Red Sox go from AL survivors to World Series favorites

BOSTON -- Pardon the 2007 Red Sox if they don't feel like American League champions so much as the winners of "Survivor: Boston."

October has been a challenging month, between off days and waiting for Josh Beckett's turn in the rotation to come around, but the Red Sox take pride in perseverance. They've stuck around long enough to watch Manny Ramirez morph into the team's resident philosopher, J.D. Drew become Mr. Popularity and Dustin Pedroia's reputation grow three sizes in one day.

In the past three weeks, the Red Sox exposed the Angels' lack of offensive punch and the vulnerability of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona. They watched Joe Torre's tenure in New York come to an end and Paul Byrd do significant damage to his reputation while goosing future book sales.

The Red Sox briefly lost their way in Cleveland, only to wipe that smile off Chief Wahoo's face in Boston. And while the Colorado Rockies were playing simulated games and making snow angels in Denver this weekend, the Red Sox managed to survive the American League playoffs.

Or, as it's known in the scouting community, the "varsity tournament."

Next up: Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday in Boston, home of $500 hotel rooms, the Head of the Charles Regatta and "Sweet Caroline." The Red Sox are four wins from their second championship in four years, and good times never seemed so good.

After Boston blitzed Cleveland with a late run to beat the Indians 11-2 on Sunday and complete a comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the ALCS, the Red Sox players reveled in the clubhouse, then took the festivities out onto the field. Closer Jonathan Papelbon did his modified river dance while wearing a pair of goggles fresh out of "Silence of the Lambs," and Mike Lowell smoked a cigar the size of a Dodger Dog.

"This never gets old," said reliever Mike Timlin, who is about to appear in his fourth World Series.

Boston is certain to be favored over Colorado on the basis of the American League's perceived superiority alone. If being tested and sharp and pushed to the limit can help a team's chances, that's another reason to like the Sox.

After a first-round sweep of the Angels, the Red Sox were on the brink of elimination last week in Cleveland. Then Beckett beat Sabathia 7-1 at Jacobs Field and Boston outscored the Tribe 23-4 over the weekend at Fenway.

The Indians should have known they were in trouble when the series shifted to Boston, given the Red Sox's flair for whipping the fan base into a frenzy. After inviting old friend Bill Mueller back to throw out the ceremonial first pitch in Game 6, the Sox put out the call for Kevin Millar in the series finale.

You can only wonder who's warming up for the opener against Colorado -- Johnny Damon?

Although Daisuke Matsuzaka started Game 7 for Boston, manager Terry Francona had a secret weapon at the back end of his bullpen. Beckett, readily available on two days' rest, drew a huge ovation from the folks in the bleachers when he walked out to the bullpen in the second inning. The Red Sox didn't quite know how they planned to use him -- and never did, in the end -- but they sure wanted the Indians to know he was around.

"He was like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs out there," Timlin said of Beckett. "He didn't know what to do or when to throw. But he found a way to keep himself occupied."

In the old days, before the Red Sox broke their 86-year run of futility in 2004, the Boston faithful was conditioned to expect the worst. Now, the Sox are all about positive karma and the Indians can lay claim to the honor of being the American League's foremost fatalists.

Boston hung in early despite grounding into three double plays against Jake Westbrook, then caught a megabreak in the seventh inning when Cleveland third-base coach Joel Skinner inexplicably threw up a stop sign just as Kenny Lofton appeared ready to score on a Franklin Gutierrez hit that would have tied the score 3-3.

Boston made the Indians pay when Pedroia hit a two-run homer off previously untouchable Rafael Betancourt to make it 5-2. Earlier in the series, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein paid tribute to Pedroia's "grittiness" and uncanny knack for putting the ball in play while swinging really hard. Pedroia established his Rookie of the Year credentials with an .822 OPS and more extra-base hits (48) than strikeouts (42) this season.

"He doesn't back down to anyone or any situation," Epstein said. "That's what makes him good. He walks around like he's an Adonis instead of 5-foot-6."

The Red Sox take their knocks, justifiably, for considering themselves underdogs to the Yankees despite having a $143 million payroll. But they're receiving big contributions from the new wave. Kevin Youkilis hit .500 (14-for-28) in the ALCS; Pedroia went 7-for-13 in the final three games of the series; and Papelbon has thrown 6 1/3 shutout innings and held opponents to a .130 batting average in the postseason.

That's significant contributions from three players making a combined $1.23 million, and we haven't even mentioned dynamic young outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury yet.

"I don't look at it as young and old," Curt Schilling said. "It's just talent. I think part of the change in philosophy here is the ability to measure the character and makeup of guys they draft and bring in. They realize you have to be different to play [in Boston] and have success here. Age aside, these guys are big league ballplayers and they know how to win."

That goes double for the ALCS Most Valuable Player, Beckett, who has a habit of collecting celebrity girlfriends, using salty language with the media and making opposing lineups look helpless when the games matter most.

"He's the best pitcher in the game right now, and if it's possible, he gets better in October," Schilling said. "He's a special kid with special stuff. This is just the beginning of a long and storied career."

Schilling's tenure in Boston might be ending shortly, and Boston's innovative front office will make other changes this winter. But the Red Sox have fulfilled their early expectations by making it to the World Series.

"In spring training, I said, 'We're a good team,'" Lowell said. "I don't want to sound conceited, but just look at the talent and the track record of guys. We felt like we'd be disappointed if we didn't go to the playoffs and go deep."

"No brag, just fact," as the saying goes. The Angels and Indians are well aware of how formidable the Red Sox are. Now, Beckett and friends will try to convey that same message to the Rockies.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.