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Red Sox got the jump on Cards before '04 Series

Roberts' stolen base in ALCS was catalyst for Boston's first title since 1918

Looking back with the clarity the lens of history provides, it's evident the momentum swung on the 2004 World Series on Oct. 17 that year -- six days before the Fall Classic was scheduled to begin.

It was on that night that David Roberts' hand touched second base in the ninth inning, triggering an American League Championship Series comeback for the ages and a Red Sox roll that simply never stopped. Eight straight wins later, Boston had shaken its 86-year World Series drought and the so-called Curse of the Bambino, becoming champion for the first time since 1918 in a four-game sweep of the Cardinals.

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As the Sox and Cards meet in the 2013 World Series for the fourth time, the events of the days leading up to their third meeting had plenty to do with how the 2004 Series itself transpired. The Cardinals had foiled the Sox before, winning in seven in 1946 and again in '67, but the one in 2004 would wind up making history for Boston and its Red Sox.

With the Sox on the cusp of winning it all in '04, club owner John Henry could sense the present and the past coming together to create a special piece of history.

"It's not an accident we were the first to come back," Henry said before Game 4 of the World Series that year, reflecting on the ALCS turnabout. "There's two main factors. How they feel about each other. This team has more affection for one another than any team I've seen in my life for 55 years in looking over sports. It's evident.

"The second is, they realize how much this means to the fans of New England -- and what it would mean to New England to win a championship."

As history so clearly shows us looking back through its crystal-clear lens, winning the 2004 title meant everything to Red Sox Nation.

* * *

On the night of Oct. 17, 2004, the National League Championship Series between the Cardinals and the Astros had just become knotted at 2 games apiece with a Game 4 victory for Houston, the home team winning again in a trend that continued throughout the series. Carlos Beltran -- in his first foray into the postseason, now an all-time October star with the Cardinals -- had hit homers in the first four games for the Astros, and it was clear the NL Central rivals would go the distance in their seven-game series, which they did.

Just as the NLCS was knotted after Game 4, the Red Sox were three outs from being swept in four games by the Yankees in the ALCS. Then, Roberts delivered his daring steal of second, quickly scoring on a Bill Mueller single to send the game into extra innings, handing Mariano Rivera a blown save.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history -- but it's really true in this case.

No team had rallied back to win four straight games to clinch a seven-game series, but the 2004 Red Sox did it, and they clearly weren't done yet. They'd reached the World Series for the first time since 1986, and this time they were on a serious roll -- starting with one headfirst slide into second.

"Back four days ago, Dave Roberts steals second base in the ninth inning. That may get lost in the shuffle, but not in our clubhouse and not by me," then-Sox manager Terry Francona said once the Yankees had been vanquished in Game 7.

For a Cardinals team that just got out of a seven-round battle of its own against one of its rivals, there wasn't a lot of time to consider how it might stop the freight train the Sox had become.

A squad that won 105 games that year and had veterans throughout the lineup, from Albert Pujols at his prime to Larry Walker joining the club in an August waiver deal, the Cardinals just wouldn't have enough to overcome the greatest October burst of momentum in baseball history -- who could have?

"I don't remember them not being competitive," current Cardinals manager and then-catcher Mike Matheny recalled on Tuesday. "But I do remember we had a very tough series against Houston, and went to Game 7 with a very good club. And it was a knock-down, drag out fight. It was pretty much a whirlwind by the time we ended there and got here to Boston.

"And next thing you know, we're down two games and didn't even know what happened -- and that was a team that didn't happen to very often. It was a very good team that walked on the field expecting to win. And next thing you know we ran into a buzz saw."

Don't forget the Cardinals were in a minor drought of their own for such a storied postseason franchise. It had been 17 years since they'd reached the World Series, and in the world where Stan Musial, Bob Gibson and Ozzie Smith once tread, that was a long time.

Likewise, the Red Sox knew they had a lot of years of waiting and a lot of hopes riding on this particular outcome.

Remember, these were the self-professed "idiots" who were a little shaggy but with Johnny Damon at the top of the lineup and Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz in the middle, and they were nothing if not loose and confident. It was time to "Cowboy Up" and make some history.

