The Great Missed Opportunity caravan continues with my beloved Boston Red Sox. I figured the last one I did was for the Yankees. It is only fair that I do my team next.
As the Defending World Champions, it is hard for Red Sox fans to truly grumble about opportunities lost. After more 8 and a half decades of falling short, we have been treated to three titles in ten seasons. And near while Red Sox history has been littered with near misses, in retrospect they seemed like prologue. The victory of 2004 would not have been as sweet without all of the failures the preceded.
As per my own rules for the series, the Great Missed Opportunity can NOT be a pennant winner. The failure can not be a World Series coming up short. Ergo, 1946, 1967, 1975 and the grand daddy of them all, 1986 do not qualify.
The team has to be in the Wild Card era as well, so good bye 1948, 1949 and 1978 among others.
2003 seemed like an ideal candidate, with Grady Little letting Pedro pitch too long and Tim Wakefield (who would have been the ALCS MVP had the Red Sox won) serving up Aaron Boone’s homer. But as I stated above, 2003 merely set up a triumph a year later.
I considered 2005, where one single more win would have meant a Division Title and a chance to defend the World Championship at home against the Angels instead of on the road as a Wild Card against the White Sox. But no team was beating Chicago that year.
The great collapse of 2011 looked like the ideal candidate. It cost Terry Francona his job and the last month made everyone wonder if the Red Sox were back to their losing ways.
But like 2003, the pain of 2011 merely set up the euphoria of the 2013 title.
No, there is one year that still frustrates me. It may sound greedy, especially when you consider I can rank Red Sox World Series titles I have witnessed into Gold, Silver and Bronze. But 2008 was one that got away and could have made this incredible run even more remarkable.
The Red Sox were the defending World Champions, but this defense felt different. In 2005, there was a hangover of good will but also so major cosmetic changes to the team. Pedro and Lowe were gone. Schilling and Foulke were hurt. The deep pitching staff that won 2004 was not the same.
The 2008 team were bringing back the pitching staff intact. In fact with a full year from Lester, they looked stronger. Pedroia, Youkilis, Ortiz, Varitek and Lowell were all back. They were going to get a full season from Ellsbury. And J. D. Drew could only improve.
And of course there was Manny Ramirez and his contract. Everyone knew that Manny needed kid gloves, but maybe playing for a contract was what the team needed.
Plus the Yankees were reeling. Joe Torre was gone and replaced by Joe Girardi. The team looked old and injured and not much of a match for the Red Sox. And the season began according to script.
Daisuke Matsuzaka won the home opener and would go on to have his best season in the majors. He would go 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA, a big step up from his first season.
Terry Francona’s men went on a 12-1 streak at one point in April and opened up a 3 game lead. They had another 5 game winning streak in early May.
On May 19, Jon Lester threw a no hitter against the Kansas City Royals, a record fourth no no caught by Jason Varitek.
Another 7 game winning streak at the end of May made the Division look like a foregone conclusion. They were 7 1/2 games ahead of the reeling Yankees and cruising.
The problem was not the Yankees. The problem was a former punching bag.
From their first season in 1998 through 2007, Tampa Bay lived down to their name, a bottom feeding fish called a Devil Ray.
They were considered to be a joke, playing in a horrible stadium in a division with the Red Sox and Yankees. It was not considered to be fair that two powerhouses had 19 games each against essentially a minor league squad.
But a change of name to the Rays and with it gave Tampa unexpected hope. All those years of losing produced a fertile farm system. And to everyone’s amazement, they yielded a bounty all at once.
Despite the amazing start by Dice-K, Lester and the potent bats, the Red Sox fell into second place by the end of May to Tampa Bay of all teams. The two teams brawled in Fenway and clashed on and off the field.
Tampa Bay was a nice story, but nobody thought they could last the whole season against the World Champs.
Lester and Dice-K picked up the slack for Josh Beckett, who saw his numbers and effectiveness dip. J. D. Drew would be named the All Star Game MVP while Dustin Pedroia would eventually be named AL MVP for his all around play. Yet, save for a day or two, they remained in second place.
The Manny Ramirez situation came to a head when he pushed the traveling secretary to the ground over a ticket dispute. Soon after he sat out a Yankee series, obviously upset about his contract. Manny was no longer more productive than the headaches he was causing. At the trade deadline, he was shipped off to Los Angeles.
Manny found new life in LA who embraced him right away. His power numbers went through the roof and they witnessed the joy of Manny just as the Red Sox were saying good bye to the pain of him.
But the traded ended the off the field strife and Jason Bay, acquired in the deal from Pittsburgh, stepped right in. No he was not as dynamic as Manny, but he produced and gave the team a steady bat in the heart of the order.
The Red Sox marched on and with the Yankees falling out of contention, all they needed was for the upstart Rays to fade away.
On September 9th, the Red Sox were only 1/2 game behind Tampa when the two teams clashed in Fenway. Bay hit a 2 out, 2 run homer in the 8th to give the Red Sox the lead. Dan Johnson of Tampa homered to tie the game off of Jonathan Papelbon in the 9th who let up another run to give the Rays the lead and eventually the win.
On September 16th, the Red Sox and Rays were tied and facing off in St. Petersburg. Carlos Pena homered off of Josh Beckett in the 7th to tie it and Dioneer Navarro hit a walk off single to win it. Ultimately Tampa would win the Division and the Red Sox would have to settle for the Wild Card and face the 100 win Angels in the Division Series.
