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Woulda Been: The ‘08 Sox

Matt ChapralesCorrespondent IOctober 22, 2008

Well it stomped and it growled after rising from the dead, made a valiant last stand on wounded hind legs … but in the end the mighty beast succumbed …

Four score minus one year ago, the Philadelphia Athletics erased an eight-run deficit to best the Cubs in the fourth game of the 1929 World Series. Almost 79 years to the date, because of what went down at Fenway Park in the fifth game of the 2008 ALCS, there are now two distinct returns to the Google search, “Red Sox greatest comeback in history”.

That, folks, is something to behold.

Face it, we were all doing something else by the middle of the seventh inning of Game 5. The TV might have been on, but the Sox were trailing by seven and the Rays had been cranking balls out of Fenway in a fashion unseen since a certain 19-8 thrashing that precipitated the other distinct return to that Google search.

The champs were cooked, and after another October rife with west coast start times and extra-inning heart-pounders, bleary Red Sox Nation was exhausted.

We had accepted — albeit begrudgingly — our fate. Just wasn’t going to happen this year. Papi was some combination of confused, frustrated (though he hates the word) and hurt. Lowell was done for the season. Ellsbury had lost it. Beckett was obviously pitching through a nearly or completely torn oblique muscle. Dice-K and Lester simply couldn’t shoulder all the weight being thrust upon them by Beckett. The old war horses, Varitek and Wakefield, were guaranteed disasters any time their number was called.

With seven outs before the final bell of the ‘08 season, in a seven-run — 7-0!! — game, the most promising post-title Red Sox campaign since pre-World War I was going up in smoke. Check that, was engulfed in flames. It was painful and angering to watch them go down like that, in their house, but understandable given the odds they faced.

Wasn’t our year…

Then, just as that notion was settling into the heads of Nationers far and wide, the Fenway magic found its way back. For everyone in the place, while it may have once again come out of nowhere, the disappearing act the Sox pulled was nothing new. It was the Rays who had little idea that the trick itself — the Red Sox making imminent defeat vanish — was an old habit of this team within the confines of this funky ballyard.

It began with Trot Nixon in 2003, when the Moneyball A’s couldn’t seal the deal in Game 3 of the ALDS, and Nixon made them pay with an 11th inning shot that helped prolong a season.

With that stroke and the formal reverse sweep that followed, a franchise whose losing had been nothing short of Shakespearean for 85 years established a new calling card: the Comeback card. It was a card the hardened Sox would play again in ‘04, with Ortiz, Schilling and Lowe leading the way to salvation. Then it reappeared in ‘07, this time in the form of Drew, Beckett, Pedroia and Papelbon.

That it happened once more was exhilarating for a city already looking ahead to the Celtics and utterly tragic for another wide-eyed and shell-shocked opponent. That Beckett channeled Schilling in a gutsy, palpably painful Game 6 (is there any other such thing for the Sox in the ALCS?) to force a winner-take-all (Red Sox translation: It’s already over) Game 7 is equal parts inspiring and unbelievable.

Let’s give credit where credit is due, though. Those upstart Rays, who likely believed the Devil had gotten back into them after Games 5 and 6, hunkered down and squared up this new incarnation of Red Sox mystique. They did what the Yankees and Indians could not. They stared down and defeated the incomprehensible force.

Wasn’t our year…

But wait. Had Game 5 gone by the wayside and the final entry in the ‘08 Red Sox log had read, “Swept three straight at Fenway, out in five in ALCS”, discontent would have briefly ruled the airwaves and journals in Beantown, but rational thought would have ultimately prevailed.

That’s not what happened though. Game 5 wasn’t the final fizzle of a fatigued, broken down and fragmented contingent. It turned into an epic display of resilience and a reassertion of an otherwise farcical and cliched mentality (”Never say die”) that desperate teams adopt in their darkest hour. The Sox, on the other hand, simply breathe life into the fiction. Since Nixon’s walkoff, they are 12-3 in elimination games.

