Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Sunday, October 21, 2007

IT'S THE BIG TIME NOW

JOSH BECKETT STEPPED UP. CURT SCHILLING STEPPED UP. EVEN JD DREW STEPPED UP. NOW IT'S TIME FOR DICE-K TO DO THE SAME.

For a $70 million player to be benched in Games 1 and 5 of the ALCS -- in favor of a reserve player who'd been unconditionally released by the lowly Oakland A's late in the season -- was an indication of just how far JD Drew had fallen. Whatever meager shine was left on Drew's star had, by that point, completely faded. Simply put, the move indicated that Terry Francona had more faith in Bobby Kielty than in JD Drew.

To leave Drew sitting during two ever-so-crucial games made quite a statement. Francona had been Drew's biggest supporter all year long, standing by his right fielder through the worst of times, continuing to bat him fifth when everyone else knew that Mike Lowell was better suited for that role.

Drew was brought to Boston last winter -- along with other high-priced free agents Daisuke Matsuzaka and Julio Lugo -- not to finally supplant the Yankees and win the AL East, or even win the American League Championship Series, but to help the Red Sox win their seventh World Series in franchise history. Management had made it clear during Spring Training; nothing else would do.

But Drew struggled at the plate all year long and his dreadful season had seeped into the post-season. If not for the equally uninspired play of Coco Crisp, it may have cost him his place in the lineup for Game 6. But rookie sensation Jacoby Ellsbury took the place of Crisp instead, leaving Drew an opportunity for heroics. And with one swing of the bat Saturday night, in front of the fans who had desperately looked for a reason to love him all year long, Drew found redemption.

A homer would have been nice. A couple a RBI would have been nice. Anything to show that he had some grit, some desire, some passion -- that he had a pulse -- would have been great. But JD Drew went beyond all possible expectations and hit just the third Grand Slam in Red Sox post-season history.

Terry Francona's belief, encouragement, and patient support had finally paid off.

The grand moment gave Drew some respite from the heat and scrutiny he'd been facing all year long. And it also allowed him a moment of joy and recognition from the Fenway faithful; his first curtain call of the season.

Drew's emergence couldn't have come at a more opportune time for the Red Sox. He now has a five-game hitting streak in the post-season, and Saturday's 3-for-5 effort raised his average to .381 in the playoffs. The Red Sox will be better for it if his hot streak continues on Sunday night.

In Major League history, 65 teams have trailed a best-of-seven series three games to one; only ten have come back to win. The last was the 2004 Boston Red Sox. The 2007 Red Sox are hoping to become the 11th team to accomplish this improbable feat.

The Sox are vying for another World Series berth largely on the merits of Josh Beckett. Coming into Saturday night,, no other Sox starter had made it out of the fifth inning in the ALCS.

But Curt Schilling put an end to that with yet another masterful post-season performance that can be added to his illustrious resume. There is no better big-game pitcher in the modern era. Perhaps none ever. Schilling is now 10-2 in the post-season, and 4-0 in elimination games. In those do-or-die contests, the unflappable veteran has a paltry 1.37 ERA. When it's all on the line, Schilling performs as if he has ice water flowing through his veins. He should been nicknamed the "Iceman" long ago.

But pitching wasn't the Sox' only problem in the ALCS; other than the 2-5 hitters, no one else was producing and someone needed to step up. Drew responded by driving in five runs and scoring two himself. But he wasn't the only previously hibernating bottom of the order hitter to answer the call. Julio Lugo had two RBI and scored a run, and Jacoby Ellsbury also had an RBI and a run scored. The Sox desperately needed those contributions and got them in a critical game.

After hitting into three double plays in Game 2, the Red Sox hit into three more in Game 3. Things were so bad that the Sox had hit into a total of seven double plays in the first three games, the most ever by any team in the first three games of an LCS. And JD Drew had been part of that incompetence. But by the time they had rolled into an LCS-record 11th double play in Game 6, Drew had already put a dagger into the heart of the Indians and such a statistic became a footnote in history made irrelevant by victory.

So now the Red Sox put their fortunes in the hands of Daisuke Matsuzaka, which should raise some concern. In his last 10 starts, including two in the postseason, Matsuzaka is just 2-5 with a 7.07 ERA.

But Matsuzaka now has his own chance at redemption. Though his inaugural season in Boston went better than Drew's, it was still a mixed bag. His problem has been an inability to consistently throw strikes, which has lead to high pitch counts early in his starts.

Case in point; Matsuzaka lasted just 4 2/3 innings in his Game 3 start at Cleveland, yet threw 101 pitches. It was not an isolated event but, rather, part of a trend. The Japanese rookie threw an average of 108.8 pithes per start this season, the most in the Majors.

But throwing strikes shouldn't be too much to expect from a pitcher who had 201 strikeouts in 204 2/3 innings this year. Matsuzaka needs to discover a sense of economy now. He needs to command his pitches and control the strike zone. He cannot issue walks and allow the speedy Cleveland hitters additional opportunities to get on base and potentially score.

Moments like this -- Game 7 of the ALCS -- are exactly why the Red Sox outbid every other Major League team for Matsuzaka's services. He is a high school legend in his native Japan. He's pitched in the Olympics. And he also pitched the clinching game of the World Baseball Classic, where he earned the MVP.

But this is the big time, arguably the biggest game he has ever pitched in. Yes, this is indeed the biggest game of his young life. The heat is on, and it is time for Matsuzaka to rise to the occasion, just as Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling, and now even JD Drew, have done before him.

And with that burden rides the Red Sox 2007 season. Their fate isn't entirely in one man's hands, however. The hitters must hit. The big guns always seem to show up, but the 6-9 hitters must continue to contribute tonight as they did in Game 6. And the fielders must play flawless defense in support of Matsuzaka.

That, in fact, may be the key to the game. Matsuzkaka needs to trust his defense and just throw strikes. Pound the strike zone and have faith that it will pay off with a trip to the World Series, Dice-K. That would silence your critics and be a fine way to conclude your first season in Boston, your first season in the Majors, your first season in the big time.

Good luck. We'll all be watching, and hoping, and rooting for you.


Copyright © 2007 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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