The Possible Dream?

Oct. 29, 2007
Oct. 29, 2007

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Oct. 29, 2007

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The Possible Dream?

The wait is finally over for the amazing Rockies, who, after enduring the longest-ever layoff between playoff series, face their most formidable opponent yet in the Red Sox. Behind Josh Beckett, the best postseason pitcher of his generation, Boston is in the midst of an October surge of its own

THE COLORADO ROCKIES spent the sixth of eight consecutive days off frolicking in the snow on Sunday in Denver, hardly the schedule or climate you would associate with the hottest team ever to reach the World Series. In an upside-down baseball world in which the Boston Red Sox have become the New York Yankees and just about anybody can go to the World Series—one third of the 30 franchises have done so in just the past six years—the Rockies entered the Fall Classic like no other club in history: riding a 21--1 run. Talk about your freak storms.

This is an article from the Oct. 29, 2007 issue

"I think there are a lot of words you could use to describe it," says Colorado ace Jeff Francis of the run. "I don't know if it's unprecedented, unbelievable ... I've thrown out ridiculous before. If you tell someone they have to win 21 out of 22 games to get to the World Series, you would probably count yourself out right at the beginning."

For the Rockies to get to the Series they needed not one but two of the greatest final-week collapses in baseball history (the New York Mets went 1--6 while the San Diego Padres lost their last three games despite holding a lead in all of them); a winning run in the final at bat of their 163rd game (even though the player who scored was called safe despite failing to touch home plate); and two fewer losses than the Denver Broncos over a 38-day span. Ridiculous? Even that description seems inadequate. In fact, only one team in history had close to this kind of end-of-season surge. The 1935 Chicago Cubs went 23--1 after Aug. 31 to win the NL pennant, but they lost their final two regular-season games, then bowed to the Detroit Tigers in the Series, four games to two.

The question being asked before this Fall Classic is one never before posed in the Rockies' 15-season history (unless you count the hundreds of millions they wasted on veteran free-agent pitchers in the pre-humidor days): Can anybody stop Colorado? Forget the Red Sox, who on Sunday defeated the Indians in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series 11--2. The answer just might be the Fox network. Says Boston general manager Theo Epstein, "We can hope all the off days slow them down."

Baseball has scheduled every World Series since 1991 to open on a Saturday. Fox, noting that Saturdays drew the smallest viewing audience, asked baseball to start this one on a Wednesday, which had the added benefit of lining up potential Games 6 and 7 for weeknights as well. Baseball agreed to the switch, which forced it to add three off days to the postseason calendar. With sweeps of the Philadelphia Phillies and the Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado earned its trip to the World Series with the maximum 15 days off in 22, including a record eight days of inactivity before the Fall Classic. Which raises another question: Are the Rockies too good for their own good?

Working around the occasional snowstorm, Colorado held simulated games at Coors Field to try to maintain its edge. Francis was scheduled to start the World Series opener on 13 days of rust, er, rest. "We were asked the same question when we had three days off in between the DS and the LCS, and it didn't seem to make too big of a difference for us," first baseman Todd Helton says. "So I think once the game starts, we'll be right back in the same mind-set that we have been the last three weeks."

Other than the phantom winning run scored by Matt Holliday in the wild-card tiebreaker game on Oct. 1, Colorado largely has dispensed with drama and oddity, building its streak on the kind of baseball that would serve well for an instructional video. The offense blends speed, power and a nice balance of lefthanded and righthanded hitting, but pitching and defense have carried the club. The staff ERA during the 22-game run is 2.80, with 10 pitchers getting wins, and only two of the runs allowed were unearned. The Rockies have trailed in just three of their 65 postseason innings.

"They're young, talented, athletic, have some pitchers we're not familiar with, and they can hit good fastballs with any team out there," Boston pitching coach John Farrell says. "Plus, like Cleveland, they have a bunch of players who came through the minor league system together so there is a lot of organizational pride there. We'll have our hands full."

THE RED SOX are hot in their own right, outscoring the Indians 30--5 to win the final three games of the ALCS. "It all started in Game 5 with Josh Beckett," Boston pitcher Curt Schilling says.

Beckett owns the best postseason ERA of any starting pitcher in history with at least 50 innings (1.78). He turned around the series with his 7--1 Game 5 win in which he struck out 11 over eight innings and, in a moment that typified his bravado, shouted down Kenny Lofton for flipping his bat after what the Indians' leftfielder thought was ball four. Lofton cursed back at Beckett, prompting both benches to clear, but the game proceeded without further incident, especially from the Cleveland offense. Beckett, who had barked at Lofton for a similar offense in 2005, does not so much pitch postseason games as much as he enforces them. "A lot of pitchers would want to do what Josh did there," Schilling says. "Josh just did it. He's a guy who never backs down from a challenge. In fact, he looks for a challenge."

