Red Sox overcome plenty of adversity
Boston hopes to ride grit, experience to repeat as champs
Believe it or not, Kevin Millar got his first inkling of what this unique season in Red Sox history would be like back in January, when he spoke to a New England legend.
"Tom Brady and I talked about this back in January, and he said this will be a tough year, because when you're trying to repeat, with dynasties and what the Patriots have done and what the Yankees did back in the day, it's tough because you're the hunted," said Millar. "You got to overcome some stuff throughout a season. I think we have."
From the first day of Spring Training, the Red Sox have.
That was when Curt Schilling came in hopeful, but unsure of how his surgically repaired right ankle would hold up over the course of a marathon season. And that was the day closer Keith Foulke, the other pitching hero from last October, had his physical, and it was discussed whether he should undergo surgery on his ailing left knee.
To make a long story short, Schilling's ankle was re-aggravated less than a month into the season. Foulke's knee hindered his effectiveness for three months before he finally had surgery that essentially finished him for the season.
So one of the remarkable stories of the 2005 baseball season is the Red Sox, and how they have managed to get back to the playoffs with an unusually inconsistent Schilling and Foulke gone altogether. Between those two right arms -- which the Red Sox rode to their first World Series in 86 years -- the team expected roughly 300 elite innings.
Instead, they got hardly any.
But here the Red Sox are, hoping to rely on their grit and their experience and, well, their Big Papi, to repeat as World Series champions.
It won't be easy. But nothing about this season has come free of scratching and clawing.
"This team has faced a lot of adversity this year, a lot," said catcher and captain Jason Varitek. "Every player in this clubhouse -- I don't think anybody has had a bone-dry, completely successful season. Even David [Ortiz] had his struggles early on. There's parts of the game you have to grind through and keep busting your butt and getting through it. Maybe make a diving play or move the runner, whatever that is in those tough times."
In retrospect, by the time the 2004 postseason arrived, the Red Sox were a juggernaut. They had Schilling and Pedro Martinez providing a 1-2 punch atop the rotation. They had Foulke pitching the best baseball of his career. They had a loaded bench, led by speedster Dave Roberts.
This year, the script couldn't be any different. But what the Sox do have is an Ortiz even more fearsome than a year ago. They still have perennial RBI machine Manny Ramirez. They still have the ignitor at the top of the lineup in center fielder Johnny Damon.
Mark Bellhorn was jettisoned after a horrific first half, and Tony Graffanino and Alex Cora immediately stabilized the situation at second base. Bill Mueller -- Billy Ballgame to his teammates -- has again been a rock at the hot corner.
Where would the Red Sox be without Varitek, who prepares his pitching staff perhaps more dutifully than any catcher in the game?
The oldest of Major League Baseball's 30 venues, historic Fenway Park -- which opened in 1912 -- is ready to host postseason baseball for the 16th time.
For the past three years, the Red Sox have been a dominant team at Fenway Park, using the yard's quirky dimensions to their advantage.
"I think we have guys who really take advantage of the Monster out there," said Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon. "I think just the fans and the attitude that they bring to the ballpark ... we go out there and expect to win."
In 2004, the Red Sox did just that, winning the World Series. To back them in that quest, they went 5-1 at Fenway Park during the postseason.
Boston has sold out every home game (regular season and playoffs) since May 15, 2003.
New ownership has revamped the stadium with several improvements over the last three seasons, most notably the highly coveted seats atop the Monster and the roof seats above the façade in right field.
There are several things that make Fenway unique, such as the 37-foot tall Monster hovering 310 feet from home plate, the 302-foot hook to the Pesky Pole in right field, the triangle at the 420-foot mark in right-center, and the strikingly little amount of foul territory.
But the dimensions aren't the only thing that make Fenway a daunting place for the opposing team. Fenway fans are among the most rabid and knowledgeable in the game, providing electricity from the first pitch to the last.
Unless a game is completely out of hand -- as in a double-digit difference in the score -- the park remains full for all nine innings.
Wakefield, with his knuckleball every fifth day, and Timlin, with his nasty sinker seemingly every day, kept the pitching staff functional enough to compete. Matt Clement gave the Red Sox a big boost in the first half, making his first All-Star team. David Wells was big during the middle months and gives the team that much-needed pitcher who thrives in big games.
"We've grinded this year out," said Millar. "I think that's the kind of club we have anyways, more so now. Foulke goes down. We've had Schilling injured. We had Johnny Damon injured at times. We had Wade Miller battling back at times. The Yankees have had the same thing. That's what makes it a grind. That's what kind of guys we have. That's the kind of makeup we have in this clubhouse."
At times this season, Boston rode its offense. But when the bats sputtered in September, so did the Red Sox for a while.
But it seemed that whenever they truly needed a win, they got one. And that's why they're going back to the postseason for the third year in a row.
Despite all the physical adversity the Red Sox have been forced to overcome, manager Terry Francona sensed mental toughness right from the start of the season. And without all of it, it's doubtful Boston would be back in the playoffs.
"I thought last year, in the middle of the year, we were just kind of going. We couldn't get going. Then we got real hot," said Francona. "This year, there were reasons. But we kept fighting and kept winning some games that maybe we shouldn't have won. At times, we weren't as good a team because we had missing pieces. But I really liked the way we played. I thought we came together more as a team earlier than we did last year."
But last year's team clicked and played lights-out baseball when it counted the most, during that month of October. This year's group will try to do the same thing, even if they don't have as many pieces.
"It's a lot of the same team from last year, and a lot of the same lineup," Millar said. "Sure we're without our second baseman and our shortstop, but we have the same amount of guts."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.