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Playoffs the gift that keeps giving

WashPost: After another amazing postseason, what could be next?

Baseball in the 21st century is presenting us with grave difficulties. Nothing is this good. When you hit the mega-millions lottery once, it's a fantasy. When you win it twice, it's a miracle. When you win it the third time, it's got to be a trick. But here we are: Three times in four seasons baseball fans have hit once-in-a-lifetime October lotteries. Color me blissfully suspicious.

The 2001 World Series is the consensus best ever with three walk-off games for the ages, plus the sport's ultimate scene: An underdog (Arizona) trails the Yanks entering the ninth inning of Game 7, but rallies to win against the best postseason reliever ever.

Then '03 gave us the best postseason ever with two winner-take-all Division Series games, followed by two seven-game pennant playoffs, which are so indelible that two names (neither a player) reprise the whole plot: Grady Little and Steve Bartman. Then the wild-card Marlins won the Series on the Yanks' home turf led by a 23-year-old pitcher and a 73-year-old manager.

And now we are left to digest and delight in this thing that the Red Sox have done. But what is it?

In a roadside restaurant on Thursday morning, three Boston fans, all in Red Sox caps, paid a cashier who was still wearing her "Go Cardinals" pin. The whole joint was decked in Cards colors and placards, appropriate for a city that worships baseball.

"Congratulations," she said to them. "No, really, congratulations."

Partly, that's Midwestern manners and generosity of spirit, which isn't a fiction. Leaving a Busch Stadium parking lot at 1 a.m. after Game 4, the attendant even said "Congratulations" to me and I was only wearing a plain blue jacket with a red lining.

What we've just seen is the most widely popular and emotionally satisfying baseball season since the silliness began in 1869.

The most beloved of all the star-crossed teams in all our sports -- the Red Sox -- just completed the greatest comeback in the history of any American professional sport by beating the Yankees after trailing three games to none. Then they capped their Reverse the Curse celebration with a sweep of the (supposedly) best team in baseball, the 105-win Cards, in which Boston never trailed.

The Red Sox went to the absolute brink of emotional devastation, at least in sports terms, with a 19-8 loss in Game 3 of the ALCS. Even now, who can believe the lines of the Nos. 2 through 5 hitters in the Yankee box score: Rodriguez 5-5-3-3, Sheffield 5-3-4-4, Matsui 6-5-5-5, Williams 6-1-4-3. That's a combined 22-14-16-15! Have four consecutive hitters ever topped that?

No wonder that, during such lopsided routes, old coaches yell, "Save some of 'em." In baseball, the law of averages is not only immutable but also sometimes immediate. As a group, Rodriguez, Sheffield, Matsui and Williams are .300 hitters. After their 16-for-22 eruption, they went 13 for 74 (.176) in New York's four losses. So, in the last five games of the ALCS, they hit .302 -- exactly what should have been expected of them. But they did it all in Game 3, which set the stage for history.

That the Red Sox, of all teams, should recover from just a bludgeoning in their own Fenway Park evokes phrases like "the power of the human spirit," which usually seem embarrassingly out of place in games played by millionaires. But if you watched those last five games, played in a crisp average time of 4 hours 31 minutes, you were left thinking, "I'll never see anything like that again."

Nobody in baseball, facing a three-game deficit, had even forced a Game 7 before, much less won it. The Red Sox did it with a four-day balancing act in which, in almost every inning, it seemed they were about to plunge to their demise. "You just try to simplify it, because if you look too far ahead it gets overwhelming," said Boston Manager Terry Francona, whom the Orioles turned down for their managerial job last winter before he landed with the Red Sox. "When I looked at that series and saw all the opportunities we had to lose, I'm glad we didn't look ahead or it would have been insurmountable.

