No ifs about it: season was a success
At times like these, history can be a refuge, if not necessarily a comfort. 3-1, or, I should say, 1-3, is not a good place to be. Holy Yastrzemski, were people around here actually taking a Red Sox Game 7 win for granted?
The 1967 Sox, the 1973 Celtics, and the 1982 Celtics all forced Game 7s after being down, 1-3. They all lost, and they all lost at home. And losing Game 7 in baseball makes the most sense because in this sport, one man can either spoil your day (Bob Gibson) or your evening (Matt Garza).
I sincerely hope you never thought for one millisecond that whatever happened in Fenway Park in the final three innings of Game 5 was going to have the slightest bearing on how Matt Garza would pitch three nights later in his own ballpark. The kid is a flat-out stud with no-hit potential every time he takes the mound. He was 11-9 this season because he still needs a bit more polish, but no one ever has doubted his stuff. The fact that he was selected over the very capable Andy Sonnanstine to be Joe Maddon's third starter tells you just how much the Rays skipper thinks of him.
He was capable of beating Jon Lester - of beating anybody, actually - and he did. End of story.
Of course, people are disappointed. There's nothing wrong with being disappointed. Winning three times in five years would have been nice. But that's as far as it should go. No one has a right to be angry. The team at Terry Francona's disposal for the 173d game of the season had pretty much maxed out, and a very strong case can be made that the Sox never should have been playing the Rays in the first place had the Angels not provided them with the proverbial early Yuletide gift.
Let us play the "if" game.
If, on the day the 2008 Boston Red Sox left spring training, someone had told you that Manny Ramírez would be traded; that Papi would miss 53 games; that Mike Lowell would miss 49 games; that Josh Beckett would win only 12 games and would have very few stretches when he'd look anything like the '07 Beckett; that Jed Lowrie would have to become the everyday shortstop; and that Clay Buchholz, far from building on that magical '07 September, would be a gruesome 2-9 with a 6.75 ERA, would you have settled for making the playoffs and then taking whatever came after that?
I believe the answer would have been Yes.
It's really the only rational way to look at things.
Now, it may still be difficult for some people to accept the fact that the Tampa Bay Rays are really this good, usually because they can't get past the $43 million payroll thing. Others simply cannot wrap their heads around the idea that a team could win 66 games one year and 97 the next.
It's very simple. The payroll is low because so many of the key players are young. Barring injury, they all will become wealthy in time. Keeping this team together will become an issue, but not in the short run, not when your wonderful third baseman is 23, your scary talented center fielder is 24, and all five members of your starting rotation will start the 2009 season between the ages of 24 and 27, and when they are backed up by a 23-year-old phenom named David Price.
As for the 31-win increase, the team needed a shortstop and it found one, and the team needed to shore up the bullpen and it did. It also helps if the farm system is delivering a 23-going-on-33-year-old third baseman.
Back on the home front, the Red Sox had yet another good year. Good, not great.
They had two viable MVP candidates, for starters. In just two years, Dustin Pedroia has carved out a special niche in this town. How could any baseball fan not fall in love with a sawed-off scrappy player who leads the league in hits and runs, who hits 54 doubles, and who hits .360 with 73 runs and 40 RBIs in the months of June, July, and August alone, and who is a legitimate Gold Glove candidate?
But I still think the team, and league, MVP was Kevin Youkilis. Given the prolonged absence of David Ortiz and Lowell, and the loss of Manny, he was the one constant source of power and stability in the middle of that lineup. Throw in the effortless way he moved from one corner of the diamond to the other and then factor in the value of finishing No. 2 in the American League in pitches per at-bat (behind Bobby Abreu), and I don't see how anyone else in the league was a better ballplayer in 2008.
The Red Sox have come to stand for something in baseball. Though it may not have felt like a great year, they finished first in the AL in on-base percentage, first in walks, second in runs, second in doubles, second in sacrifice flies, third in slugging, and even third in stolen bases. Given what they did not have this year, those numbers are a pretty good tribute to an organizational approach to the game of baseball.
They weren't too bad in the overall pitching department, either. They were first in shutouts, first in strikeouts, third in opponents batting average, and fourth in ERA. Jon Lester has developed into one of the best lefthanders in baseball, Daisuke Matsuzaka had an, um, interesting year, and if nothing else good came out of this year, I give you two words:
OK, what about Manny? Minds are made up. Either you accept the idea that a trade was necessary because management feared he'd quit on them, as he did in '06, or you don't. It hurt watching him have those two transcendent months for the Dodgers, but you should feel better now that he already has put them in his rearview mirror as he seeks his next employer, to whom I say, "caveat emptor." Manny only cares about Manny.
Finally, the Captain. In a better world, the Red Sox offer Jason Varitek one year, plus option, at $5 million. They tell him he's hitting ninth unless he does something to deserve better and that he will be pinch hit for when the occasion calls for it. Of course, he'll wind up with twice that. Scott Boras will find a way. Resolving this will be Theo Epstein's first order of business, I would imagine.
The sum and substance of it all is that this new era of Red Sox success is ongoing. This team took a lot of hits this year and still came within a game of the World Series. No team has accomplished more in this new century. Remember the "if" game.
See you in Fort Myers.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.