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This was a season with a most unusual beginning. The earliest season opener in history had New England-based Sox fans watching first pitch at 6:10 in the morning of March 25. The team was in the Tokyo Dome playing the Oakland A’s, a 6-5 win. Manny Ramirez drove in four runs, including two in the 10th for the game-winner, and was presented a huge Ricoh color printer after the game. Matsuzaka started and Hideki Okajima got the win in relief. The Sox lost the second game, and so stood 1-1 in the regular season when they returned to the US – and resumed spring training! They played an exhibition game in the Los Angeles Coliseum in front of the largest crowd to ever watch a baseball game: 115,300. It was a bizarre setting, with left-field seats just 200 feet from home plate. Neither team placed a fielder in left field, where a 62-foot net created a “wall”. Boston beat LA, 7-3. There were no major changes from the 2007 team that just won the World Series. The only free agent signed was Sean Casey . The only omission from the pitching staff was Curt Schilling, on the payroll but unable to play. The biggest move happened at the trading deadline. When the Sox played in Toronto’s home opener on April 4, it marked the first three-country road trip in major-league history: Japan, the United States, and Canada – and was the seventh time in 10 games that the team had lined up on the basepaths for pre-game introductions. With all this travel, the Red Sox still had to wait until April 8 and their own home opener – so they could line up once more! As he’d done in Tokyo, Matsuzaka pitched the Fenway Park opener, too, winning 5-0, beginning to build the best year of his career, 18-3 with a 2.90 earned run average. Captain Jason Varitek the only catcher in baseball history to have caught four no-hitters on May 16, when lefty Jon Lester threw a no-hitter in Boston, beating Kansas City, 7-0, while walking two. (It would be five if one counted the “unofficial” no-hitter that Hansack threw on the final day of the 2006 season.) Kevin Youkilis had set a new major-league record on April 2, when he played his 194th consecutive errorless game at first base. The last time Youk had made an error at first was July 4, 2006. On July 2, Dustin Pedroia blew a chance to hit for the cycle at Tropicana Field. He hit a home run, a triple, and a double in that order – but in fifth time up, he hit a double to left-center field. He could have stopped at first base, and collected the single but instead “overran” the bag. He was trying to win, though; the Red Sox were down 7-5 at the time (and did indeed lose, 7-6.) Manny Ramirez was trying the patience of the powers that be. He’d knocked traveling secretary Jack McCormick to the ground in mid-July, when McCormick said he was unsure he could get Ramirez a dozen free tickets to a sold-out road game, a last-minute request. He was said to have had to be talked onto the team plane, had stood in the batter’s box and refused to take the bat off his shoulder as Mariano Rivera struck him out in a key ninth-inning at-bat. He’d worn out his welcome. After he simply refused to play in two straight games, the Red Sox losing 1-0 to the Yankees on July 25. He was suspended without pay, and on July 31, Manny was traded to the Dodgers in a three-team trade which brought Jason Bay in from the Pirates to play left field. The Sox were so glad to get rid of him that they agreed to pay his entire salary as he finished out the season with L.A. In a March 2009 interview with Esquire, Jonathan Papelbon compared the effect Manny Ramirez had on the 2008 Red Sox: “It just takes one guy to bring an entire team down, and that's exactly what was happening. It's like cancer. That's what he was. Cancer. He had to go.” He called Jason Bay, the “cure for the disease we had in our clubhouse. I guess you could say he was our chemo treatment.” Terry Francona simply said, “The moves we make speak volumes enough.” Bay played exceptionally well in the 49 games remaining. Youk led the team in RBIs, with 115, and with 20 home runs. At the end of the season, Dustin Pedroia (.326) won the league MVP, with Youkilis placing third in the voting. Pedey also added a Gold Glove to his hardware. A strong Tampa Bay Rays team challenged the Red Sox for supremacy in the AL East, and both Boston and Tampa Bay stayed ahead of the Yankees and the rest of the pack most of the year. Boston had a chance to take over first by beating Tampa at Fenway on September 9. Boston led 4-3 going into the ninth, thanks to a two-run home run by Jason Bay in the last of the eighth. Jonathan Papelbon gave up a home run to Dan Johnson to tie it, and then gave up another run to lose the game. Boston never could catch the Rays, but stayed far enough ahead of NY to win the wild card.

By Bill Nowlin
 

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Tagged:
Curt Schilling, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Dustin Pedroia, Hideki Okajima, Jason Bay, Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, Kevin Youkilis, Manny Ramirez, Sean Casey
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