10/22/07 1:24 AM ET
Red Sox's arms at a fever pitch
Boston wouldn't be Series-bound without Dice-K, Okajima
For the second time in four Octobers, the Red Sox have staged a magnificent American League Championship Series comeback. They had to win four straight in 2004 against the New York Yankees. They had to win three straight in 2007 against the Cleveland Indians.
It didn't get any easier, but the Red Sox were working with a wider talent pool this time. In this Game 7, the Red Sox had two Japanese pitchers. The Indians had none. The causal factors behind the Red Sox victory in this series may have been a bit more complex than that, but this was a portion of the reason for success.
It will take some doing to surpass the epic events of October 2004, but this year, to date, has taken on special qualities for the Olde Towne team. The Red Sox snapped the nine-year Yankees hold on the AL East title. Then they swept a very good Angels team in the Division Series. And then they came back from a 3-1 deficit against the only other team good enough to win 96 regular-season games.
That's a very imposing set of accomplishments, but the final verdict on this campaign will, of course, await the outcome of the World Series against the Colorado Rockies. The fact that the Rockies, World Series newcomers, are playing the Red Sox may come as a bit of a surprise, but the fact that Boston is here should surprise no one who has been paying even marginal attention.
The Red Sox led the American League in team ERA so they came to the postseason with strength in the most useful area of all. The pitching in this series was more than good enough, led by the splendid work of ALCS MVP Josh Beckett.
His Game 5 performance turned this series around, and solidified his growing status as a postseason ace of the first order. Then Curt Schilling, who had attained that status some time ago, was once again up to the task in Game 6.
It came down, as it classically will, to Game 7, and the Red Sox had to rely on Daisuke Matsuzaka, who twice previously in this postseason was unable to get out of the fifth inning. There was a school of thought that Matsuzaka was under even more pressure than usual, because he not only was carrying the hopes of the Red Sox, but also the banner of Japanese baseball. That's a load to bear, operating on behalf two Nations -- Red Sox and Japan.
But on Sunday night, Matsuzaka was more than up to the task. Before the Red Sox blew this game open in the late innings for an 11-2 margin, this was a matchup that required efficient pitching, and this time Matsuzaka got through the fifth, giving up just two runs, leaving with a lead, qualifying for the victory.
"I thought he pitched his heart out," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "I thought he gave us what he needed to."
Matsuzaka said that his teammates had assured him that he would get a chance to pitch a Game 7, even after the Red Sox had fallen behind, 3-1 in the series.
"I just wanted to respond as best I could to my teammates today," Matsuzaka said through an interpreter. "I just felt with the momentum we had going into the game, there was no way we were going to lose."
Following Matsuzaka came lefty reliever Hideki Okajima for two scoreless innings. He pitched five scoreless innings in this series, and an argument can be made that his work was even more integral to the Red Sox this season than that of Matsuzaka. In any case, the contributions of the Japanese pitchers have been essential to the success of this club this season. The internationalization of the game continues apace at Fenway.
Francona may have pushed a point by having Okajima begin a third inning, but when he gave up two singles, the strong right arm of closer Jonathan Papelbon quickly restored order. After that, it was more thunder from the Red Sox with the bats.
The offense this series was far more than the twosome of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, although Ramirez was a major factor with 10 RBIs. Kevin Youkilis hit .500, scored 10 runs, hit three homers, drove in seven runs and was completely indispensable. Dustin Pedroia slumped briefly, but was a key part of the comeback.
The remarkable comeback is becoming an October way of life for the Red Sox. "I think the veteran guys have kind of instilled belief in us," Pedroia said.
The Red Sox looked like a team that had enough belief for both a roster and a Nation. Over the last three games of this series, they outscored a good Cleveland team, 30-5. They stormed home with this series. They pitched, they hit, and, Julio Lugo aside, they made the key defensive plays.
They go to the World Series now on merit, and with all of Japan watching very closely. It is a solid combination, regardless of hemispheric affiliation.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.