home run with a two-run homer that assured the Sox of a playoff spot. A spotty fielder much of the season, Lugo made two key plays in Game 3 of the Series.

J.D. Drew, his $70 million contract a bull's-eye on his back, endured a trying season, hitting just 11 home runs and knocking in 64, but turned it on in the end, his grand slam in Game 6 of the ALCS "the unforgettable instant," Bill Simmons of ESPN.com wrote, "when everything started to make sense even as absolutely nothing was making sense."

Ruffle the pages of the calendar, and you can find a day when every player on the roster came up big. Who would have imagined that Eric Hinske, his face planted in the dirt of the right-field warning track, would make perhaps the season's greatest catch, or that it would be Hinske who would score the winning run in the Mother's Day Miracle, when the Sox came back from 5-0 with six runs in the bottom of the ninth.

Alex Cora was there when Lugo and Pedroia faltered, and Bobby Kielty, the August pickup, saw one pitch in the World Series and hit it over the fence for the deciding run in Game 4. The bullpen guys adopted their Pirates of the Caribbean motif and played like a jug band, led by Manny Delcarmen, the hometown kid from West Roxbury High who proved himself worthy of the respect of neighbors and strangers alike.

And finally, an ending too sweet to imagine before it happened - Jon Lester, 14 months after his diagnosis of cancer, pitching the clincher.

"What a journey to go from where he was a little more than a year ago," Epstein said, "to winning the deciding game of the World Series."

A journey worthy of a ring: Big and shiny and special. Rings for one, rings for all.

Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com.

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