Sox poised for another fairy tale in Papi's last year
Boston has potential to clinch AL East at Yankee Stadium this week
By Hal Bodley
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Red Sox, fired up by the momentum of a late-season 11-game winning streak, will invade the Evil Empire's Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night, poised to clinch their first American League East title since 2013.
With visions of making 2016 another last-to-first chapter in their rich history, a fourth World Series championship in the past 13 seasons is the ultimate goal.
Nothing would be more fitting than to start that trek by winning the division title on the sacred turf at Yankee Stadium, where the Red Sox have won -- and lost -- so many crucial battles. The champagne would have a special taste.
In 2013, after coming in last the previous season, the Red Sox defeated the Cardinals to win baseball's top prize.
With a marvelous mix of veteran leadership and youthful zeal, the Red Sox have rebounded from back-to-back last-place finishes to become the hottest team in the AL this September. They've already clinched a playoff berth.
And this will be weighing heavily on the minds of the Yankees. Included in Boston's 11-game winning streak was its first four-game sweep of the Yanks at Fenway Park since 1990.
With Red Sox Nation fans outnumbering and outcheering the hometown Tampa Bay Rays faithful, Boston sent the AL's last-place team reeling, sweeping the three-game series over the weekend.
On a weekend when every swing, every appearance by the retiring and beloved David Ortiz was cheered, the Red Sox gave the Rays lessons on why winners win. Sunday's dramatic 3-2, 10-inning win was a fitting example.
The Rays struck out in 11 consecutive plate appearances and made 16 consecutive outs via strikeouts. Red Sox pitchers set a club record with 23 K's.
With the game tied at 2 with one out in the 10th and Dustin Pedroia on first, Ortiz sent a booming double to right-center. Pedroia, who'd homered in the third, raced around the bases as a relay throw to the plate beat him by 15 feet.
The All-Star second baseman made three amazing moves toward the plate as catcher Luke Maile took the throw to the right side and lunged toward the runner. Pedroia finally tried to swing all his momentum back to the plate, jumping over Maile, who tagged the inside of his leg, but allowed the ball to pop out of his glove for an error.
"I don't know what you want to call that," said Red Sox manager John Farrell. "Dance step, two-step, avoiding everything he could."
The night before, it was Pedroia who blasted a seventh-inning grand slam to give the Red Sox a come-from-behind 6-4 victory.
Returning to Yankee Sadium will be special for Ortiz, the 40-year-old designated hitter called Big Papi. He'll be honored by the Yankees during his final farewell tour stop. It was Larry Lucchino, the former Red Sox CEO/president, who nicknamed the Yankees the "Evil Empire" because of all the dreadful times the Red Sox endured against their archrival.
"It's always a pleasure going to New York, because the rivalry has been built up for years," Ortiz said. "The fans go home knowing they've watched a very professional baseball game. Competing in New York, playing in New York, is very special for me. The fans are very into it every inning. You have to be on the tips of your toes, because you want to make something happen.
"When I was a kid in the Domincan Republic, the Yankees were always very-well mentioned. We were so aware of it, because they were always on TV."
With a laugh, he added: "Then when Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez and I all played for the Red Sox, we changed that a little bit. We have more than 3 million Dominicans living in New York, so there's always that connection. I'm gratified they're going to honor me there."
Ortiz -- batting .321, with 37 homers and 124 RBIs entering play Tuesday -- said in Spring Training he had a good feeling about the potential of the 2016 Red Sox.
"I thought it was going do some special things," he said. "It's the same ballclub, but the young players have more experience, and that has made the difference. Whatever they learned last year, they come to the ballpark every day and put it in play."
Farrell, who led the Red Sox to their 2013 World Series title, is in his fourth season as their skipper and is a leading candidate for AL Manager of the Year Award. He's done a masterful job of blending youngsters with veterans, resurrecting the career of Hanley Ramirez, re-establishing a strong bullpen and guiding pitcher Rick Porcello to his 22-4, AL Cy Young Award-type season.
To Farrell, the difficult 2014 and '15 seasons helped mold this team.
"The closeness of this group is similar to that of 2013," Farrell said. "That's where we're able to draw energy from within late in games when we've got to make a push, or continue to grind away to get back in a game.
"That closeness has fostered itself the entire season. We have such a high number of guys who've been signed, developed and brought through our system, there's a tangible there that creates the closeness.
"We lived a couple of tough years that provided vital experience that is paying off for this young group."
Big Papi believes it's the team that surrounds him that has made his final season so successful and meaningful.
"I'm not just the center of the attention in the lineup. It's taken the pressure off me, and I've been able to take advantage of it," Ortiz said. "When you look at the numbers team-wise, they're ridiculous. What do we have? Four guys with 25 homers or more?"
"You don't see that every day. And seven guys in the lineup with 70 or more RBIs -- that's crazy," said Ortiz. "Even in 2004 when our offense was stupid crazy [and Boston won the World Series], we didn't have that type of numbers. Now our offense is coming from every different direction, every different angle."
With enthusiasm, Big Papi said, "Every year, I want to do something special for the fans. This year, a World Series would be perfect."
Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.