|© 2004 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.|
Renewed top of order saves Sox10/22/2004 6:11 PM ET
By Ian Browne / MLB.com
BOSTON -- They've thrived together all year long at the top of the order. So when Johnny Damon and Mark Bellhorn went into a simultaneous slump during the first five games of the American League Championship Series, they half-wondered if the next place they were going to go together was home.
"If Bellhorn and I didn't get heated up, we could be on the plane back to Florida today," said Damon.
Instead, Bellhorn broke out with a three-run homer in Game 6, then went deep again in Game 7. Damon? He merely carried the Red Sox in Game 7, belting two homers (including a grand slam) and driving in six runs.
The reservations back to Orlando -- the native-land for both players -- never had to be made, thanks in large part to their resurgence.
Florida is where they first hit in the same lineup. Back in the days of their youth in the Orlando area, they played on summer All-Star teams together. They were reunited during the 2001 season on the AL West-champion Oakland Athletics.
And this season, they became stalwart spark plugs in the Red Sox's lineup, setting up the prolific combination of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz.
Damon hit .304 with 123 runs, 20 homers and 94 RBIs. Right behind him was Bellhorn, scoring 93 runs, belting 17 homers and driving in 82 runs.
But, suddenly, they screeched to a halt against the Yankees. It seemed to start with Damon's nightmare performance in Game 1, when he was 0-for-4 with four strikeouts. Next thing you know, Bellhorn got himself in a serious funk, being moved to the ninth spot in the order by Game 4.
"I don't really know how to explain it, but when he's going, I kind of do my thing, too," said Bellhorn. "Maybe the guys are thinking a little more because he's on base and they're worried about his speed."
Or maybe, as Red Sox hitting coach Ron Jackson put it, "When Johnny Damon goes, we go. We've said that all year."
If Damon is the ignition, perhaps Bellhorn is the clutch. Ramirez and Ortiz are the guys who basically put the offense in full-throttle mode.
Damon wasn't surprised that Bellhorn stopped hitting as soon as he did in the ALCS.
"That's how it goes with a lot of No. 2 hitters. Every year of my career, the guy hitting behind me has always had his career year," Damon said. "I don't know what I've done or what not, but I know he feels a lot more comfortable when I'm on base. He knows there's a chance for me to run, there's more holes opening up out there. It just gives him a little more confidence. He also knows that I worked the pitcher enough to know the pitcher is worn out a little bit."
As much as they both struggled while the Sox dug that seemingly insurmountable 3-0 hole against the Yankees, they both had plenty of support.
While Damon clearly wasn't going to lose his spot in center field, Sox manager Terry Francona also didn't consider taking Bellhorn out of the lineup.
"It helps you relax when you have players that trust you and a manager that trusts you," said Bellhorn. "It builds your confidence and he's done that for me all year."
Damon had been in such a groove over the last four months of the season that he almost forgot what a slump felt like. As the hopes of the Red Sox hung in the balance, Damon worked extra hours in the cage with Jackson before Game 7 and rediscovered his stroke.
"I think I got quieter," said Damon. "I was really jumping out there and trying to hit the pitch before it got there. Then I just calmed myself down. I was taking a lot of first-pitch fastballs, getting behind in the count 0-1, 0-2. I got a little more aggressive, believed in myself a little bit more. The team kept saying, 'This is going to be your night, Game 7. You better show up tonight.' I made sure that happened."
The man hitting behind him was probably least surprised of all to see who the Game 7 hero was.
"I've seen him play enough, all the way back in high school," Bellhorn said. "He can do it all, from running to power to driving guys in. He's one of our leaders. Where he goes, we go."
On Saturday night, the Red Sox will go right back to Fenway Park for Game 1 of the World Series. If not for the late ALCS breakout of Boston's 1-2 tandem, that might not have been the case.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
Red Sox Homepage | MLB.com