On the three-year anniversary of the day they clinched their last World Series championship, the Red Sox put themselves on the verge of another taste of Major League Baseball's summit. This, after they pounced on the Rockies early, held on for dear life in the middle and put it away late. All of that en route to a thoroughly eventful 10-5 victory in Saturday night's Game 3 of the World Series at Coors Field.
Just like in 2004, the Red Sox are out to a 3-0 lead in the Fall Classic. And they'll try to end it every bit as quickly as they did three years ago, when they gave the St. Louis Cardinals the broom treatment.
Leave it to Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez to put the current state of affairs in proper perspective.
"We don't want to eat the cake first, before your birthday," said Ramirez. "We've got to wait and see what's going to happen [in Game 4]."
Per usual, the Red Sox weren't making early celebration plans.
"Go out and play [Sunday's] game," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "That's what is in our best interest -- is to play tomorrow's game and see how we do. That's what we always do: stay in the moment."
Creating a chance at another World Series sweep was anything but easy. After building a 6-0 lead by the top of the third inning, the Red Sox had to withstand a furious comeback by the Rockies. When Matt Holliday clocked a three-run homer over the wall in center against Hideki Okajima with nobody out in the bottom of the seventh, Boston's once-commanding lead was down to a precious run. Okajima settled down and got through the rest of the inning unscathed, helping to preserve the win for fellow Japanese rookie Daisuke Matsuzaka.
"Oki has been great for us all year," said Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. "I don't think he lets previous at-bats change his focus and change his approach. He goes after hitters and did a great job again today. After that big home run, we just needed to get out of the inning with the lead and see if we can tack on a few more."
Tack, they did. In a key top of the eighth for the Sox, two rookies delivered big hits in succession. First, it was Jacoby Ellsbury (4-for-5, three doubles), who lofted an RBI double that fell just in front of diving Rockies right fielder Brad Hawpe. And Dustin Pedroia immediately followed with a two-run double to right, pumping his fist with excitement when he reached second. Both of those clutch knocks came against Rockies reliever Brian Fuentes.
"[Ellsbury] and Pedroia, they carried the team," Ramirez said. "You have to give those guys credit."
Closer Jonathan Papelbon came on with two on and two outs in the eighth and got the Red Sox out of that jam. He finished it off in the ninth for his second save of the World Series.
Boston will try to try to finish Colorado off on Sunday. Of the 22 previous teams that have led the World Series 3-0, all have gone on to win. Nineteen, in fact, did it with a sweep. The Red Sox will try to become No. 20 in Game 4, when they send left-hander Jon Lester to the mound for his first career postseason start.
Before getting to Lester, the Red Sox turned to Matsuzaka, whose inaugural Major League season has been covered like a blanket by two nations -- Japan and Red Sox -- from start to finish.
Sometimes Matsuzaka didn't live up to the billing of the man the Red Sox invested $103.1 million in. But after coming up with enough to win Game 7 of the American League Championship Series against the Indians, Matsuzaka was also able to get the job done vs. the Rockies, holding them to three hits and two runs -- both of which came home after he left the game -- over 5 1/3 innings. Dice-K walked three and struck out five, throwing 101 pitches.
"I think I felt more pressure going into Game 7 of the LCS, so today was easier mentally," Matsuzaka said through translator Masa Hoshino. "But the team won, and I didn't wind up being the one to stop our momentum. So in that sense, I feel very relieved."
If his pitching wasn't enough, Matsuzaka also chipped in with his bat, belting a two-out, two-run single in a six-run uprising by Boston in the top of the third. Matsuzaka could not have picked a better occasion to come up with his first Major League hit, which gave the Red Sox a 5-0 lead.
"I'm a confident hitter, [and] I love hitting," Matsuzaka said.
In Command at 3-0
Twenty-two teams have taken 3-0 leads in the World Series and all have gone on to claim the championship. Teams have completed four-game sweeps in 19 of the 22 occasions and in the last seven consecutive 3-0 scenarios ('76 Reds, '89 A's, '90 Reds, '98 and '99 Yankees, '04 Red Sox and '05 White Sox). The three teams that have avoided the sweep by winning Game 4 all ended up losing in five games.
CHC, 4-3 (10)
The Red Sox pinned the Rockies and right-hander Josh Fogg squarely against the ropes in that third, getting big hits from not only Matsuzaka, but also David Ortiz (RBI double) and Lowell (two-run single). Ellsbury started and finished the job, belting two doubles in the inning, joining Matt Williams (Game 6, 2001 World Series) as the only players in World Series history to accomplish that feat.
That was what Francona had in mind when he put Ellsbury in the leadoff spot for the first time in this postseason. Pedroia moved down a spot to the No. 2 hole and was a pest to the Rockies, going 3-for-5.
"They were on base the whole night," Francona said. "It created a lot of opportunities."
Backed by a 6-0 lead to start the bottom of the sixth, Matsuzaka issued back-to-back walks to Todd Helton and Garrett Atkins and was then removed from the game.
For the first time all night, the Rockies threatened to come charging back. With Javy Lopez on for Boston, Hawpe lined an RBI single up the middle. Yorvit Torrealba followed with a single through the hole and into left, and it was 6-2.
Francona then called for Mike Timlin, and the first truly anxious moment of the night for Boston came when Ryan Spilborghs greeted the veteran right-hander with a drive that whistled into deep center field. But Ellsbury tracked it down just in front of the wall.
Pinch-hitter Jeff Baker followed with a scorching liner that seemed bound to be a hit, but Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo timed his leap perfectly and snared it out of thin air to end the inning.
"That ball was smoked," confirmed Lugo.
In this case for the Red Sox, fire did not accompany the smoke.
"That might have saved the game right there, Lugo's play," said Lowell. "I didn't think he had a chance. That ball looked liked it kept rising. He got up there, and I think we were all pumped up when he came down with it."
And now, it's down to this. If the Red Sox can win just one more game in this World Series, their 2007 season will be declared a smashing success.
"We have to continue to stay focused," catcher Jason Varitek said. "We have to try and outplay our opponent."
Keep in mind that Varitek uttered that precise statement after Game 4 of the ALCS, when the Red Sox were in a 3-1 hole and their season was on the brink. It is that tunnel vision -- as much as anything -- that has gotten the Red Sox to this point.
"I think we have to maintain the same intensity, because 3-0 doesn't mean anything if you can't win the fourth," said Lowell. "I truly believe we're going to go into tomorrow's game prepared just like we did today and the first two games in Boston."
"We're going to come tomorrow, play hard and we'll see what's going to happen," said Ramirez.
And perhaps by the end of Game 4, there will be a cake to go with a trophy.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.