BOSTON - The Red Sox are going back to the World Series, and they can thank a bunch of guys who weren’t even in the majors when Boston won it all three years ago.
Rookie Dustin Pedroia hit his first postseason homer and drove in five runs on Sunday night as the Red Sox completed another October comeback and beat the Cleveland Indians 11-2 in Game 7 of the AL championship series. Japanese imports Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima combined for seven strong innings, and Jonathan Papelbon finished things off.
“Young guys like Pedroia played a big part in this series,” Boston manager Terry Francona said after his team won its third consecutive game since falling behind 3-1 in the best-of-seven series. “It’s not over. We deserve a little bit tonight to celebrate. This is a special time and a special place, but it’s not over.”
Next up: the streaking Colorado Rockies, who have won 10 consecutive games — seven in the playoffs — and 21 of 22. ALCS MVP Josh Beckett will face Jeff Francis in Game 1 at Fenway park on Wednesday night.
“The Rockies are on a magical run and we are going to have our hands full. We’re going to try and represent the American League the best we can,” Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said. “We haven’t grown up any since ’04. That’s part of what keeps these guys so good. It keeps us all loose and we never stop believing.”
Colorado outscored Boston 20-5 in winning two of three during an interleague series at Fenway in June.
The Red Sox did even better in winning the last three games against Indians, outscoring them 30-5 in that span. Boston also got some help by a key blunder by an Indians base coach when Cleveland trailed just 3-2 with a chance to tie the game.
“We won three games in a row and they won three in a row,” Indians manager Eric Wedge said. “I’m disappointed, obviously, we weren’t able to finish it off.”
While Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and Beckett helped the Red Sox win their 12th pennant, the Indians only added more misery to a city that hasn’t celebrated a World Series championship since 1948.
Cleveland was a double-play grounder from winning the crown at Florida in 1997. They appeared to take control of this series with three consecutive victories, but aces C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona couldn’t win a single game between them.
“We fell short, but we learned a great deal in this postseason,” Wedge said.
Jake Westbrook settled down to offer a solid outing in Game 7, and still the Indians came up short. They had a chance to tie it at 3 in the seventh inning, but third-base coach Joel Skinner mistakenly held up speedy Kenny Lofton as he rounded the bag.
With runners at the corners, Casey Blake grounded into an inning-ending double play.
Then, the Red Sox blew it open. Pedroia, who hit a two-run homer to make it 5-2, hit a three-run double and Kevin Youkilis launched a bottle rocket, a two-run drive off the giant Coke bottle above the Green Monster.
Papelbon pitched two innings for the save, finishing things off when center fielder Coco Crisp raced back into the center-field triangle, crashing into the wall to catch Blake’s drive. Crisp was still on the ground when Papelbon chucked his glove into the air and then waited, crouching, for catcher Jason Varitek to leap into his arms.
The Red Sox poured out of the dugout for their first playoff clinching celebration at home since the first round in 2004.
“The champagne tastes sweeter at home,” they chanted in the clubhouse later.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Twenty minutes after the last out, the ballpark still full, slugger David Ortiz walked onto the field carrying the AL trophy. He walked to the mound, held the prize up in the air for the crowd to see and then planted it on the ground like an explorer claiming new territory.
The ballpark hushed when Ortiz picked up a microphone to address the crowd, but bedlam returned when Papelbon reprised his Irish step dance from the regular-season clincher. Players took their turns posing for pictures with the trophy while their kids ran the bases.
“We’ve never been through this. This is on the biggest stage,” Pedroia said. “We worked too hard all year long to have our season get cut short. Nobody wanted to go home, nobody wanted to say goodbye to everybody. So once we got that win in Cleveland, brought us back here, we started to believe.”
Boston kept the bases busy early against Westbrook, but three double plays in the first four innings kept the Indians in the game while their starter settled down. The Red Sox scored once in each of the first three innings, and Matsuzaka retired the first eight batters he faced.
Cleveland cut the deficit to 3-2 through five, then had a chance to tie it in the seventh when Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo dropped Lofton’s seemingly harmless popup in shallow left. Lugo drifted back, tracking the ball with his glove in the air and holding off incoming left fielder Ramirez with his right hand.
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