After a thrilling sprint to Game 7 against the Rays, the string ran out, the tank was empty, the immovable object met the irresistible force, etc., etc., and the Sox bowed out of the 2008 ALCS.
As much as everything seemed lined up in their favor, with the historic Game 5 comeback, the metronome-like win in Game 6 (you know, steady, constant, with all the right people delivering), you knew that Game 7 would be a different animal. This wasn't an exhausted Yankees team under enormous pressure like in '04 or a shaky Indians team exposed by Sox batters in '07. These are the Rays, indefatigable, youthful, brash and convinced that they are on a path to a higher destiny.
In a lot of ways, this game reminded me of the ALCS Game 7 of '03, with the inexorable march towards a conclusion that everyone suspected but refused to acknowledge. The Sox had just too many loose ends on their thread this postseason: an exhausted ace (Lester), an injured stopper (Beckett), an inconsistent offense, a mortal superhero (Papi), and too many easy outs (Varitek, Kotsay, Lowrie, Cora, Ellsbury, etc.). They just ran out of camouflage and were exposed by the Rays.
So now it's the off-season... and big question time (for Theo Epstein, Larry Luchinno, John Henry, and the rest of the baseball ops folks):
- What is Varitek's future with the team? Do they re-sign him for multiple years, tender him a one-year deal with options, or cut him loose? My money's on the first, but at a serious discount. Anything more than $6-7M for a .240 hitter with limited power and lots of K's is too much, heart and catching prowess notwithstanding. We'll see what Scotty Boras has to say about that.
- The rotation -- do they need another arm? Lester has established himself as a stud, Beckett (when healthy), is a dominant ace, and Dice-K can be brilliant, but they need more. After watching the Rays trot out 4 quality starters, the Sox need another arm for the rotation. Is it Masterson? Bowden? Bucholz? Or a free agent (Jake Peavy, Ben Sheets, CC Sabathia, etc.)? This will be interesting, as the answer could very well determine the division leader before a game is played.
- Papi Protection - Youkilis established himself as a bona fide stud this season at the plate, but do the Sox need more than that to protect Ortiz and make him the Big Papi of '03-'07? Because clearly, the '08 Big Papi is not gonna help this team. I know his wrist was hurt and a big question mark, but the Rays (and Angels) went after him in a way I haven't seen, well, ever, and had no qualms about throwing him strikes. With names like Mark Texiera out there, don't be surprised if you start to hear rumors of the Sox interest.
- Will the kids keep coming? Ellsbury, Lowrie, Masterson, Delcarmen, Bowden, Bucholz... the list of players from the Sox system who made an impact this season is downright amazing, and that doesn't include Papelbon, Lester, Pedroia and Youkilis, all of whom are in serious consideration for postseason awards. Will the 2006-2008 class of kids continue to get better? Stop and think about this one: Every one of the names above (except Bowden) has experienced growing pains this season, from Ellsbury's slumps to Delcarmen's loss of control to Bucholz's meltdown... can they come back and be more consistent? If they do, the sky is the limit. Who would have imagined so much talent would be homegrown, especially after Lou Gorman stripped the farm system bare in the late '80s?
It should be an interesting off-season. We may be saying goodbye to Mike Timlin, Paul Byrd, Mark Kotsay, Sean Casey, and some others (Coco Crisp?), and saying hello to some interesting new ones...
Bring on the Hot Stove!