ANAHEIM, Calif. – Red Sox players call them "happy flights," a term that really needs no explanation. All too often in baseball, you play a game, you board a plane. The only question is whether it ends up being a satisfying travel day.
So here we are now, two games into the American League Division Series, and we must once again ask the question the Red Sox almost routinely inspire at this time of year: exactly where are they taking us now? The Sox won pivotal Game 2 of their American League Division Series over the Los Angeles Angels by a 7-5 score last night, a victory culminating in a tie-breaking, two-run home run by the resurrected J.D. Drew in the top of the ninth inning. By the time Drew's homer landed beyond the right center field wall, despite enough adversity to shake the earth, the Red Sox were one win away their fourth trip to the American League Championship Series in the last six years.
No matter how much you shuffle the deck with this team, the Sox keep coming up aces.
"I'm excited for Sunday," said third baseman Mike Lowell, who sat out this game with the expectation that he will return to the field tomorrow. "We have a great opportunity to clinch the series [at home]."
"It shows you how smart we are for starting Josh [Beckett] in Game 3," he mused.
Time to give Red Sox players some credit, folks. Amid all the love that is heaped upon Red Sox officials and administrators at this time of year, the players frequently get overlooked for making everyone else look good. Everyone from Drew to Jonathan Papelbon gets individual credit for fulfilling his role after another critical victory, but rarely do we stop to marvel at the collective focus and selflessness demonstrated by all Sox players in the months A.D. (After Dreadlocks.)
For Exhibit A, look no further than Kevin Youkilis, who this season has batted everywhere in the Boston lineup from first to seventh. Two nights after making what might have been a game-saving play at first base in the eighth inning of Game 1, Youkilis moved across the diamond last night and made a pair of stellar plays at third base in the ninth inning of Game 2. Mark Kotsay was at first base and Alex Cora was at shortstop, and we had to stop for a moment to see if Troy Brown was at second base.
"He's made that transition pretty easy going back and forth, and I don't think it's as easy as he makes it look," said Lowell. "And I think it's a big asset for us."
But really, why stop there? Kotsay was a Gold Glove-caliber outfielder at one point in his career, but he was instructed to bring his first baseman's mitt when he came to the Sox in August. He had not played there since 2006. Drew, Kotsay and Jacoby Ellsbury each can play all three outfield positions if necessary, and during the sometimes tumultuous summer months, Ellsbury actually did. Hideki Okajima warmed up in the seventh inning of Game 1 on Tuesday; he entered last night in the sixth. For the first time this season, Papelbon entered a game with nobody out in the eighth inning; he went six up, six down, and extended to 17 2/3 innings his postseason career without being charged with a run.
Oh, and did we mention the fact that Beckett's injury forced Jon Lester from Game 2 to Game 1, a change he embraced with the heretofore marquee performance of these entire American League playoffs?
Let's be honest. Players frequently say they will do anything to help a team win a game, but they don't always live up to their word. All too frequently, their egos get in the way. Offices all over America are littered with people with more selfish interests than the Red Sox, but we never hear about those because such wants are an expected part of everyday life.
Yet, when professional athletes display the same innately human flaws, we somehow see them as something different than a survival reflex.
Now along come these Red Sox, who have won nine straight postseason games and 13 of their last 16. When the Sox entered these playoffs, Lowell had a bad hip (still does), Drew had a sore back (still does) and Beckett had a strained right oblique. The Red Sox began defense of their title as a wild card rather than a division winner, offering further proof that very few of the details matter when you have a team that is both secure and single-minded.
"Collectively, as a group, I think we understand the situation very well -- better than every team I've ever been on," said Lowell. "I think there's a group hunger to [win] it again."
Of course, the Red Sox are still a long way from their ultimate destination today, but that is not the point. Prior to last night's game, Sox manager Terry Francona was asked about his run of success as a skipper, his place among the most respected managers in the game. Francona balked. His players subsequently went out and continued to play good baseball despite being shuttled around the diamond, which is a testament to them as much as it is anyone else.
"There's no way you win anything without good players," Francona said.
Even in baseball, you don't win without team players, either.
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