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With the Red Sox basking in the glory of their ALCS comeback against the Yankees, it's easy to forget they spent half this season mired in mediocrity. After a 15-6 start, Boston was just 41-40 in next 81 games and going nowhere.

Despite strong starting pitching and a rugged lineup, the Sox couldn't catch a cold. They were the American League's worst defensive team and General Manager Theo Epstein knew they wouldn't last long in October -- if they even got there at all -- unless changes were made.

"We said at the July 31 deadline we have a flaw and if we let it be a fatal flaw, we're not doing our jobs," Epstein said Friday as he watched his team work out in Fenway Park on the eve of the World Series opener against St. Louis.

Epstein moved decisively. Gold Glove first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz was brought in from Minnesota. Shortstop Orlando Cabrera came from Montreal as Nomar Garciaparra was shipped to the Cubs and speedy Dave Roberts came from the Dodgers to shore up the outfield and eventually become the ace pinch-runner who dogged the Yankees by scoring the tying runs in Games Four and Five of the ALCS.

"Our team was really saved by the way Theo want out and got guys and mixed guys who have fun and who play really hard," said center fielder Johnny Damon. "It's a special team."

"I was really shocked at the time," Roberts said. "I'm an LA guy. We were a first-place team and I thought I'd spend my whole career there. To change up a team that much was really a surprise but I got over here and it was a great opportunity."

After posting a .979 fielding percentage with 80 errors and 74 earned runs allowed through July 31, the Sox made only 38 errors and yielded just 20 unearned runs in their last 60 games.

Epstein made the moves, of course, because he had been given permission to push his team's payroll over the winter to more than $120 million by working a trade with Arizona for Curt Schilling.

Epstein and several Sox officials spent Thanksgiving at Schilling's house in Arizona cutting the deal.

"We pulled back from Jose Contreras and we pulled back from A-Rod when the cost didn't make sense," Epstein said. "We didn't want to pull back from Schilling. We didn't want to leave that house. We had identified him as the guy we wanted.

"We sat around watching football and talking baseball and it was a lot of fun. Then we moved to his office and got down to business. He sat us down right under his World Series trophy and I know we all said, 'All right, for a guy who isn't having an agent (negotiate for him), maybe he's not so dumb.' "

Schilling was immediately impressed with Epstein.

"The first minute we sat down, they were prepared to answer any questions I had for them," Schilling said Friday. "They came armed with arguments from (baseball stat guru and Sox consultant) Bill James refuting anything I said about this being a bad ballpark for fly ball pitchers."

Red Sox players have been filming public-service announcements pleading fans to behave outside the ballpark during the series. Victoria Snelgrove, a 21-year-old Emerson College student, died Thursday when she was hit in the eye by a plastic pepper spray ball fired by police trying to quell rowdiness after the Game Seven win over the Yankees.

"It should hit everybody. It's pathetic," Schilling said. "Somebody died because we won a game? It makes no sense to me. At what point does it go from, 'Let's go out and get drunk 'cause they won' to 'Let's go start a car on fire'? Unfortunately, there's a few idiots everywhere and this girl paid with her life. I can't even fathom what that family is going through."

"We want people to celebrate and have a good time and not trash the place," Damon said. "Use common sense is what I would say to people. Be responsible."

Cardinals second baseman Tony Womack said it will be a day-to-day proposition to see how his injured back is holding up. He was suffering back spasms that severely limited him in Games Six and Seven of the NLCS.

"What back?" Womack said with a laugh. "I don't know where my back is. I have to find it. I just got off a plane to get here."

There's no laughing at Womack's postseason accomplishments, led by his World Series title with the Diamondbacks in 2001. He won the division series against St. Louis that season with a walkoff single in the bottom of the ninth.

"Luck follows me I guess and that's what you need," Womack said. "I've been fortunate and blessed to go to the playoffs as many times as I have."

This is the Cardinals' 16th trip to the World Series. Only the Yankees (39), Dodgers (18) and Giants (17) have made more. . . . St. Louis has dropped its last six Series road games . . . Games Six and Seven in 1985 at Kansas City and Games One, Two, Six and Seven in 1987 at Minnesota. It's the second longest road drought in Series history, behind only the 14 straight dropped by the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins. . . . With only about 35,000 seats, Fenway is going to be a brutally tough ticket this weekend. Face value of seats, as established by Major League Baseball, is $190 for boxes, $145 for grandstand, $70 for bleachers and $50 for standing room. But local media reports the cheapest 'black-market' ticket is around $1,200 and the field boxes could go as high as $8,000 apiece.

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