Funny how things change.
Suddenly, the Sox are the envy of baseball, a group whose current success is unparalleled and whose future success seems certain. Not only did the Sox win their second World Series in four years this past October, but they did it so quickly, and so convincingly, that they left little doubt regarding their status as the class of the league.
And that's not all. This is a team built around superstars -- Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz remain the core -- but supported by youth. Anyone who saw Dustin Pedroia's scrappy play at second base or witnessed Clay Buchholz's no-hit dramatics on the mound would have trouble ignoring just how much the Sox have yet to achieve.
The Red Sox, heading into next year, appear very much the same as the group that achieved baseball's ultimate honor this past October. And with that in mind, there's no reason to believe that their successes might end.
At least not anytime soon.
By signing Joel Pineiro four days into the New Year, the Red Sox thought they had found a closer to replace Jonathan Papelbon, who was primed to join the starting rotation. The Sox believed that Pineiro -- almost exclusively a starter over the first seven years of his career -- had the ability and the makeup to save games. "Even when he was having great success as a starter," said assistant general manager Jed Hoyer, "a lot of our reports were, 'Wow, this guy would be unbelievable in the bullpen.'"
What appeared complete never came to fruition, as the Sox broke off talks in late January to acquire first baseman Todd Helton from the Rockies. The sides had been discussing a trade that would have sent third baseman Mike Lowell and pitcher Julian Tavarez to Colorado, but the Rockies eventually balked at the deal. "I don't think we ever thought this transaction would take place," principal owner John Henry said at the time.
Spring Training's opening days were dominated by Daisuke Matsuzaka -- and all those who wanted nothing more than to catch a glimpse of the Japanese sensation. More than 900 fans and 200 reporters showed up to Dice-K's workout debut, in which he threw off a mound for the first time in a Sox uniform. And while Dice-K dominated headlines throughout the spring, his fabled gyroball was nowhere to be seen.
All that fanfare wasn't enough to divert attention from Ramirez, whom the Sox gave clearance to report to Spring Training over a week late. Ramirez was reportedly dealing with family issues back home in South Florida, though reports also surfaced that he was scheduled to attend a car auction in Atlantic City, N.J. -- well after the official start of camp. Ramirez ultimately skipped the car show, reporting to camp only six days after the rest of the team's position players.
Dice-K's spring was as sharp as anyone could have expected, highlighted by five innings of no-hit ball against the Reds in his final start of the month. And lost in all the commotion was Dice-K's buddy, Hideki Okajima, who turned in some strong numbers of his own. Okajima's success -- a 3.29 ERA in 13 2/3 Spring Training innings -- helped earn him a prominent bullpen role heading into Opening Day.
The most prominent bullpen role, however, fell back to Papelbon, after the newly minted starter told manager Terry Francona that he wanted to close once more. Sox brass debated the issue for two days before granting Papelbon's wish. "I felt that there was always that feeling deep down in my heart that I wanted to close," Papelbon said.
A mediocre start turned torrid when the Red Sox swept the Yankees at Fenway Park -- highlighted by four straight homers off rookie Chase Wright -- and then took two of three from their greatest rivals a week later in New York. By month's end, the Sox were in first place, and the Yankees in last. "Obviously, it's more exciting when you win," Francona said, "but they're never easy."
Everything seemed easy for Josh Beckett, who won his first five starts in April -- joining Babe Ruth and Pedro Martinez as the only Sox pitchers in history to do so -- and didn't lose a single game until June. In what would be a convincing rebound from his disappointing 2006 season, Beckett became Boston's first 20-game winner since Curt Schilling in 2004, and he led the team with a 3.27 ERA.
Less than 24 hours removed from his first save of the season, setup man Mike Timlin hit the disabled list with tendinitis in his right shoulder. He would miss over a month, but it was time well spent. Before the DL stint, Timlin held a 6.23 ERA. After it, he posted a 2.89 mark and once again became the team's most consistent reliever.
Even without Timlin, the bullpen didn't miss a beat. Okajima stepped in and established himself as perhaps the best setup man in baseball over the season's first half, posting a 0.83 ERA before the break. And though Okajima faltered a bit down the stretch, those struggles couldn't completely sour his season. The lefty still finished with a 2.22 ERA and five saves in spot relief of Papelbon, while his strong spring helped the Sox open a 13 1/2-game lead over the Yankees by the end of May.
The month started out strong for Schilling -- he baffled the A's in a one-hit shutout on June 7 -- but ended painfully, when a sore right shoulder forced him onto the disabled list. Schilling would miss all of July and win only three more decisions in the regular season.
