BOSTON (AP)—Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima stood on the Fenway Park mound, posing for pictures with Boston general manager Theo Epstein, a Japanese flag and the American League championship trophy.
This is what these Red Sox rookies came halfway around the world for: the World Series.
Three years after ending its 86-year title drought, Boston completed another October comeback by overpowering the Cleveland Indians 11-2 Sunday night in Game 7 of the AL championship series.
Having rallied from a 3-1 deficit against Cleveland, the Red Sox now play the streaking Colorado Rockies starting Wednesday night in Boston.
This time, the Red Sox are bringing a bunch of guys who weren’t around for the fun when they won it all in 2004.
“We’ve never been through this. This is on the biggest stage,” said rookie second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who hit his first postseason homer and drove in five runs.
“We worked too hard all year long to have our season get cut short. Nobody wanted to go home, nobody wanted to say goodbye to everybody. So once we got that win in Cleveland, brought us back here, we started to believe.”
Matsuzaka pitched five solid innings, and Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon each threw two scoreless innings in relief. Boston also got some help by a key blunder by an Indians base coach when Cleveland trailed just 3-2 with a chance to tie the game.
“We won three games in a row and they won three in a row,” Indians manager Eric Wedge said. “I’m disappointed, obviously, we weren’t able to finish it off.”
After digging out of a 3-0 hole against the Yankees in the ’04 ALCS, the Red Sox needed three straight wins to advance this time. The Rockies, who have won 10 in a row and 21 of 22, will come back from a record eight days off.
“The Rockies are on a magical run and we are going to have our hands full. We’re going to try and represent the American League the best we can,” Epstein said. “We haven’t grown up any since ’04. That’s part of what keeps these guys so good. It keeps us all loose and we never stop believing.”
Colorado outscored Boston 20-5 in winning two of three during an interleague series at Fenway in June. The Red Sox did even better in winning the last three games against Indians, outscoring them 30-5 in that span.
While Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and ALCS MVP Josh Beckett helped the Red Sox win their 12th pennant, the Indians only added more misery to a city that hasn’t celebrated a World Series championship since 1948.
Cleveland was a double-play grounder from winning the crown at Florida in 1997. They appeared to take control of this series with three consecutive victories, but aces C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona couldn’t win a single game between them.
Jake Westbrook settled down to offer a solid outing in Game 7, and still the Indians came up short. They had a chance to tie it at 3 in the seventh inning, but third-base coach Joel Skinner mistakenly held up speedy Kenny Lofton as he rounded the bag.
With runners at the corners, Casey Blake grounded into an inning-ending double play.
Then, the Red Sox blew it open. Pedroia, who homered earlier, hit a three-run double and Kevin Youkilis launched a bottle rocket, a two-run drive off the giant Coke bottle above the Green Monster.
Jonathan Papelbon pitched two innings for the save, finishing things off when center fielder Coco Crisp raced back into the center-field triangle, crashing into the wall to catch Blake’s drive.
Crisp was still on the ground when Papelbon chucked his glove into the air and then waited, crouching, for catcher Jason Varitek to leap into his arms.
The Red Sox poured out of the dugout for their first playoff clinching celebration at home since the first round in 2004.
“The champagne tastes sweeter at home,” they chanted in the clubhouse later.
Twenty minutes after the last out, the ballpark still full, slugger David Ortiz walked onto the field carrying the AL trophy. He walked to the mound, held the prize up in the air for the crowd to see and then planted it on the ground like an explorer claiming new territory.
The ballpark hushed when Ortiz picked up a microphone to address the crowd, but bedlam returned when Papelbon reprised his Irish step dance from the regular-season clincher. Players took their turns posing for pictures with the trophy while their kids ran the bases.
“When things were not going well, we just took a deep breath. Young guys like Pedroia played a big part in this series,” Boston manager Terry Francona said. “It’s not over. We deserve a little bit tonight to celebrate. This is a special time and a special place, but it’s not over.”
Boston kept the bases busy early against Westbrook, but three double plays in the first four innings kept the Indians in the game while their starter settled down. The Red Sox scored once in each of the first three innings, and Matsuzaka retired the first eight batters he faced.
Cleveland cut the deficit to 3-2 through five, then had a chance to tie it in the seventh when Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo dropped Lofton’s seemingly harmless popup in shallow left. Lugo drifted back, tracking the ball with his glove in the air and holding off incoming left fielder Ramirez with his right hand.
But the shortstop let the ball bounce off his glove, and Lofton was safe on second.
Franklin Gutierrez hit a sharp grounder over third base that bounced off the photographer’s box in front of the grandstand and into shallow left. But Skinner held up both hands for the speedy Lofton, and the 40-year-old outfielder skidded to a stop.
Lofton looked back for the ball and, seeing it in no man’s land in shallow left, snapped his head back to stare at Skinner.
“The ball was behind me. It’s not my job. My job is to pick up the third base coach. He stopped me. I just got to do what he says. He’s the third base coach,” Lofton said.
Said Skinner: “The ball kicked off hard there and it’s hard to tell exactly where it is.”
“I’ve seen it bounce right back to the shortstop. When you have to make a decision and that’s what I did. The ball ended up a little deeper than I thought. But it was one out, runners at first and third. We were OK,” he said.
A star in big games throughout his career in Japan, Matsuzaka followed two sub-par playoff outings with his first American postseason victory. He allowed two runs on six hits in five innings, striking out three and walking none.
“I thought he pitched his heart out,” Francona said. “Those were some tough innings. He gave us what we needed.”
Fellow Japanese rookie Hideki Okajima pitched two innings of shutout ball. Papelbon closed, sending the sold-out Fenway into a frenzy.
Westbrook settled down after spotting Boston a 3-0 lead, retiring seven consecutive batters before Jacoby Ellsbury—another rookie—bounced a chopper through third baseman Blake for an error. After Lugo’s sacrifice bunt, Pedroia was up.
The diminutive second baseman, with eight major league homers to his credit, hit an 0-1 pitch into the first row of the Monster Seats to make it 5-2. He also doubled to clear the bases after Boston loaded them in the eighth against Rafael Betancourt.
Youkilis, who was a rookie when Boston won it all in ’04, followed with a two-run homer to make it 11-2.
Cleveland’s Game 4 starter, Paul Byrd, was forced to defend himself before the finale when the San Francisco Chronicle reported that he bought nearly $25,000 worth of human growth hormone and syringes from 2002-05. Byrd said he took HGH under a doctor’s prescription.
“I do not want the fans of Cleveland or honest, caring people to think that I cheated,” Byrd told a throng of reporters before the game. “Because I didn’t.”
Boston is 5-5 all-time in decisive Game 7s. … The Red Sox were already the only team to have rallied twice from a 3-1 deficit to win the LCS, in 1986 and ’04. It was the first winner-take-all in the baseball postseason since the 2006 NLCS. … Boston Game 4 starter Tim Wakefield was unavailable to come out of the bullpen.