The Angels were swept by the Red Sox in 2004 and 2007 but felt that the 2008 team had the edge.
The Red Sox crushed those hopes early. Bay homered in Game 1 in Anaheim to help win the opener. J. D. Drew clubbed a 9th inning shot to take the second game.
Game 3 went into extra innings and the Red Sox nearly swept them again before the Angels hung on.
In Game 4, Lester pitched brilliantly but Torii Hunter tied the game in the 8th for the Angels. In the bottom of the 9th, Bay blooped a double and would come around and score as Jed Lowrie hit the walk off series clinching single. The defending Champs were back in the ALCS.
They would once again clash with Tampa Bay, who also won their Division Series in 4 against Chicago.
Matsuzaka kept the Rays hitless for the first 6 innings and the Red Sox won a tense pitchers duel 2-0. When Bay doubled home 2 runs in the first inning of Game 2, it looked like the Red Sox were going to finally dispatch Tampa and get back to the Series.
But Game 2 turned into a bizarre hitters game. No team seemed to be able to hold onto the lead. The Red Sox left runners in scoring position to end the first, fourth, fifth, sixth, ninth and eleventh. That would come back to haunt Boston as their potential 2-0 series lead went to a 1-1 split.
Back in Fenway, Tampa Bay’s bats erupted. Lester and Tim Wakefield were pounded in Games 3 and 4 as Boston lost 9-1 and 13-4. The Red Sox and their fans were stunned to see the Champs not only lose but so badly to the young and inexperienced Rays.
When the Rays jumped out to a 7-0 lead in Game 5, the mood turned to resignation. Somehow the Rays were just better. But then Ortiz launched a homer in the 7th and Drew did in the 8th. The 7-0 lead was cut to 7-6. With the Rays just 4 outs from the World Series, Coco Crisp fouled off pitch after pitch before tying the game with an 8th inning single.
In the 9th, a costly error set up a J. D. Drew walk off hit. The Red Sox had pulled off an unthinkable comeback.
The series returned to Tampa and Jason Varitek clubbed a homer giving Josh Beckett a 4-2 victory. There would be a Game 7.
Now the narrative was perfect. The Red Sox were down 3-1 and facing unthinkable odds. But wasn’t this just the Red Sox way? Under Francona, they had overcome a 3-1 ALCS hole just the year before against Cleveland. And many of the players remained from the 2004 squad who climbed back down 3-0 to Mariano Rivera and the Yankees.
This was almost old hat. And true to the script, Pedroia homered in the first and the Rays were down a run before they even came to bat and had to face Lester.
But Rays pitcher Matt Garza was up to the task and Boston could not rally against him again. Evan Longoria hit a 2 out double to tie the game in the 4th and Rocco Baldelli singled in the go ahead run in the 5th. When Willy Aybar homered in the 7th, Tampa’s lead extended to 3-1.
But an error in the 8th knocked out Garza and the much maligned Rays bullpen had to hold the lead. A heroic Red Sox rally leading them to the World Series was inevitable. Crisp singled to right putting the tying runs on with nobody out. Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell and Chad Bradford combined to get 2 outs but loaded the bases. Troy Percival, the Rays closer, was injured.
J. D. Drew, the hero of the Game 5 comeback was coming to the plate and Rays manager Joe Maddon was running out of reliable veterans to hand the ball to. So instead he gave it to a young newcomer. David Price was the #1 pick overall from Vanderbilt just the year before. He was on the roster mainly because Percival was hurt.
He had appeared in 9 regular season games above AA total including 5 in the majors. He also made two playoff appearances, winning game 2 in relief. Now he had the pennant in his hands.
The Red Sox stared down the likes of Mariano Rivera and CC Sabathia in their previous comebacks. What would this barely out of college guy do?
He struck out J. D. Drew on a 1-2 pitch. The Red Sox rally resulted in nothing. Zilch. The script was rewritten by someone who was barely a major leaguer.
Joe Maddon threw the book away and kept Price in to pitch the ninth.
He worked around a lead off walk to Jason Bay and clinched the pennant.
The Red Sox defense for the World Series was over. The Rays would play the Phillies and lose in 5 games.
As a Red Sox fan, this series still burns me. It is the only one that frustrates me, admittedly in a greedy manner.
But think of what that would have meant for the Red Sox legacy of the 2000’s.
There would have been three titles in a five year span. But back to back championships have eluded the team since the 1915 and 1916 squads won it all.
The word “Dynasty” would be used. The talk about how the Red Sox made a mistake trading Manny would have ended. Terry Francona would have a 3-0 comeback and two more 3-1 comebacks, helping cement a Hall of Fame resume.
People were saying then that the Red Sox were becoming the new Yankees. That was said as if it was an insult. As if being the team that wins all the time and emulating the very team we had been tormented by was somehow a bad thing.
The Yankees weren’t even a playoff team and the Red Sox had a chance to have a dynasty.
The next year the Yankees won it all and the Red Sox were swept out of the playoffs. Two years later the Francona years ended when Carl Crawford fell on his face. Josh Beckett, Jonathan Papelbon, J. D. Drew and Daisuke Matsuzaka left on bad terms. They would have been multiple World Champs.
Yes, they won this year and that was amazing. Maybe they will build a dynasty. But they almost had one. Perhaps it is greedy, but what a missed opportunity.