The 2004 Boston Red Sox were a team of great expectations. They’d come within five outs of the World Series the previous year before blowing a 5-2 lead to the New York Yankees and losing the seventh game of the American League Championship Series in the Bronx. A successful year marked by overachievement ended in acrimony over manager Grady Little’s handling of ace pitcher Pedro Martinez late in that game and Little was fired soon after (for reasons well beyond this particular controversy).
The Sox hired Terry Francona, signed closer Keith Foulke and dealt prospects to Arizona for Curt Schilling. The latter was a hero of the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks team that beat the Yankees, and he had the pedigree and the mindset the team was looking for.
Boston had no problems scoring runs in 2003 and that would be the case again in 2004. The offensive machine had eight of nine regulars with on-base percentages over .350. Seven had slugging percentages over .450, with the other two being only a few points shy. Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz each hit 40+ home runs and had 130+ RBIs.
Schilling won 21 games with a 3.26 ERA, while Pedro won 16 at 3.90. Each ace pitched over 200 innings and covered up for a rotation that was shakier on the back end, relying on Tim Wakefield to chew up some innings, and hoping Derek Lowe could be consistent. Foulke gave Francona the closer Little had lacked, registering 32 saves with a 2.17 ERA.
With personnel like this it wasn’t surprising that the Red Sox started 15-6, including six of seven over the Yanks. A middling May left them at 31-20, but they were still tied for first. Then a hot summer of mediocrity took over New England.
The record was down to 42-32 by the end of June and July opened with a particularly humiliating series in New York. Trailing by 4.5 games when they came in, the Sox lost three straight including an extra-inning finale where Derek Jeter went into the stands to catch a foul ball on the same night that Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra sat with a mysterious ailment.
Boston fell 10.5 games out of first and any thought of winning the AL East was a distant memory, though the wild-card was still firmly in their grasp. A ten-day stretch to close July changed the season. The team beat the Yankees two of three, including an epic Saturday afternoon game on Fox featuring catcher Jason Varitek punching Alex Rodriguez, a subsequent brawl and third baseman Bill Mueller ultimately winning the game with a three-run walkoff home run off Yankee closer Mariano Rivera to win 11-10.
Then at the July 31 trade deadline, Garciaparra, a franchise icon, was traded for shortstop Orlando Cabrera, first baseman Doug Mienkiewitcz and outfielder Dave Roberts. The trade was viewed—at best—skeptically. Cabrera was not a good hitter, Mienkiewitcz was meant to platoon with first baseman Kevin Millar and Roberts to be a situational pinch-runner. Every one of these players would play key roles before it was over.
It was August 24 when the Red Sox really took off. The wild-card race was still tight, with the Sox jousting with the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers. Boston started an eight-game win streak, won ten of eleven and went barreling down the stretch. They won 98 games, blew open the wild-card race and even pulled to within two games of the Yanks at one point. They were back in the playoffs and a chance to play for the title that eluded them a year earlier—and had eluded generations of fans since Babe Ruth was traded following the 1918 season.
The Angels had chased down and passed the Oakland A’s to win the AL West in the closing days of the regular season and was Boston’s opponent in the Division Series. The offense was built around the MVP season of rightfielder Vlad Guerrero, who hit .337 with 39 home runs. Guerrero got help from outfielder Jose Guillen, who hit .294 with 27 bombs.
Surrounding the power hitters were pesky on-base threats led by Chone Figgins, Darin Erstad and Adam Kennedy. The pitching staff had question marks. Bartolo Colon was a workhorse with good stuff, but also an ERA over 5. John Lackey won 14 games, but his ERA was 4.67. Kelvim Escobar had the best ERA of the group at 3.93 but a losing record at 11-12.
The strength of the staff was its bullpen, with Scot Shields and Francisco Rodriguez and the Angels had rightful respect around the game for their fundamentally sound play.
But it was fundamentals that undid the Angels in the opener. Boston led 1-0 in the fourth, and then opened up a lead with Kevin Millar’s two-run homer. In position to escape the inning still in the game, Figgins threw the ball away with the bases loaded. Staked to a 5-0 lead, Schilling cruised home 9-3, with the only concern being what seemed a minor limp off the field after chasing down a bunt late in the blowout game.