* * *

The scene for Game 1 at Fenway Park was one part chill with the October breeze bringing some sting and 100 percent thrill -- a city reveling in a miraculous turnaround against the dreaded Yankees and soaking in every single moment of this special team and this special time.

The Red Sox didn't waste any time getting right to work in the opener, with Ortiz crushing a three-run homer in a four-run first inning. But the Cardinals made it clear this wasn't going to be that easy, and it wound up being not only the highest-scoring opening game in World Series history but one of the most thrilling.

By the sixth inning, the Cardinals had come all the way back to tie the game at 7 on back-to-back doubles by Edgar Renteria -- another player with a stellar October pedigree -- and Walker. After the Red Sox retook the lead, the top of the eighth got a little crazy for the home team, as Ramirez botched a ball in left field off the bat of Walker to allow the tying run to score.

But this was a Boston squad that would not be denied, and Mark Bellhorn's two-run homer off Julian Tavarez in the bottom of the eighth was the difference in an 11-9 victory for the Red Sox, with closer Keith Foulke shutting things down in the ninth.

"It's huge, [but] you need four wins to win the whole thing," Foulke said. "Getting that first one out of the way, it's one less that we have to win now."

Game 2 was marked in red by Curt Schilling's return to the mound after his famous "bloody sock" performance in Game 6 of the ALCS, sutures from a procedure on his ankle tendon still bothering him as Game 2 of the World Series approached. He almost didn't pitch, but he did it again, delivering six innings of work, allowing no earned runs on four hits. With the Red Sox offense getting four early runs against Cardinals starter Matt Morris, Boston cruised to a 6-2 win that gave them a 2-0 edge in the World Series -- a lead the Red Sox had in '86 against the Mets, by the way, to no avail.

"We knew we had to go into St. Louis 2-0," Damon said. "Game 3 is a must-win for us. We're not going to take anything for granted. We know how momentum in this series can change in a heartbeat."

But, really, it didn't. By the time the Sox got to St. Louis on a six-game winning streak, they were going to be hard to stop. Playing in the old Busch Stadium with the arch designs on top, the Red Sox were closing in on history.

With Pedro Martinez on the mound for the Red Sox in Game 3, the Cardinals might have gotten something going early, but they had trouble getting around to score. A bases-loaded opportunity was cut short in the first when Ramirez, who would be named World Series Most Valuable Player, cut down Walker with a throw home after catching a fly ball, and a third-inning rally fizzled after a baserunning mistake by starter Jeff Suppan.

Martinez wound up throwing seven shutout innings, and the Cardinals' only run came in the ninth on a solo homer by Walker off Foulke, one last gasp before the Sox claimed a 4-1 win and a 3-0 lead in the Series.

"Our focus is pitch to pitch right now, and that's the way need to keep focusing," said Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek. "We're going to focus pitch to pitch, period. We're going to grind this thing out."

That's what they did, wrapping up the series the next night with another strong start, this one from Derek Lowe, and just enough offense, starting with a leadoff homer by Damon off Jason Marquis. The Red Sox added two more in the third on a two-run double by Trot Nixon, and the pitching staff took care of the rest in a 3-0 win.

Foulke allowed a leadoff single to Pujols but got Renteria to ground to him, throwing the ball to Doug Mientkiewicz for the final out, and the celebration was on, a bunch of idiots going crazy, first on the field and then in the clubhouse, in wild celebration of a feat 86 years in the making.

And, to be sure, that celebration was reverberating throughout Red Sox Nation while the Sox were waiting to be sized for World Series rings.

"I'm not so happy for the ring, but just to bring this to Boston," Martinez would say. "The ring is meaningless, the ring is a ring and it's a material thing, but the feelings these people are going to have in Boston is indescribable."

When it came to that historic accomplishment by the Red Sox in 2004, it's hard to keep it in a four-game box. It's definitely a World Series that saw its first shift of momentum before the teams ever knew they were playing each other -- with one hand on the second-base bag on Oct. 17, 2004.

"You look at what that '04 Boston team did just to get there," Matheny says today. "It was an incredible run to get through the Yankees at the end, and we just couldn't stop them."

John Schlegel is a national reporter for

Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals