HOUSTON -- That's four American League championships in 15 seasons for the Boston Red Sox if you're keeping track. Think about that for a moment. Baseball has never had more parity than right now, but the Sox constantly restock and roll on, making the playoffs this season for the 10th time since 2003.
No other AL franchise can match Boston's four pennants in this stretch. This isn't one generation of players, either. It's at least three, maybe four, and that's the thing that separates some franchises from others.
Now, these new Red Sox will bring fresh faces to the game's biggest stage after eliminating the Astros with a 4-1 win in Game 5 of the AL Championship Series on Thursday night to get back to the World Series and within four wins of doing what the championship teams of 2004, '07 and '13 did.From Manny Ramirez and Curt Schilling to David Ortiz and Jon Lester to Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts, the names roll off the tongues of Boston baseball fans. To be so good for so long says plenty about Red Sox owner John Henry's construction of a great franchise.
In the first team meeting last spring, Boston rookie manager Alex Cora asked how many players had been part of a World Series winner. A handful had played some on the 2013 club, but this group largely represents a turning of the page. With that, a tone had been set.
"Spring Training, you just have that feel," said Bradley, the ALCS MVP. "We had a lot of talent in the room. And it was just those extra pieces to allow us to get to where we wanted and needed to be."
This team has been expertly constructed and smartly managed. There are homegrown stars like Betts and Bradley as well as left fielder Andrew Benintendi and third baseman Rafael Devers. There are smart free-agent signings (David Price and J.D. Martinez) and solid trade acquisitions (Chris Sale, Rick Porcello and Craig Kimbrel).
This pennant belongs to all of them and especially to Cora, who celebrated his 43rd birthday with champagne showers and bear hugs in a wild clubhouse celebration at Minute Maid Park. His ability to reach players, to get them to buy in, was mentioned again and again in the clinching celebration.
"You know, AC just fits this group really well," Price said. "And he did it before our first day in Spring Training, just getting guys together, just getting everybody on the same page and making sure everybody has that common goal."
This pennant also belongs to an old-school baseball executive, Dave Dombrowski, the architect of World Series teams in Florida and Detroit before arriving in New England in 2015.
Dombrowski put the finishing touches on a team that won a franchise-record 108 regular-season games and ran away from a 100-win Yankees team, climbing atop the AL East for good on July 2 and finishing eight games in front.
Before that 2004 World Series, the one that ended an 86-year championship drought, the Red Sox had been to the Fall Classic four times in the previous 85 seasons. Now, they've made it feel almost routine. They spend money fearlessly and had baseball's highest payroll in 2018. For this, they make no apology.
"You want to be a part of something great," Bradley said. "You want to be winners. You want to be known as winners."
In Game 5, it was Price pitching the game Boston envisioned him pitching when he signed one of the largest free-agent contracts in history in 2015.
You probably know the story line. Price could not replicate his regular-season success during the postseason. Pitching on just three days' rest and one day after warming up to pitch in relief on Wednesday night, he threw six shutout innings that will stand as his signature New England moment until something grander comes along.
Martinez homered off Houston starter Justin Verlander in the top of the third inning, and Price made that run stand up until Devers broke it open with a three-run home run off Verlander in the sixth.
In the end, all the pieces fit. Cora managed his bullpen beautifully. Bradley hit huge home runs in Games 3 and 4. Benintendi ended Game 4 with one of the great clutch catches in history.
Next up: another World Series in New England, with Game 1 against the Brewers or Dodgers on Tuesday at Fenway Park.
"It's special in every aspect," Cora said. "Not only as a manager, but as an individual. To be able to lead this team, it's amazing. It's a great group -- very talented, very humble, very hungry."