SOX TO MAKE 4TH ALCS APPEARANCE IN 6 YEARS

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SOX TO MAKE 4TH ALCS APPEARANCE IN 6 YEARS
After it was all said and done, Jason Bay put it this way: "There are no superstars on this team, no egos. We all just get along."

Though that wasn't a direct jab at the man he replaced, one can't help but recognize that Manny Ramirez's departure changed the culture, changed the attitude and changed the demeanor of this team. And that is a critical distinction; this club is now the epitome of a team. There are no more prima donnas and no more me-first players.

Despite his awesome talent and breakout season, there could be no better example of that than the incredibly humble and deferential Jon Lester.

At this point, the lefty has to be considered the staff ace; he's earned the right and the distinction. Lester pitched seven shutout innings in the clinching game, surrendering just four hits and striking out four, while throwing 109 pitches. In his two ALDS starts, Lester, who won Game 1, pitched 14 innings without allowing an earned run. And in the 23 1/3 innings of his post-season career, Lester has allowed a measly three runs. That's flat out awesome. To top it off, he's now 12-1 at Fenway this season.

The Red Sox started rookie Jed Lowrie at shortstop in the ALDS, a position he inherited when Julio Lugo pulled his quadriceps. Lowrie was a revelation from the get-go. And once again, in the clinching game of the ALDS, the 24-year-old rose to the occasion and didn't disappoint. Stepping into the batter's box -- with two outs in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game -- Lowrie ignored the weight of the moment and lined the game-winning single into right field, scoring Jason Bay from second. Bay had arrived there on a ground-rule double.

That's right, two players who weren't even on the roster at the start of the season combined to win the game for the Red Sox in walk-off fashion.

The Red Sox suffered through a great assortment of injuries this season (15 different players did a total of 20 stints on the DL), and they filled the voids with a combination of rookies and veterans.

Aside from Lowrie, another rookie, Justin Maserson, made his playoff debut in the ALDS. However, his Game 4 outing wasn't pretty. After Hideki Okajima got two eighth inning outs and then surrendered a walk, he gave way to Masterson. The rookie quickly proceeded to walk an additional batter, throw a ball past Jason Varitek (who deserves his share of the blame -- it was ruled a wild pitch), and give up a two-out, two-run, game-tying single. The unseasoned pitcher -- who typically looks cool under pressure -- didn't look ready-for-prime-time on this night.

And aside from Bay, several other newcomers joined the Sox at various points this season and made their presence felt as well: Sean Casey, David Aardsma, Bartolo Colon, Paul Byrd, and Mark Kotsay (who made a couple of fantastic catches in the clinching game) all made key contributions in 2008.

The Red Sox will now make their fourth ALCS appearance in the last six years, a rather remarkable run that has resulted in two World Series Championships. At this point, the Sox are playing for history and a chance to be remembered as the first dynasty of the 21st Century. They are now 31-16 in October since the start of the millennium.

When it comes to experience, in this year's playoffs the Red Sox can't be beat.

On the other hand, the Tampa Bay Rays have that, "How did they get here?" quality. But make no mistake, the Rays were the real deal this year. A year after finishing with the worst record in the Majors, the Cinderella Story Rays finished two games ahead of the Sox and won their first-ever AL East crown this season. And in head-to-head competition this year, the Rays came out on top, 10-8.

But the Angels beat the Sox even more convincingly in the regular season, 8-1. Yet, as they quickly learned, that doesn't always matter in the post-season; especially against an experienced, veteran playoff team -- like the defending World Series Champions, the Boston Red Sox.

Copyright © 2008 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.
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