Young and the restless
Five youthful players powering Sox's postseason engine
ANAHEIM -- Sometimes lost amid those most familiar faces of October (Jason Varitek, David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett, Tim Wakefield et al) is a rather amazing thing that is going on with the Red Sox.
They've developed a culture where young players are not only given the opportunity to play key roles, but wind up shining.
In this 2008 postseason run, the Red Sox are counting heavily on five players who are 25 or younger, and have been in the Major Leagues for two seasons or less.
"It's just a testament to the organization in many respects," said rookie reliever Justin Masterson. "And to the faith of [manager Terry Francona] and the coaching staff, who continue to grind and make us who we are and help us to contribute and help us stay calm, cool and collected while we're doing it."
|Despite a core of veterans, the Red Sox are also counting on a crop of young players to help them in their quest to win back-to-back World Series championships.|
|25||Hit .438 in 2007 World Series||'05|
|24||2-0 with 0.00 ERA in 2 starts||'02|
|24||1-for-3, 1 R, 1 ER in debut||'05|
|23||Scoreless inning in debut||'06|
|25||Hero in '07 ALCS, World Series||'04|
Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (one year, 37 days of service time) is the igniter of the offense. When he gets on base, good things happen for the Red Sox.
Dustin Pedroia (two years, 41 days) was considered a spark at this time a year ago. Now? Many people think the diminutive second baseman is the Most Valuable Player of the Red Sox, if not the American League.
Jed Lowrie (111 days in the Majors) was projected as a September callup when the season started. But after Julio Lugo tore his left quad just before the All-Star break, Lowrie became the starting shortstop and Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein felt no need to go for a veteran at the July 31 Trade Deadline.
Masterson (108 days) swiftly converted from his natural role of starter to key setup man, helping the Red Sox fill a vital position. All the rubber-armed sinkerballer has done is play a big role in stabilizing the bullpen.
Then there is Jon Lester (two years, 75 days). After beating cancer in the winter following the 2006 season, the lefty has evolved into a front-line starting pitcher with nerves of steel.
Where would the Red Sox have been in Game 1 of this AL Division Series against the Angels without their successful youth? Lester pitched seven dazzling innings for the win. Francona showed no hesitation and calling on Masterson to protect a one-run lead in the eighth, and he did just that. And Ellsbury? All he did was make a sensational diving catch, smack three hits and steal two bases.
"I think we rely on each other," Pedroia said. "I think that helped us out last year and it's going to help us out this year."
There are a variety of factors in the instant success Boston's young players have had the last couple of years. One is all the research that went into who those players were before they became property of the Red Sox.
"In a market like Boston, you have to have the right type of personality," said Lowrie. "That goes back to what I said earlier about Theo's drafting. You have to draft not only good players, but people with strong personalities. It's something you have to credit to Theo and his group."
Red Sox Minor Leaguers aren't just drilled on what it takes to succeed in the Major Leagues. They are told what it takes to make it in the pressure-cooker that is Red Sox Nation.
"We've come through this organization," said Masterson. "Most of these young guys have started in lower levels and worked their way up. They're putting together a good program in order to make guys come up contribute."
Closer Jonathan Papelbon was the tone-setter for the group. In 2005, when Papelbon was thrust into the middle of a pennant race, he was one of precious few young players on a team that had won the World Series the year before.
Much like Masterson this year, Papelbon made that transition from starter to reliever in '05, and became the team's key setup man during crunch time.
Now, at the age of 27, Papelbon takes pride in watching other young players follow his path.
Where in other organizations veterans might have an insecurity when it comes to young players, Boston's established players have welcomed any and all players who can help the cause.
"You're expected to come here and produce and perform and be one of the guys," said Papelbon. "It's an atmosphere where it doesn't matter who you are. If you're 19 years old or 42 years old, you're here for one common goal, and everyone in this clubhouse kind of comes together and realizes that. We have fun with it. We come to work every day and we love it."
"That's the organization looking short-term and long-term," said Lowell. "We're in the position that we want to win now, but we also want to win for a lot of years. You have to do your scouting and develop your guys, and when they come up, have the confidence that they can contribute. Our scouting has done a great job if you look at the higher picks and how they've developed and come into the big leagues. That bodes well for this organization to be competitive for a lot of years."
Ellsbury had all of one month of Major League experience last October when Francona made him the starting center fielder in Game 6 of the AL Championship Series. Ellsbury played every game the rest of the way, and the Red Sox ran the table.
"I think the biggest thing was when I came up last year, it was the veterans showing the young guys, bringing them up, showing them the ropes, and showing them things, and that goes a long way," Ellsbury said. "They've done a tremendous job with that. The ultimate goal is winning, and Coco [Crisp], Mike Lowell, David Ortiz, they all helped me feel comfortable to a new situation."
The no-fear attitude of Boston's young players has become contagious.
"When we come to the park, we're ready to get the job done," said Lowrie.
If Francona expected anything less, he wouldn't put them in those crucial roles.
"That's one of the things we've talked to the young guys about a lot when they get here is understand how important these games are, and when the veterans see that [the young guys] care about winning, and maybe not calling home to mom and dad that I got in a game, it really goes a long way," Francona said. "And they seem to grasp that early on and I think our veterans do a good job of allowing them to fit in, trying to teach them the game. And our young kids do a very good job of having that youthful enthusiasm and showing respect to the veterans, it's a pretty good combination."
The Red Sox are hoping that for the second consecutive October, it will be a championship combination.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.