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Man on a mission: Getting to World Series game seven

I got the word on Sunday night. If game seven of the World Series is played at Fenway Park, I will have a pair of tickets to attend the game. For reasons that are not relevant, I had one choice to attend any of the nine potential post-season contests that (barring a collapse of mythic proportions) the wild-card-winning Red Sox would host, and I picked the game perhaps least likely to be played. But if it is ... you’ll find me in Section 17, Row 4, Seat 11, on the night of Sunday, October 26, watching the Sox attempt to complete Mission 11W(ins).

The idea of game seven of the World Series at Fenway Park is enough to send shudders down the spine of any Red Sox fan. It would, of course, be only the fifth time that Boston has played a World Series game seven in 85 years, and just the fourth game seven ever hosted since the park opened in 1912 (1912, 1967, 1975).

Even speculating about the Red Sox playing in the World Series is jumping ahead a little bit, as one would readily admit. Still, Red Sox Nation is slowly dismissing the track record of the past 85 years, and folks around here are already girding up for a lengthy playoff run — history be damned.

So before we return to reality, it’s a blissful fantasy for many to imagine Boston returning home after game five in [Atlanta/Chicago/Houston/Los Angeles/Miami/Philadelphia/San Francisco — take your pick] with the chance to close out the 2003 World Series on the home turf (thanks to Hank Blalock’s eighth-inning home run in the All-Star game, which clinched the win — and home-field in the Series — for the American League). Frankly, I cannot begin to imagine the frenzy that would overtake this town.

But once Sox fans separate themselves from that mystical daydream, the hard, cold reality of the present steps boldly through the door.

It bursts through the portal and reminds the faithful that every time in recent weeks Boston seems close to moving in for the kill by putting significant space between it and its nearest wild-card challenger, Seattle, a disheartening loss sets back the fervent hope and goodwill.

It started in the Bronx on the weekend of September 5, when the Sox rode in and dismantled the Yankees, 9-3 and 11-0, on consecutive days to close within a game and a half of the AL East lead. With the Nation at a fever pitch on Sunday, Jeff Suppan pitched an admirable game, but the inconsistent boor David Wells shut down the vaunted Sox offense on five hits and won, 3-1. A ridiculous 13-10 Sox defeat at Baltimore followed the next night, but Boston went on to take the next two before heading into a home weekend series against the White Sox.

Boston took the opener against Chicago, 7-4, once again lifting Sox fans’ hearts to red alert. But the next thing you knew, Bartolo Colon and Mark Buehrle limited the power rangers to just three runs over the course of the next two days, and the White Sox left town with the series victory.

Two quick victories at the Fens over the pitiful Devil Rays early last week again set fans’ hearts aflutter, but an ugly 7-0 loss on Wednesday — coupled with a Mariners victory in Texas — returned the gap to just a game and a half between the card contenders.

Still, optimism was rampant around here over this past weekend, as Seattle had to travel to division-leading Oakland while the Sox visited lowly Cleveland, a team that was 25th in the majors in hitting and 20 games out in the mediocre AL Central. Sure, Boston had bookend 2-0 shutouts over the weekend to take the series from the Tribe. But it was that middle contest that had hands wringing throughout New England, as perceived number-two starter Derek Lowe, entering the game with a 16-6 record and riding the crest of a 13-3 stretch, took the hill with a 4-1 lead in the bottom of the seventh.

What happened next was incomprehensible. The team with so much riding on the outcome of this game proceeded to surrender the following: home run, single, single, error, wild pitch, two-run double, (Scott Sauerbeck now relieving) fly out, intentional walk, unintentional walk, hit-by-pitch, two-run single. When the smoke cleared, Boston’s 4-1 advantage had turned into an 8-4 deficit. What to do? Change pitchers again. Enter Scott Williamson, and exit any hope. Pray thee, why? Try this eighth inning on for size, courtesy of Williamson and Brandon Lyon: groundout, double, wild pitch, walk, run-scoring double, strikeout, run-scoring single, wild pitch, walk, and two-run triple.

Heard enough? I thought so.