Game 2 had a similar score, but the 8-3 Red Sox win unfolded considerably different than the opener. Pedro and Colon went head-to-head, and the teams traded runs in the second. LAA grabbed two in the fifth with two singles, a hit batsmen and a two-RBI single by Guerrero.
Boston quickly wiped it out with a two-run shot by Varitek and then got the lead in the seventh, doing it a small-ball fashion. Centerfielder and leadoff hitter Johnny Damon stole second, took third on a wild pitch and scored on a sac fly by Manny. Pedro handed the 4-3 to the bullpen after seven innings and the offense broke the game open with four in the top of the ninth, including a bases-clearing double by Cabrera.
It was a late Friday afternoon game as an excited crowd at Fenway hoped to see the home team close out a sweep. Everything was going Boston’s way in the middle of the game. They opened up a 2-1 lead after an error, single and walk set up an RBI single from Manny. Ortiz then doubled and an error made it 5-1.
After adding another run the Sox were cruising in the seventh when the Angels loaded the bases with two outs. Erstad battled reliever Mike Timlin to a full count, fouled off key pitches and got a walk. Guerrero came up next and deposited a ball into the rightfield bullpen and the game was stunningly tied 6-6. No Sox fan could be blamed if a “Here we go again” mindset set in.
But this Boston team had Foulke and he turned back an Angel rally in the ninth, and along with Lowe held the score tied into the 10th. With two outs and a man on, Ortiz launched a shot over the Green Monster that sent the team into the American League Championship Series. Boston had what everyone was thirsting for—another shot at the Pinstripes.
New York was not a great team in 2004—there were great players to be sure, as they’d added Alex Rodriguez prior to the season to go with Derek Jeter, Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams in center, whose power was waning, but he was still effective getting on base. Mariano Rivera was coming out of the bullpen. But the pitching wasn’t what Joe Torre had at his disposal during the championship years of 1996-2001 when the team won five pennants and four World Series titles.
After the 2003 campaign, both Andy Pettite and Roger Clemens had left and resurfaced in Houston. Torre was patching together a rotation with the likes of Jon Lieber, Javier Vazquez, a washed-up Kevin Brown and Mike Mussina, struggling through an unusually tough year. None of the starters had an ERA under 4 and the bullpen was not exceptionally deep.
While Torre took more than his share of grief from his employer over the way this series ended, it’s truly remarkable that he won 101 games and finished in first place, ahead of a team with Schilling and Pedro at the top of its staff.
Schilling was the starter for Game 1 and after three innings it was apparent that his limp off the field in the Angels’ opener wasn’t just a spur of the moment. Between Schilling’s own missed spots and the quality of the Yankee hitters, the home team hung six runs on the board after three while Mussina worked on a perfect game.
The lead stretched to 8-0 when the Red Sox suddenly did a complete 180 and made a game of it. A three-run shot by Varitek cut the lead to 8-5 in the seventh and Ortiz hit a triple off the top of the left field wall that made it 8-7 and came within a hair of tying it up. New York was able to get two runs in the bottom of the inning and win 10-7.
Normally the Sox might have been able to feel good about the rally and look to carry it over into the next night. But the Yanks had beaten the man they’d brought in specifically to pitch this game and the word was that Schilling’s ankle would keep him out the rest of the series—at the very least he would not be available for a normal Game 5 start, much less come back on short rest in Game 4.
And the bats did not enjoy a carryover effect, as the powerful Red Sox lineup made Lieber look like the reincarnation of Vic Raschi (an old time Yankee pitcher who beat the Sox in the 1949 winner-take-all finale for the pennant). Pedro was good, but a two-run home run by John Olerud gave the Yanks cushion and they rolled 3-1.
Game 3 was set for Friday and it was the biggest day of the series. Nothing happened on the field. What did happen was that rain rolled in, pushing the game back a day and buying Schilling another day of rest. When the teams retook the field on Saturday night it certainly didn’t seem like it would matter. The Yankees battered the Red Sox from pillar to post, winning 19-8.
No one would have guessed that the Sox had just lost for the last time in 2004—and if they had, they might have noted the score bore an eerily similar look to “1918”. Boston now had to win four games in four days (the travel day was canceled due to the rain).
96 HOURS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
An early home run by Alex Rodriguez off Derek Lowe put New York up 2-0 in Game 4, and there was no reason to think the rout wasn’t on. Lowe had been terrible in recent starts and he was a sinkerballer who hadn’t started yet in the postseason—it was easy to envision a night of his ball getting up in the zone.
