How much sweeter for the Nation to contemplate only the second sweep in postseason history by the Red Sox, the first since perhaps the most beloved Sox team in the last 30 years, the Sox of Pudge and Yaz and Looie and Lynn and Evans swept the A's in the 1975 American League Championship Series, than to ponder the implications of the biggest blown lead ever by a home team in a playoff game in either league.
The reasons for this sweep went beyond the glory of David Ortiz's winning Monster shot off Jarrod Washburn in the 10th inning last night, or the self-destructive tendencies of a normally artful Angels team that gave away its last chance at victory when Chone Figgins halted, a la Lonnie Smith, at second base on Darin Erstad's double in the top of the ninth.
Superior starting pitching, an offense that scored no fewer than eight runs in each of the three games, a defense that allowed only one unearned run in three games while the Angels gave away six, a bullpen that cracked badly but did not break, and a bench that gives Terry Francona options other managers can only dream of, these were the elements that allowed the Sox to advance to the Final Four.
Vladimir Guerrero's grand slam off Mike Timlin, besides informing the local populace of his MVP worthiness, also served as a vivid reminder of the perils of this ride to the ultimate prize. It is far more difficult than it appeared during last night's celebration, when Johnny Damon commandeered a golf cart to take him to the postgame interview room, standing and flexing his muscles for photographers, while Ortiz rode shotgun, savoring yet another champagne moment in a career resurrected when scout Dave Jauss called from the Dominican Republic and assured the Sox brass that a player the Twins couldn't afford would make a nice fit here, and Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez lobbied on behalf of their friend.
No one with a straight face in the Sox office can pretend now to claim Ortiz would take on the oversized dimensions he has -- remember, this is a guy who was playing behind Jeremy Giambi a year ago last spring and was so frustrated that his agent was calling general manager Theo Epstein, falling just short of demanding a trade.
But little matter. The sweep of the Angels reinforces the widely held belief that the Epstein machine has assembled a team built to go deep into October, one that should be as formidable a foe for whatever teams lie ahead as it was for a team just two years removed from winning a World Series.
"These boys are winning the World Series, by the way," said Erstad, an Angel who possesses the kind of iron required of a champion. "That's the deepest team I've ever seen. They have every piece of the puzzle. I don't see anybody beating them."
The Sox' offense was relentless in wearing down the Angels' starters. Washburn lasted just 3 1/3 innings in Game 1, victim of a nightmarish fourth inning in which he was done in by Kevin Millar's two-run home run and a throwing error by Figgins, who was in the middle of so many Angel misdeeds in this series. Bartolo Colon fared a little better in Game 2, holding the Sox to three runs over six innings, but the first two innings taxed him so heavily -- he left the bases loaded in each inning but needed 56 pitches to do so -- that you suspect fatigue played its part in Jason Varitek's tying, two-run jolt in the sixth.
Last night's starter, Kelvim Escobar, was gone with one out in the fourth, with five runs in on five hits and five walks, and a 91-pitch yield that should have taken him much deeper into the night.
The Sox went down in order just three times last night, just eight times in 28 innings in the series. They put the leadoff man on in five of 10 innings last night, and scored in three of them, including a 10th inning that began with Damon's third hit of the night (he also walked). In the series, they put the leadoff man on 12 times. In eight of those innings, they scored. Ten different Sox players scored in this series, a startling number for only three games.
Meanwhile, each of the Sox' starters -- Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, and Bronson Arroyo -- took their games into the seventh inning. The Sox' bullpen had one disastrous inning, the seventh last night, when Mike Myers walked the only batter he faced and Timlin's magic of not allowing a run in October for the Sox ended first when he walked Erstad with the bases loaded, then when he gave up Guerrero's slam into the bullpen. But that was the only inning in which the Sox' pen allowed runs in 8 1/3 innings of work. Three relievers struck out hitters in the eighth inning in Game 2 with the game still in the balance, and last night Keith Foulke left the bases loaded in the ninth and Derek Lowe stranded runners on the corners in the 10th.
With the Yankees winning, 8-4, last night in the swing game in the Twins series, it looks as if the Sox will be headed back to the Bronx, with a chance for a breather before Armageddon redux. That's the bonus of winning last night and taking the Angels out in three.
"You can hear everybody yelling," Francona said, "but even more, we can set up our pitching. We can sit back and watch the game and prepare for the next series."
It's something the Sox have done ever since last Oct. 16.