Even in retrospect it seems insurmountable. How did they do it? The Red Sox did it with two extra-inning, game-winning hits by David Ortiz after hanging two blown saves on Mariano Rivera on the same calendar date (Oct. 18). How narrow was the margin? If Dave Roberts, safe by inches, had been called out stealing in the ninth inning of Game 4 or if, moments later, Rivera had snagged Bill Mueller's RBI liner through the box, the Red Sox would have been swept. Except for those two plays, both decided by a foot or less, we'd be babbling now about how the Curse had redoubled in power and might last for eternity.

In Games 4 and 5, the Yankees left 32 men on base. That's 32. If Tony Clark's ninth-inning Game 5 ground-rule double doesn't short-hop the low fence near the Pesky Pole, preventing Ruben Sierra from scoring from first base with two outs, the Red Sox's comeback expires right there. Back in New York, the margin of error became physical. When Curt Schilling awoke the morning of Game 6, his leg was numb from a suture hitting a nerve and was absolutely sure he couldn't pitch. Boston had nobody else, nobody feasible. But he provided seven innings of one-run pitching. In Game 7, the Red Sox hoped Derek Lowe, pitching on two days' rest, could survive three decent innings without sinking them utterly. Instead, Lowe allowed one hit in six innings and retired his last 11 hitters. He still has no idea how he did it.

Three weeks ago, Lowe was so persona non grata that one Red Sox executive just rolled his eyes in dismay at the mention of his name. Now Lowe has become the first man to win the clinching game of all three postseason series in one year.

But why should that surprise anybody? Last winter, the Red Sox put Manny Ramirez and his $20-million-a-year contract on waivers, praying that anybody would take him as a gift. Nobody would touch him. Now he's the World Series MVP. For Boston. Meanwhile, Alex Rodriguez, the man the Red Sox desperately wanted, ended the ALCS in a 1-for-15 slump and Nomar Garciaparra's skills have declined so rapidly that the Chicago Cubs aren't entirely sure they want to re-sign him.

So, who ended up being the Red Sox shortstop? Why, slick-fielding Orlando Cabrera, whose 11 postseason RBI tied him with Ramirez and Jason Varitek for the second-highest Boston total behind Ortiz's dizzying total of 19 RBI in 14 games.

This rapid-fire World Series was, in a way, the only proper encore for what the Red Sox accomplished. After an ALCS that no one will ever forget, why not follow up with a World Series that no one will ever remember -- except for its staggering one-sidedness. In retrospect, Game 1 was decisive. It shouldn't have been. But it was. Sometimes in a postseason series there is an atrocious total-luck game that both teams deserve to lose by, oh, maybe 10 runs. But one of them has to win it by default.

If you squander that gift, that "swing game" in the eyes of the gods, then if you're the tightly wound type, you feel spooked.

Nobody's wrapped tighter or more attuned to baseball subtlety or less able to hide his feelings when he fears the dice have turned cold than Tony (The Cooler) La Russa. If you've seen the William H. Macy flick about Vegas, then you've seen La Russa once the pressure gets him and his team senses it. All he has to do is walk near a hitter and the guy is doomed to go 0 for 12.

By the time the Cards got back to St. Louis, they were in total choke mode. The Red Sox's pitching trio of Schilling, Martinez and Lowe had an ERA of 0.00 while the Cards' 4-5-6 hitters -- Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds and Reggie Sanders -- were 0 for 30 after an initial Edmonds bunt hit against a Red Sox shift. Wow, what are the odds? This is now the third Series in which a monster La Russa team has shut down emotional operations after an early-series reversal. Add up the '88, '90 and '04 Series: 1-12.

At this time last year, baseball fans collapsed with exhaustion (or perhaps sleep deprivation) and assumed they would never see an October the like of that one again. Yet we just did. Only this October left tens of millions of unaligned fans, those without a horse in the race, but a love of the sport, as delighted as last year seemed a cruel joke to everyone except jovial Jack McKeon.

After such exalted shenanigans, what unfinished business can possibly remain on baseball's October feasting table?

Shhhhh, don't you dare say, "Gimme a C . . . U . . . B . . . "