Historic postseason ends in ecstasy for Boston

Posted: Sunday, October 31, 2004

There was steely ace Curt Schilling standing steadfast on the mound, blood seeping through his sock like some scene out of ''The Natural.''

There was burly slugger David Ortiz jumping for joy into the arms of his teammates after yet another game-winning hit.

There were die-hard fans at Fenway Park, young and old, hands pressed in prayer, hoping against hope that this was finally the year.

No doubt about it, the Boston Red Sox produced a string of indelible images to savor this October, the symbols of an extraordinary postseason that ended in ecstasy all over New England.

''Our fans have waited all their lives for this,'' owner John Henry said Wednesday after his team swept the St. Louis Cardinals for its first World Series title since 1918.

But there was more than just the Red Sox. There were memorable moments from coast to coast throughout the postseason, players and teams making history night after night.

Start with the amazing Roger Clemens, because this might have been the last ride for the Rocket. At 42, he won twice in the playoffs for his hometown Houston Astros and had a sixth-inning lead in Game 7 of the NL championship series at Busch Stadium. But he gave up a go-ahead homer to St. Louis' Scott Rolen and wound up with a season-ending loss.

''You know there are so many people depending on this right arm to get it done,'' Clemens said. ''I really felt good about our chances. It just didn't work out.''

That could end up being Clemens' final outing on a major league mound, though he already came out of retirement once, before the 2004 season.

''I'll leave that for later,'' he said.

No one could forget Clemens' teammate, Carlos Beltran, carrying the Astros' offense. He tied a postseason record with eight homers, bringing them within one win of their first pennant.

Great timing, too the speedy center fielder just filed for free agency and will likely be pursued by several big spenders.

It was the biggest spenders of all who collapsed in the biggest choke job of all-time. The storied New York Yankees were only three outs from sweeping the rival Red Sox in the ALCS before becoming the first team in baseball history to blow a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven series.

After years of October dominance, Mariano Rivera suddenly looked vulnerable, squandering two save chances in Boston. Ortiz homered in the 12th inning to win Game 4, then singled in the 14th the next night, ending the longest game in postseason history at 5 hours, 49 minutes.

Exhausted, the teams returned to New York, where Schilling won Game 6 with his damaged ankle tendon stitched down thanks to an unprecedented medical procedure. Johnny Damon and Derek Lowe keyed a Game 7 blowout, and the jubilant Red Sox celebrated an improbable comeback right in the middle of Yankee Stadium.

''That hurts,'' said Alex Rodriguez, who rescued New York in the first round against Minnesota. ''I'm embarrassed.''

Hard to imagine it could ever happen to that fabled franchise, dubbed the Evil Empire by Boston president Larry Lucchino.

''All empires fall sooner or later,'' Lucchino said.

Yankees haters everywhere took delight right along with him.

Elsewhere, the Dodgers returned to the playoffs after a seven-year drought. They didn't last long, eliminated by St. Louis in four games, but Jose Lima pitched a shutout for Los Angeles' first postseason victory since 1988.

Vladimir Guerrero made quite a mark during his first trip to the playoffs, hitting a game-tying grand slam at Fenway. Alas, Ortiz's 10th-inning shot over the Green Monster knocked out Anaheim.

The Braves endured another October failure, blown out at home by Houston in Game 5 of the first round. After winning 13 consecutive division titles, they have but one World Series ring to show for it.

It was the fifth year in a row Atlanta's season ended with a playoff loss at home. For the third straight year, the end came in Game 5 of the division series.

No surprises there, but Boston's sweep of St. Louis was certainly a stunner. The hard-hitting Cardinals led the major leagues with 105 victories during the regular season, but they batted only .190 in the World Series and got little help from their starting pitchers.

''They outplayed us in every category, so it ended up not being a terrific competition,'' said manager Tony La Russa, who choked back tears after it was over.

No such sorrow in New England, only unabashed glee. After 86 years of pain and futility, the Red Sox became the first club in baseball history to win eight straight games in one postseason. They are the third consecutive wild-card team to win the World Series. And all those long-suffering fans got to celebrate in style with an enormous parade on Saturday.

''Sooner or later that hex had to stop,'' outfielder Trot Nixon said. ''Everybody thought it was a curse, but to use it was just a five-letter word.''

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