ST. LOUIS -- Thirty-one thousand, four hundred and fifty-eight days passed without a Red Sox championship after Boston won the 1918 World Series. But the 31,459th day -- well, that turned out much, much differently.
Free of 86 years of despair and disappointment, haunted by names like Buckner and Bucky and Boone, Red Sox fans may not know quite how to react, now that they are the patrons of World Series champions. But the Red Sox players were not so conflicted tonight, as they closed out a 3-0 victory in Game 4 of the World Series and a sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Edgar Renteria hit a chopper back to Boston closer Keith Foulke for the 27th out, and after Foulke ran a few steps toward first base, he flipped the ball underhand to first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, and a throng of Red Sox players raced onto the field, making the journey that Ted Williams and Johnny Pesky and Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice and Roger Clemens and Bill Buckner and Mo Vaughn and Nomar Garciaparra never made.
Foulke turned and launched himself into the arms of catcher Jason Varitek, and then the whole Red Sox team mobbed them on the foul line between home plate and first base. Pokey Reese launching himself onto the pile, like he was throwing himself onto a mosh pit, and other players joined in, Manny Ramirez hugging Orlando Cabrera and Curt Schilling embracing Johnny Damon, manager Terry Francona going from player to player. None of them will ever have to pay for a meal in Boston again; neither will their grandchildren.
They drenched each other in champagne in the clubhouse, most of them escaping to intermittently share the joy with a crowd of about 3,000 Red Sox fans that had stayed to join in the celebration. Gabe Kapler, the Boston right fielder, walked out into the middle of the field, his T-shirt soaking wet, carrying a Champagne bottle in his left hand and speaking into a cell phone in his right hand. Ramirez, the Most Valuable Player of the World Series, beamed. "We did it -- world champs," he said.
Said Schilling: "I'm so proud of being a part of the greatest Red Sox team in history."
"I'm sure there are a lot of people dancing in the streets," said Francona, "and for that, I'm thrilled."
Eleven days ago, the recurring dream seemed dead. Red Sox trailed the Yankees three games to none in the AL Championship Series, and they were all but finished, again -- before closing the postseason with eight consecutive victories.
The Red Sox never trailed in this series, becoming only the fourth team in major-league history to win a World Series in that manner (the '63 Dodgers, '66 Orioles, '89 Athletics), and that reflected their absolute domination of this series. They shut down the powerful St. Louis offense, outscoring the Cardinals 24-12, and when the Red Sox batted, their hitters controlled the strike zone, dictated the ball-strike counts. The St. Louis pitchers would throw 679 pitches in this series, and of those, the Red Sox swung and missed only 37 times; the Cardinals' starting pitchers produced only 17 missed swings in 369 pitches.
The competition was completely one-sided, and after Game 3, St. Louis manager Tony La Russa had mentioned that, in an odd sort of way, the Cardinals' predicament simplified everything for Game 4 and beyond: They had to win. There was no margin for error, no fussing around; La Russa almost sounded liberated. The Red Sox had different thoughts, Ramirez speaking to teammates about what happened in the ALCS. "Hey, let's go," Ramirez told teammates. "Don't let these guys breathe."
So La Russa sent Jason Marquis to the mound, looking for that win, and on the fourth pitch of the game, Boston leadoff hitter Johnny Damon slammed a home run over the right-center field wall. The energy in Busch Stadium evaporated.
The Red Sox would quickly add to that lead; this is what great teams do. Manny Ramirez pulled a ground single through the hole between short and third with one out in the third, before David Ortiz drove a double into the right field corner; Ramirez stopped at third. The Cardinals played their infield back, with Varitek coming to bat, preparing to concede another run to the Red Sox. But when Varitek mashed a hard grounder to first, Albert Pujols quickly threw to home to cut down Ramirez, for the second out of the inning.
The Red Sox still had runners at first and third, but there were two out and Marquis seemed to have a clear path leading out of a potentially destructive inning. Marquis then worked carefully around Bill Mueller, who came into the game hitting .500 in the series, falling behind in the count and then refusing to give him anything to hack at -- and a walk loaded the bases. Trot Nixon was coming to bat.
Marquis had problems with the strike zone interpretation of home plate umpire Chuck Meriwether for much of the game, pausing in his follow-through after some pitches, waiting for Meriwether to call strikes. He threw an offspeed pitch to Nixon, low and away -- Ball one. Then he threw a fastball, over the middle but down -- Ball 2. Now Marquis was in trouble, because he had to throw a strike on a night when he was having trouble throwing strikes, and that meant that he and Nixon both knew he was going to have throw a fastball. Marquis stepped onto the rubber, looked in for a sign, then stepped off the rubber. As long as he was holding the ball, nothing bad would happen.
Eventually, Marquis was ready to throw his next pitch -- too low -- Ball 3. Now Marquis was completely boxed in, the bases loaded. Nixon stepped out and glanced at third base coach Dale Sveum, looking to see if had the green light to swing, or if he would be given the order to take a pitch. Then Nixon stepped into the batter's box, and he appeared to cheat forward just a bit, moving a little closer to the plate, leaning over the outside corner, where Marquis had thrown most of his fastballs. Nixon bent at the knees, coiled.
Marquis flipped a fastball over the outside lane; Nixon hit it broadside, crushing a line drive toward the fans seated in the stands beyond right-center field. As the ball thumped halfway up the padded wall, Ortiz scored, and then Varitek, Mueller stopping at third. Boston had a 3-0 lead. It felt like 30-0, considering how the Red Sox were dominating the Cardinals, considering how Derek Lowe was throwing.
Most starting pitchers turn into mound monks on the days they pitch, hiding in a mental cave someplace and preparing in isolation. Lowe sat in the Red Sox dugout before the game, his hat turned backward, and he chatted up reporters and teammates and anybody who happened to walk by. Of all the Red Sox redemptions that occurred in the last 11 days, his might be the most striking: Initially passed over the playoff rotation because of his terrible finish to the regular season, Lowe had been outwardly unhappy, and there was every reason to think he would continue to be an October outcast.
But Schilling's injury in Game 1 of the AL Championship Series and the rainout forced Francona to use Lowe in Game 4, and then Game 7; he would win the latter, controlling the Yankees' hitters, and with his confidence at high tide, he attacked the St. Louis hitters.
He would face 15 batters before reaching a three-ball count on any hitter, and his inning by inning pitch count early in the game looked like something you'd see at a gymnastics meet: 10, 10, 9, 9.
Lowe retired 13 consecutive batters, from the first inning into the fifth, and after Edgar Renteria doubled with one out in that inning, he struck out John Mabry -- who thought he had fouled the third strike and slammed his helmet after returning to the dugout -- and got Yadier Molina on a groundout.
He would throw seven innings, allow three hits, and when Lowe was told his night was over, just before the eighth, he and Pedro Martinez -- both eligible for free agency, and both winning pitchers in the last two games of this World Series -- met in an embrace in the dugout. "We're proud of him, and I'm happy that he had that much to do with it," Francona said of Lowe.
There would be many more embraces later, on the field and in the Champagne-drenched clubhouse, in Boston and in New England and throughout Red Sox Nation.
These words must be repeated slowly, to be believed: The Boston Red Sox are champions.