In a town like Boston, second-guessing after a major sports loss is like familial beef during the holidays: No matter what, it’s gonna happen. The question is whether or not it’s unfounded.

Sure, questions about the makeup and drive of the team would have dominated had they gone out in a five-game whimper. Slowly, however, the masses would’ve realized that the climb out of a huge hole in a league championship series is actually less challenging than attempting to win in the ruthless month of October as a team in tatters.

Yet here we are, just a few million New England heartbeats removed from almost experiencing both.

Now there’s a cause for discontent. Between 2003 and this year, the Nation knows all too well how minute the difference can be between winning and losing a decisive game. Against the Yankees in 2003, the faithful will always rightfully believe that sure triumph was snatched away by a man who never picked up a bat and rarely touched the ball, save for when he was passing it from one pitcher to the next.

Versus the Rays, victory was just as close and it was taken just as unceremoniously. Except this time it was the general manager, not the manager, who made the strategic gaffe. And this time it was during the season, not at the climax of the penultimate series, that the fatal move was executed. You know where I’m going with this.

It must be pointed out that Manny Ramirez just completed the greatest individual postseason in the history of baseball. He reached base in 24 of his 36 at-bats, slugged four homers, knocked in 10 runs and compiled a 1.747 OPS. His .520 average, .667 on-base percentage and mind-blowing OPS were all records. (By my unofficial count there were 10 teams in 2008 whose top two hitters didn’t have a combined OPS of 1.747.)

Now I hate to break the news to you, but Manny didn’t do that because he hates Boston. He didn’t do it (solely) because he desires one last monster contract. He may have morphed into the puppet of Scott Boras off the field and to the media, but between the lines Manny will always be mashing Manny. He logged the most impressive October all-time because he’s maybe the greatest October hitter in the history of baseball.

Not coincidentally, his best work has come in the seven league championship series’ he’s participated in (.340/.451/12 homers/30 RBIs in 44 games), making him undeniably the greatest LCS hitter ever. And not surprisingly, the pennant round of the playoffs has been the deciding series of every significant Sox playoff run.

Second-guessing is second nature in Boston, so chew on this. In Game 7 the Red Sox were given a glimmer of hope down 3-1 in the top of the eighth inning when Jason Bartlett booted a grounder off the bat of Alex Cora. A Coco Crisp single and Dustin Pedroia fly out had runners on first and second with one out. Papi was up.

(One quick tangent: There’s no doubt Ortiz has physically been a shell of himself this year, but it’s impossible to quantify the psychological effect Manny’s absence has had on the man we used to call Senor Octubre. Think about it. Every time he stepped to the plate for the better part of six years, he saw in his periphery one of the three best right-handed hitters in the history of the game swinging a fungo bat and stretching out his guns. It wasn’t only the opposition mulling over this dire reality. Manny’s presence unequivocally fueled Papi. The alternative argument is who’s to say what a fully healthy Ortiz would have produced down the stretch and into the playoffs — sans Manny — but let’s be real. He would’ve stood a much greater chance if his bash brother was chilling in the on-deck circle waiting to pick him up when necessary.)

So just like ‘03 and ‘04, the fate of the Red Sox rested on the broad shoulders of David Ortiz. He grounded out. Youkilis walked. Drew struck out. And for all intents and purposes the season was finished.

Anyone who believes that Manny wouldn’t have smoked a screamer into the gap and won the pennant, or that Ortiz, feeling wholly confident and focused, wouldn’t have again assumed the role of hero has no sense of history. Or chemistry for that matter.

The claim in July was that Manny had poisoned the clubhouse chemistry, but we’ll never know for sure. It’s pretty obvious in hindsight that the vital Papi/Manny chemistry was unilaterally removed at the trade deadline, and conspicuously absent when Theo, the trio, Tito and the Nation needed it most.

Because of that there’s about to be another offseason of pondering what coulda, shoulda been in Boston had they held onto Mr. Mercurial.

Scratch that. What woulda been.

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