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Dan Shaughnessy

Dice-K sparkles as Sox take Game 1

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / October 11, 2008
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - It's only one game. So how come it already feels like the Red Sox are going to the World Series?

The Sox beat the Tampa Bay Rays, 2-0, in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series at Tropicana Field last night. It would be prudent to recognize that there's a long way to go before entertaining thoughts of the Fall Classic. The Sox came dangerously close to losing the opener. These things can turn around quickly. It's not over until the fat lady sings. Add any cautious cliché you want.

So how come it already feels like the Red Sox are going to the World Series?

It just does. There's a swagger and confidence about this bunch. They do the right thing. They let the other guys make the mistakes.

It all started four years ago in the hours after the 19-8, Game 3 humiliation against the Yankees. Since that night, the Red Sox, for the most part, have been October gold.

"You just have to do the little things to help your team win," said Kevin Youkilis, who was there way back in '04. "You don't have to hit a grand slam. You just have to play defense, run the bases well, and grind out at-bats."

And that's what they do. The Rays had plenty of opportunities last night but failed to capitalize. The Red Sox always seem to come through when it counts. Ask the Angels. Ask the Colorado Rockies. Ask the Cleveland Indians, the St. Louis Cardinals, or the New York Yankees.

Including their historic ALCS comeback in 2004, the Sox are 23-7 in their last 30 postseason games. Toss out the 2005 Division Series sweep at the hands of the White Sox and Boston is 23-4 in tournament play since the embarrassing loss to the Yankees.

We have come to expect that good things will happen when it matters most. When the Sox get runners on first and third with no outs, a kid like Jed Lowrie will hit a sacrifice fly to make it 1-0. When Youkilis falls behind, 1 and 2, he's able to keep hitting foul balls until he gets a pitch he can handle, and then he doubles to left for a 2-0 lead. When the Rays get first and third with no outs, they fail to score. This is the way it's been for quite some time, and that's why it already feels like the Red Sox are going to the World Series.

Daisuke Matsuzaka (only the Dice Man could require 3 hours 25 minutes for a 2-0 victory) beat James Shields in Game 1. Boston's third best beat Tampa's best. The Sox have a game in the bank and now they have Josh Beckett and white-hot Jon Lester ready for Games 2 and 3. Could this be working out any better? No.

There was a moment in the eighth inning of Game 1 when it looked like Terry Francona might be going Grady on us. He let Dice-K start the eighth, which seemed like an odd decision given Matsuzaka's pitch count and his ability to implode. When Akinori Iwamura led off with a single, we expected Tito to come out with the hook. No. He let Dice-K face another batter. Naturally, there was another base hit.

Francona finally came out to get his pitcher, then watched Hideki Okajima go to 3 and 0 on Carlos Peña. It could have been a disaster, but Peña swung at a 3-0 pitch and flied harmlessly to right. Then the manager summoned 23-year-old Justin Masterson, and the kid induced a double-play grounder off the bat of the likely AL Rookie of the Year, Evan Longoria.

"That's a huge situation and he executed exactly the way he's supposed to," said Francona.

On to the ninth. On to Jonathan Papelbon and a 1-2-3 ninth. On to the World Series. At least that's the way it feels.

"You can't get too down about it," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "It is one game at a time and that is so pertinent regarding playoff situations."

Somebody's got to stand up to the Red Sox and right now it doesn't feel like the Rays can do it. They had everything going for them last night and they came up short time and again. The Red Sox are 4-1 in this postseason and it feels just the way it felt when they went on unstoppable runs in October of '04 and again last year.

Fans were pouring out of The Trop when Papelbon retired Cliff Floyd for the second out of the ninth. This was a two-run game and it was the first ALCS game in franchise history.

But they knew. They knew there was no way the Rays were going to rally against Papelbon. And their lack of faith was validated when Dioner Navarro struck out swinging to end the game this morning, four minutes after midnight. This series is only one game old and already the Tampa Bay fans know the pain felt by those folks in Orange County.

The Sox have a way of demoralizing the teams and towns they are playing at this time of year. It happened in Anaheim, Cleveland, and Colorado last year. Now it's happening again. It's only one game and already it feels like the Red Sox are going back to the World Series.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

American League Championship Series
Series Overview
1
wins
3
FROM TODAY'S GLOBE
ALCS ESSENTIALS
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