But A-Rod’s blow was the last and the Red Sox eventually mustered a 3-2 lead when Ortiz singled home two in the fifth. A grinding sixth inning gave the Yanks a 4-3 lead after second baseman Mark Bellhorn couldn’t quite chase down two slowly hit balls to the right side.
The game held that way through eight. “And the New York Yankees are three defensive outs from going to the World Series,” Joe Buck told the Fox-TV audience as the eighth inning concluded.
Kevin Millar led off the ninth and Rivera’s control was off, walking him on five pitches. Roberts was summoned to pinch-run. In a play universally identified as the turning point of the series, Roberts, after three pickoff throws by Rivera, stole second. Mueller then singled him home and the game was tied. The Red Sox won it in twelve innings on a walkoff home run by Ortiz.
The teams came back for a late afternoon start on Monday. Pedro was on the mound and the Sox staked him to an early 2-0 lead off Mussina. Both pitchers were settled in and the score held to the sixth. With the bases loaded and two outs, Martinez battled Jeter. The shortstop did one his proto-type cue shots into rightfield. The ball got down the line, took a funny hop off the wall and the bases cleared. New York was ahead 4-2.
In the eighth, they had a chance to add to the lead with runners on the corners and one out, but Timlin blew A-Rod for a big K and the score held. Ortiz turned around and led off the bottom of the inning with a home run to left center off setup man Tom Gordon. Boston put runners on first and third with no outs. Rivera was called on.
A common narrative of this series tells us the Yankee closer blew saves in both Games 4 & 5. I suppose that’s true, but no one should deny that Rivera did the job in the fifth game. Varitek was able to tie with a sac fly, but an inning that might have seen the Sox take the lead ended at 4-4. The game dragged on into the 14th inning. With Damon on second, Ortiz came up and fought off an inside pitch, looping it into centerfield for the win. The Red Sox had played 26 innings in two days, come within three outs of elimination one day and six outs on the next…and they were still breathing.
Now it was Schilling’s time to get the ball for Game 6. Even with the series back in the Bronx, the momentum was decidedly in Boston’s favor and the pitcher came up with the performance for the ages. With Fox’s TV cameras repeatedly going to the blood on his sock, there from the sutures left from the procedure necessary to hold his tendon together, Schilling threw seven innings and gave up just one run.
Not since New York Knicks center Willis Reed dragged himself onto the court for an NBA Finals Game 7 in 1970 and obviously dragging his injured leg, delivered his team a title, had the Big Apple seen such an example of playing with pain. It was appropriate then that Reed was in attendance and offered the pitcher a tip of his cap as the seventh inning ended. Boston ended up winning 4-2.
The eighth inning is remembered for Alex Rodriguez being called out for interference after slapping the ball out of pitcher Bronson Arroyo’s hand and a ninth where the Yanks put two on with two out and gave everyone in New England a heart attack before Foulke struck out Tony Clark. But the forgotten hero of this game is Bellhorn, who hit a three-run homer the other way in the fourth inning. Without Bellhorn, Schilling’s bloody sock would never have made it to Cooperstown.
Game 7 was the rematch that the entire baseball world had waited for—and at a time when Fox and ESPN hadn’t yet beat the Red Sox-Yankees into the ground beyond all belief, the rest of the country really did welcome a showdown between the two rivals, especially with the storyline of Red Sox pursuit of a long-sought title still intact.
Both teams were running on fumes, especially the pitching staffs. Lowe got the ball for Boston against Kevin Brown for New York. The latter clearly did not have it. Even with the benefit of getting a throw-out of Damon at the plate in the first, Brown promptly gave up a two-run shot to Ortiz and then loaded the bases in the second.
Vazquez was summoned to face Damon, who jumped on the first pitch and hit it out. It was 6-0. While none of us who root for the Red Sox were remotely in celebration mindset, Lowe was dialed in and left after six with the lead at 8-1. A bizarre decision to bring Pedro in relief helped the Yanks get two runs and it might have been more had Mienkiewitcz not made a nice defensive spear at first base on a hard-hit grounder by Olerud.