The 13-4 loss in Cleveland was doubly tough for Sox fans, especially with the news that Seattle had taken its second straight in Oakland, thereby closing the wild-card gap again to just a game and a half.

Why are we focusing on the negative so much, you ask? After all, Boston has taken eight of its last nine series heading into this week’s regular-season finales with Baltimore (four at home) and Tampa Bay (three on the road). You make an excellent point.

We take this tack because Red Sox fans know they have bigger fish to fry, and when the team struggles — however rarely — against the bottom-feeders of the American League with a post-season berth so close at hand, it makes those fans queasy.

They wonder:

• How can a team that leads in nearly every offensive category in the major leagues score just eight runs in three games against a dismal Indians team?

• How can their team actually get shut out at home by a Devil Rays team that is 25th in the major leagues in pitching and that boasts a payroll that is five times less than Boston’s?

• Why is it that when one Red Sox bullpen member struggles, all the subsequent relievers out of the pen seem to feel the need to follow suit and also submit dismal performances?

• Why is every appearance by supposed closer Byung-Hyun Kim such an adventure? Sox fans have a right to ask: is this the guy you want on the mound closing out game seven of the World Series? For that matter, is this the guy you want closing out any playoff game with a one-run lead?

• Should they be concerned about Nomar Garciaparra, who has batted .178 in September and has just two multi-hit games all month (totaling 18 games)? Should they be fretful about the wondrous David Ortiz, who since September 9 is just six-for-37 (.162) with one HR and four RBIs? How about Kevin Millar, who’s batting just .222 with a single HR in September?

Should Sox fans be concerned? Certainly, if they have higher aspirations for this team than just clinching the wild-card spot. Focusing on the negatives may contribute to the sky-is-falling mentality that so often afflicts the typical Boston baseball fan, but there’s nothing wrong with pointing out the deficiencies that this team must address if it does indeed expect to be playing in the ALCS or beyond. And as New England fans envision the star-crossed chain of events that could lead them to that ultimate game seven at Fenway Park, they must also consider the prospective roadblocks that may derail the journey.

Still, the team’s in a great position to reach the post-season and start again with a clean slate. Trailing the wild-card race by three games in the loss column with seven to play (entering Monday's action), Seattle’s down-the-stretch schedule includes a road series in once-proud Anaheim and a home series against not-yet-clinched Oakland, so it will be difficult for the travel-weary Mariners to make up the games necessary to catch and surpass the Red Sox, whose final stretch is infinitely less stressful. Certainly, there’s still the specter — alluded to in the September 15 column — of the A’s mailing it in this weekend if they’ve already clinched the division, thereby allowing Seattle to pick up three easy victories while the Sox struggle in Tampa.

That situation, though, may no longer be in Oakland’s best interest. A week ago, the prospect of drawing Minnesota instead of Boston in the first round of the playoffs was mighty tempting. Now, with the Twins playing red-hot ball (21-6 since August 23) behind a rejuvenated and re-established pitching staff, they may be the team that nobody wants to play in the post-season (and right now, the Pinstripers are on course to do exactly that in the division series).

It’s been a long four years since Boston was a legitimate playoff contender in the season’s final week, and the schedule that looms in these final seven days seems tailored to a team yearning for the opportunity to satiate its championship-starved fandom.

Are the Boston Red Sox a playoff team? It would appear so. Are they a team that can advance to the ALCS? To the World Series?

Just getting to the playoffs is the hard part. After that, it’s a roll of the dice, and for a change, the Sox and their fans will (more than likely) be along for the ride in the AL’s post-season. Still, it’s oddly haunting that this year’s World Series schedule is exactly the same as the one laid out in (gulp) 1986, with game six on Saturday, October 25 and the potential finale on Sunday, October 26 (rain date October 27).

My ticket to ride is punched for game seven — the last go-round of the season.

Next stop: Wonderland — or will it once again be Heartbreak City?

"Sporting Eye" runs Mondays and Fridays at BostonPhoenix.com. Christopher Young can be reached at cyoung@phx.com

Issue Date: September 22, 2003
"Sporting Eye" archives: 2003 |2002
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