FOR THE RED SOX IT'S ALWAYS ABOUT THE YANKEES. EVEN JAPANESE IMPORT DAISUKE MATSUZAKA FIGURED THAT OUT IN HIS FIRST YEAR IN BOSTON. ON THE NIGHT OF SEPT. 28, TWO DAYS BEFORE THE END OF THE REGULAR SEASON, MATSUZAKA WAS DOING HIS BEST TO CALM A BOISTEROUS RED SOX SQUAD AS THEY WATCHED NEW YORK BLOW A THREE-RUN, NINTH-INNING lead to the Orioles. Earlier that night Dice-K had earned his 15th win when Boston disposed of the Twins 5-2. If the Yankees lost, the American League East pennant would be Boston's for the first time since 1995. But Matsuzaka had already learned never to count the Yankees out. So when Baltimore loaded the bases in the 10th, Matsuzaka motioned for one and all to settle down.
When Melvin Mora improbably bunted in the winning run for the Orioles, the Red Sox' clubhouse exploded, and champagne and beer rained in all directions. It had taken 160 games, but Boston had finally prevailed over New York.
It was the celebration many had hoped for when the Red Sox won the bidding war for Matsuzaka in the off-season, giving them another frontline starter to go with Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling. And while Matsuzaka did not tear up the American League as he had Japan's Pacific League, he was still a key component of a durable rotation that carried Boston to a 96-66 record that tied for the best in baseball, a distinction the franchise had not held since 1946.
Boston, with the second-highest payroll in the majors (after you know who), certainly received contributions from pricey veterans Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, Jason Varitek and Schilling. But some of the younger, less expensive players also played major roles as the Sox tapped into general manager Theo Epstein's farm system. Kevin Youkilis, 28, had an outstanding year at first base; Dustin Pedroia, 24, had a Rookie of the Year-caliber season at second; and closer Jonathan Papelbon, 26, was one of the most dominant in the league in his second year. There were pricey mistakes (J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo) but also plenty of hope for the future, with youngsters Jon Lester (4-0, 4.57 ERA), Clay Buchholz (3-1, 1.59 and a no-hitter) and Jacoby Ellsbury (.353 average and nine stolen bases in 33 games) all showing flashes of promise in limited action.
The Red Sox sprinted to a 36-15 start and led the AL East by 11½ games on May 29. Beckett won his first nine decisions, and Boston appeared to be cruising toward the division title. The Yankees, meanwhile, started the season 21-29 and were below .500 as late as July 13. But New York's sizzling second half created a race for the division, and a Yankees' three-game sweep of the Red Sox in late August cut the lead to five games. Buchholz pulled up Boston with his stunning no-hitter on Sept. 1 in his second career start, and the Red Sox did enough to hold off a charging New York through a tense September. On the final Friday of the season Boston ultimately won the division in a manner few members of Red Sox Nation would object to—while watching the Yankees lose on TV.