When the pressure mounts in October, one play can turn a series on a dime and swing momentum to a team that seemed doomed moments earlier. "The Steal" in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS and "The $14 Million Grand Slam" in Game 6 of the 2007 ALCS propelled the Red Sox on winning streaks that brought Boston its first title since 1918 and a second just three years later.
Assuming the Red Sox rise above their AL East competition and reach the playoffs this season, they'll need a similar boost to win it all again.
Baseball in October is unpredictable — sometimes the best team is the last one standing, but often an underdog takes advantage of the small sample size and goes all the way. The 2010 Red Sox may not be as talented on paper as the Yankees or Phillies, and they must answer questions about the lack of pop in their lineup and the health and consistency at the back of their rotation. In the playoffs, a hot hitter or two might allay the concerns, but a dazzling performance from an unheralded pitcher also could make the difference.
Rewind to 2006, when the Cardinals snuck into the playoffs by winning the NL Central division despite a mediocre record of 83-78. Tony La Russa's squad was overlooked that October, as experts almost universally predicted that the pennant was out of the Redbirds' reach and a world championship was an outlandish afterthought. Yet the Cardinals beat the Padres (despite Dave Roberts' roster presence) in the NLDS, took down the powerhouse Mets in the NLCS, and made the heavily favored Tigers look silly in the World Series.
How did they do it? Having Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter certainly didn't hurt, but it was defensive mastermind Yadier Molina (who hit just .214 with a .595 OPS during the regular season), Anthony Reyes(an unlikely Game 1 starter with just six career victories) and Adam Wainwright (a 24-year-old rookie thrust into the closer role) who keyed the postseason run.
Molina hit .308 in the NLDS, smacked the game-winning, two-run homer in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the NLCS, and hit .412 in the World Series. Reyes shocked the world by retiring 17 consecutive Tigers in a phenomenal eight-inning, two-run outing to give St. Louis a 1-0 edge. And Wainwright closed out the clinching game of each series, hurling 9 2/3 shutout innings and striking out 15 batters, including Carlos Beltran with the bases loaded in the bottom of the aforementioned ninth as the Mets made their final stand.
The problem, though, is that while these surprise performances are necessary, they are nearly impossible to forecast. Who could have thought that a stolen base would turn the tide for the 2004 Red Sox, who managed just 68 swipes during the regular season and succeeded on only 69 percent of their attempts? Similarly, how could anyone have predicted that an oft-criticized player who had hit just .198 in his career with the bases loaded would come through with the third postseason grand slam in franchise history?
Perhaps one of Boston?s offseason additions — Mike Cameron, Adrian Beltre or Marco Scutaro — will follow in Drew's footsteps and get the Red Sox rolling in the playoffs. Or maybe Clay Buchholz will mature into a big-time pitcher who thrives in the spotlight, giving the Red Sox a parade of four aces that proves unbeatable in a best-of-seven series.
Only time will tell, but the Red Sox have both history and experience on their side. Theo Epstein has retained a number of players from the 2007 championship team, and added others, like John Lackey — who won the clinching Game 7 of the 2002 World Series as a rookie — that have a resume of coming up big when the situation calls for it.
Any one of them could join Roberts and Drew in Red Sox lore, if the duck boats are sent sailing through the Back Bay this November.
From now until Opening Day, NESN.com will run down 25 things that need to happen for the Red Sox to win the World Series.??
April 3: Find a way to avoid team slumps.