Though most were already counting the Yankees out of the divisional race by June, that didn't stop some bad blood from seeping into baseball's most heated rivalry. On a Friday night at Fenway Park, five pitchers in total hit five different batters, culminating when Yankees reliever Scott Proctor drilled Kevin Youkilis squarely in the head with a fastball. And though he tried at the time -- "what's on the field stays on the field," he said -- it wasn't a pitch that Youkilis would forget.
Speedy young outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury made his Major League debut on the first day of July and didn't disappoint, legging out an infield single for his first career hit. By season's end, the 23-year-old Ellsbury would play an integral role for the Sox, finishing with a .353 average and nine steals.
In a testament to their strong first half, the Red Sox sent six players to San Francisco for the All-Star Game. Ramirez, Lowell, Papelbon, Beckett and Ortiz all made the club, while Okajima garnered 4.4 million fan votes to win the All-Star Final Vote ballot. The Red Sox's army didn't disappoint, either. Beckett and Papelbon combined for three shutout innings, while Lowell chipped in with a single and a run, helping lead the American League to a 5-4 victory and ensure home-field advantage in the World Series.
One of baseball's more heartwarming stories came to a conclusion when cancer survivor Jon Lester made his season debut and won -- and then proceeded to finish the year with a perfect 4-0 record. "We liked him before," Lowell said, echoing the admiration of his teammates. "You root for him even more now."
General manager Theo Epstein appeared to strike the type of deadline deal that could put the Sox over the top, landing reliever Eric Gagne from Texas in exchange for left-hander Kason Gabbard and two Minor League outfielders. Yet Gagne didn't take to his new setup role, repeatedly blowing leads and finishing his Red Sox tenure with a 6.75 ERA. By October, he was no longer a factor in the team's bullpen machinations.
While their lead in the AL East seemed impossibly large in May, the Sox couldn't pull away and found themselves only five games up after losing three straight to the Yankees during the final week of August. Sparks flew when Yankees rookie Joba Chamberlain threw two straight pitches near Youkilis' head in the series finale, adding a renewed sense of bitterness to the rivalry. "If that young man is trying to get our attention, he did a very good job," Francona said after the game.
Called up from the Minors when rosters expanded that day, the rookie Buchholz shocked the Sox -- and certainly the Orioles -- when he threw a no-hitter at Fenway Park. "I don't even have a word for it," said Buchholz, who at 23 years old became the 17th Sox pitcher to achieve the feat.
After cruising to a playoff berth, the Sox clinched their first division title in 12 years when they downed the Twins with two games left in the season. News came down soon after that the Yankees had lost to the Orioles, ensuring the Red Sox a matchup with the Angels in the AL Division Series. And that night, Schilling made a vow. "It's game time, come October," he said.
How right Schilling was. The Red Sox blew through the Angels in a Division Series sweep and then made an epic comeback from 3-1 down against the Indians in the AL Championship Series to set a date with the Rockies in the World Series. And this time, no curses remained. Sweeping the Rockies in four games, the Sox won their seventh World Series title -- and their second in four years -- in dominant fashion. "It was just an amazing ride," Papelbon said. "Hopefully, this is a sign of more to come."
The Sox couldn't have done it without Lowell, who won World Series MVP honors after batting .400 in the Series. Once considered a salary dump in the trade that sent Beckett to Boston, Lowell silenced his critics with a season that saw him hit .324 with 21 homers and 120 RBIs, and transform into one of the winter's hottest free agents. "I'm on cloud nine -- it's unbelievable," Lowell said.
Once the euphoria ended, there was business as usual. The Sox opened the offseason by exercising contract options on pitchers Tavarez and Tim Wakefield, and then by re-signing Schilling to a one-year deal. Two weeks later, they fended off all other suitors and gave Lowell a three-year deal worth $37.5 million to remain with the team.
And of course, there were awards -- plenty of them, in fact. Youkilis won his first Gold Glove, while Ortiz nabbed his fourth straight Silver Slugger. And though Beckett just lost out on the Cy Young, Pedroia made waves by capturing the AL Rookie of the Year Award. That capped a season that saw the diminutive second baseman hit .317 at the top of Boston's order. "I'm not too big on personal accomplishments," Pedroia said. "I just want to help my team win."
In a quiet month on the Hot Stove, the Sox stabilized their bullpen by re-signing Timlin to a one-year deal. But all eyes were on Johan Santana, the ace starter that Epstein -- and everyone else -- coveted. By the time the holidays rolled around, there was still no telling where Santana might land, though Boston remained one of the leading destinations.
Former Sen. George Mitchell's report on performance-enhancing substances in baseball named no current Sox, though several former stars -- Roger Clemens and Mo Vaughn chief among them -- made the report. All of that irked Schilling, who told a local radio station that he was "bummed a little bit" about Mitchell's results.
Anthony DiComo is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.