Having survived that scare, Bellhorn hit a two-run homer and the game ended 10-3. Was it The Greatest Comeback In Sports History? I’m biased and the topic itself goes beyond the scope of this article. But I think anyone should be able to agree that it was the best series comeback in sports history. We can leave comparisons to single-game comebacks for another day. Boston was going to the World Series for the first time since 1986.
The St. Louis Cardinals had been the best team in baseball in 2004, winning 105 games, although both the Red Sox and Yankees could reasonably argue that the inferior competition offered in the National League could explain away the difference. Fair enough, but there was no doubt coming into the World Series that the Cards were a heavyweight.
They had a devastating trio of power hitters led by Albert Pujols and including third baseman Scott Rolen and centerfielder Jim Edmonds. The three combined for 118 home runs. Nor were they just sluggers—each got on base at a better-than-.400 clip. Tony Womack, the second baseman, had been a teammate of Schilling’s back in 2001 and a Series hero that year. If the Cards got a lead late, Jason Isringhausen slammed the door, with 47 saves.
Starting pitching was not ideal—there was no clear ace—but Matt Morris, Chris Carpenter and Jason Marquis all won 15 games, while Woody Williams won 11 and was a veteran of October.
It was Williams that manager Tony LaRussa tapped to face Wakefield in Saturday night’s Game 1. Ortiz showed no signs of letting up after winning MVP of the League Championship Series, hitting a three-run jack in the first as Boston grabbed a 4-0 lead. St. Louis got two back, including a solo home run by Larry Walker in the third, but in the bottom of that inning the Sox turned two singles and two walks into three more runs extending the lead to 7-2.
Wakefield’s control was erratic though, and St. Louis crawled back in with a three-spot of their own and eventually tied it 7-7 in the fifth on consecutive RBI doubles from shortstop Edgar Renteria and Walker. St. Louis’ pitching couldn’t find the strike zone though. They would issue eight walks for the game, including two to start the seventh that set up run-scoring singles from Manny and Ortiz.
But while the Cards couldn’t locate pitches, the Red Sox couldn’t play defense. They made four errors including a fly ball to left in the eighth that Manny turned into what his manager called a “car accident.” It resulted in St. Louis tying the game 9-9 and leaving the Fenway crowd to wonder what more they had to do to win this game.
Bellhorn answered the question. For the third straight postseason game, he hit a home run, this one a two-run shot that clanged off the iron just inside the rightfield foul pole. Foulke closed the ninth and the Sox had an 11-9 win a game high on excitement and low on quality baseball.
Schilling was ready to pitch Game 2, as he spent the day hoping his ankle would let him respond. His offense again struck quickly as Varitek hit a two-run triple deep into the cavernous right-centerfield Triangle. The Cards got an unearned run in the fourth, but Bellhorn answered with a two-run double. Schilling was sharp again, Cabrera added some insurance and in spite of again committing four errors, Boston won 6-2. They were halfway home as the Series shifted to the Midwest.
Boston’s defense tightened up and Pedro took the mound in Game 3. He led 1-0 after a Manny home run in the first inning. The game—and arguably the Series—had its definitive sequence in the third. Pitcher Jeff Suppan led off the home half of the inning with a single and then took third on a double. No one was out and Francona played the infield back to concede the run. A ground ball to second got an out at first, but Suppan didn’t run home. Not only that, he stayed in no-man’s land, halfway down the line and got picked off third.
The rally was dead. And once Pedro got locked in, so were the Cards. The lead eventually became 4-0 and St. Loo got only an inconsequential run in the ninth. Martinez’ final start in a Sox uniform was an absolute gem.
Wednesday night, October 27 had first dibs on being the night all of New England had waited for. Lowe, a native to the region had the ball, just as he had in the decisive game against the Yankees. Johnny Damon led off the game with a home run and in the third Trot Nixon drove in two more to make it 3-zip.
Cardinal pitching did the job and shut down the Sox lineup the rest of the way, but Lowe was dialed in and for the second straight night Francona got seven shutout innings from his starter. Foulke came in for the ninth.
With two outs Renteria came to the plate with a man aboard. The words of Buck, calling the game for Fox sum up the ground ball hit—“Back to Foulke…and Red Sox fans have longed to hear it…The Boston Red Sox are world champions.”
It was an anticlimactic World Series after the epic ALCS battle. But no one in Red Sox Nation cared. The 2004 Boston Red Sox were finally champs.