ANAHEIM, Calif. — Tonight, the Red Sox will attempt to do something that has not been done since the very early morning of Nov. 2, 2001. Shortly after midnight, Byung-Hyun Kim submarined a meatball toward Scott Brosius, who clobbered a walkoff home run to left field. The New York Yankees had defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 5 of the 2001 World Series.
And the defending World Series champions had won a playoff game. It hasn’t happened since.
The Yankees lost the final two in Arizona, and the six succeeding World Series champions either couldn’t make it out of the regular season or crumbled quickly in the playoffs. A quick overview:
- 2002 Arizona Diamondbacks: 98-64 — first in NL West; swept by the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS by the combined score of 20-6.
- 2003 Anaheim Angels: 77-85 — third in AL West.
- 2004 Florida Marlins: 83-79 — third in NL East.
- 2005 Boston Red Sox: 95-67 — second in AL East; swept in first round by the Chicago White Sox by acombined score of 24-9.
- 2006 Chicago White Sox: 90-72 — third in AL Central.
- 2007 St. Louis Cardinals: 78-84 — third in NL Central.
- 2008 Boston Red Sox: 95-67 — second in AL East; playing the Los Angeles Angels.
(Maybe the most interesting thing on this list — and something I just now noticed –is that the Red Sox’ record this year is identical to their regular-season record the last time they were defending a world championship.)
There are two ways to look at this in the context of the 2008 Red Sox. 1) They should be applauded for even making the playoffs — only two of the last six champions have done so. 2) They should be terrified — the strain of defending a title grinds a team so much it can hardly compete once the season ends.
The Red Sox, though, are significantly different than these other teams in one sense. This current group of Red Sox is not all that close to the team that swept the Colorado Rockies last year. It’s not even the team that entered late July grappling for a playoff spot.
The Red Sox don’t just seem like a different team. “We are a different team,” manager Terry Francona said. Once Jason Bay replaced Manny Ramirez, the Red Sox have played unencumbered by distractions, and they played much, much better. The Red Sox were 61-48 at the trade deadline. After the deal, they went 34-19. During that final stretch, the Sox played 35 of 53 games against teams that finished .500 or better.
A theory (and one the Red Sox would hope is true): When Ramirez left town, the malaise from or pressure of defending the World Series championship went with him. Whether that’s the case — or whether that matters — we’ll find out tonight.
Lackey vs. Lester. Only hours away.