Says Beckett, when asked about facing other teams' aces, "Nobody wants it more than me."

Beckett's personality calls to mind coarse sandpaper on a blackboard. Most of the time he could strip paint with his mug alone. Such a nasty streak serves Beckett well in his attention to his work. He takes his between-starts bullpen sessions so seriously, for instance, that he cranks his fastball into the mid-90s even then. And the Red Sox so admire his work ethic that manager Terry Francona has arranged to send the club's top two young starting pitchers, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester, to Beckett's Cotulla, Texas, home this winter to observe his workouts and model themselves after the young ace.

Though Beckett threw 109 pitches in Game 5, and though he has thrown a career-high 2232/3 innings, he told Francona he would pitch whenever he might be needed in Game 7. (If closer Jonathan Papelbon had been brought in in the seventh inning, Francona had Beckett lined up to close.) A 20-game winner, Beckett is peaking in October: a 3--0 record and a 1.17 ERA, with 26 strikeouts and only one walk in 23 innings. "If you could pick one guy—-among anybody in baseball—to start against a hot club like Colorado," Epstein says, "it would be Josh. Easy."

Not only must the Rockies see Beckett twice in the first five games, but they must also deal with the now-serendipitous culture of Fenway Park. After a history rooted in an expectation of doom, Red Sox Nation has gained Most Favored Nation status. Beginning with Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, Boston is 9--2 in postseason games at Fenway. Not since 1918 have Red Sox fans found themselves back in the World Series after a wait of only three years.

"They need to come up with a new definition of home field advantage to include the electricity generated at Fenway," Red Sox president Larry Lucchino says. "There's nothing like it. Certainly the younger generation of fans has come to expect good things, but we like to think we're retraining even the older fans about how they think about the Red Sox."

Said Indians third baseman Casey Blake after Game 7, "Sometimes you just can't stop those guys. You catch up to them, and they just take off again. It's such a deep lineup, especially in this park. One guy after another gives you quality at bats. Even [Dustin] Pedroia showed a little guy can come up and knock one out of the park."

Pedroia, generously listed at 5'9", salted away the clincher with a seventh-inning two-run bomb off the previously unsolvable Rafael Betancourt. This postseason the Red Sox are 5--1 at Fenway, while hitting .304, scoring seven runs per game and having nearly every carom, hop and bounce go their way.

Like Boston (56--31 at Fenway, postseason included), Colorado (54--31 at Coors) enjoys a decided advantage in its home park. And the Sox' game doesn't translate well to expansive Coors Field and the altitude. Among the Sox' concerns this weekend, when the Series shifts to Colorado, are leftfielder Manny Ramirez's having to patrol a much bigger area than at Fenway, fourth starter Tim Wakefield's becoming nearly useless because the thin air reduces movement on his knuckleball, and DH David Ortiz's having to play first base under NL rules, which will push hot-hitting Kevin Youkilis (.425, four homers in only 40 playoff at bats) to the bench.

Boston, though, does have the home field advantage and the hottest pitcher in the postseason, not to mention a swagger that comes from winning three elimination games while the Rockies were idle.

AFTER THE clincher, the hot-hitting Pedroia dashed into Francona's office to grab one of the manager's AL championship caps off his desk.

"Needed a different size," the second baseman explained.

"What? Women's petite?" the manager joked.

"Hey, go ask Betancourt about that whiplash I gave him," Pedroia cracked.

Across the clubhouse, infielder Alex Cora recalled comments by Cleveland's Ryan Garko, who, in a reference to the Indians' ALDS victory over the Yankees, said that the celebratory champagne tasted just as good on the road as at home. (Boston mistakenly—or perhaps intentionally—advanced the notion that Garko had made the statement after the Game 5 loss to Beckett.) The Red Sox posted the quote on the inside of their clubhouse door as inspiration before Game 6.

"He's wrong," Cora said to a small group of reporters. "The champagne tastes best at Fenway! Write that!"

So a World Series had acquired its narrative: a Red Sox team that expects to win and a Rockies team that doesn't know how to lose. Such concepts only a few years ago might've seemed, to borrow a word, ridiculous.

Among THE SOX' CONCERNS at Coors are Ortiz's (left) pushing Youkilis (center) to the bench and Ramirez's patrolling a much bigger field.
PHOTOPhotograph by Tim De FriscoVACATION'S OVER Holliday has been hot in October (four homers) but 15 days off out of 22 could have a cooling effect.PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERBECK, PLEASE Boston has ordered up a win in all three playoff starts from Beckett, who has fanned 26 while walking only one.PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHPHOTOSHAUN BEST/REUTERSPHOTOKEVIN C. COX/WIREIMAGE.COM