October 31, 2013

Sox win it all in ultimate redemption story

By Dan Guttenplan

The Red Sox just won the World Series during a bridge year.

A season that started with general manager Ben Cherington filling out the roster with aged veterans who happily signed 2- or 3-year contracts — and $13 million per year seemed to be the magic number for everyone — ended with the team's third world championship in 10 seasons.

The Red Sox captured the most unlikeliest of those championships Wednesday night with a 6-1 victory over the Cardinals — their first title-clincher at Fenway Park since 1918.

But this wasn't the 2004 Red Sox with two of the undisputed aces in the game in Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling, along with the game’s best meat of the order in Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. This wasn't even the 2007 Red Sox, who had an undeniable ace in his absolute prime in Josh Beckett, and still the best meat of the order with Manny and Papi.

If you sifted through the names on the Red Sox' payroll before the season, you would have had a hard time finding a person without a few warts or wrinkles.

That includes Red Sox ownership, a group coming off a season in which it interfered with Cherington's managerial search, only to push the hire of the worst manager in Red Sox history, Bobby Valentine. Then, to make matters worse, John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino had all of their dirty laundry aired by ex-manager Terry Francona in his book, "Francona: The Red Sox Years." The owners were depicted as bumbling fools who were more concerned with sex appeal and ratings than rings.

The 2013 season started with that same ownership group admitting to the end of a fraudulent sellout streak, while all the while, offering budget beers and discounted food and drinks in an attempt to win back the fans. Think of that. The owners had no expectation that the players could win over the fans with their collective performance on the field, so they rolled out marketing ploys typically reserved for minor league ballparks.

But when all was said and done, the symmetry of this redemption tour was too perfect.

World Series MVP David Ortiz was nearly released from his contract in 2009 when he could no longer catch up with 92-mile-per-hour fastballs and his slugging percentage hovered around the .300 mark heading into June. In this World Series, Ortiz hit almost .700, eventually earning the Barry Bonds treatment from opposing pitchers — four years after the lowest point in his career.

The pitcher of record in the deciding game, John Lackey, was impossible to trade less than 12 months ago. In 2011, he was the worst pitcher in baseball — and one of the faces of the chicken-and-beer era. He didn't care for the Boston fans, didn't care for the ballpark, didn't seem to care about his profession. So, how did he redeem himself? He recommitted himself to the game following Tommy John surgery, lost 25 pounds, became the Sox' No. 2 starter in the postseason, and delivered the win in the biggest game of the season.

The redemption stories run rampant on this group of champions. This is a team that seemingly couldn't hit good pitching all season. Nonetheless, in the playoffs, they beat David Price, Matt Moore, Max Scherzer twice, Justin Verlander, Adam Wainwright twice and Michael Wacha.

The manager of the Red Sox, John Farrell, never could grasp the change in rules when the series move to a National League park in Games 3, 4 and 5 in the World Series. Nonetheless, the Sox ignored the fact that their manager kept sending pitchers to the plate late in close games and won two of three in St. Louis. It's amazing the difference a manager can make when the players want to make him look good. Bobby Valentine can attest to that.

Sox shortstop Stephen Drew couldn't put his bat on the ball for much of the postseason. Nonetheless, the brother of former Sox outfielder J.D. Drew will likely get one of the biggest ovations at the parade for his focus, which allowed him to play stellar defense and finally deliver that big hit  a home run — in the clinching Game 6 of the World Series.

In March, the Sox seemed like an 80-win team after shedding their payroll of the albatross contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett late last season, sitting out on the bidding for big-name free agents like Josh Hamilton after a 69-win campaign, and rounding out the roster with complementary pieces. How many wins would you have predicted if you knew the following things would go wrong for the Sox?

  • The team's most talented pitcher, Clay Buchholz, spent half the season on the disabled list.
  • The team's No. 3 hitter, Dustin Pedroia, injured a tendon in his hand on opening day, decreasing his power numbers for the season.
  • Leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury missed 28 games due to injury.
  • Opening Day third baseman Will Middlebrooks spent 45 games on the Pawtucket Sox roster.
  • Starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia's defensive inadequacies reared their ugly head at the worst possible moment.
  • Opening Day starting pitcher Jon Lester struggled so much at midseason that sports radio callers wondered if the Sox would pick up his team option for 2014.
  • Gold Glove right fielder Shane Victorino battled an injured hamstring for most of the second half of the season, forcing him to discontinue switch-hitting.
  • The prospect the franchise sold its fans on during spring training, Jackie Bradley Jr., hit .189 in 95 at-bats.
  • Opening Day eighth- and ninth-inning specialists Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan combined for zero saves after July 1.

Baseball is a funny game. Executives crunch statistics upon statistics to predict a team’s performance over a 162-game schedule, but sometimes, there is no way to quantify what actually occurs on the field.

What is the explanation for the Sox’ 8-1 record when Jonny Gomes, who hit .247 this season, started in left field in the postseason as opposed to the team’s 3-4 record when Daniel Nava, a .300 hitter, started? How can you predict 22 wins in the last at-bat over the course of a season? Who could possibly explain the historic success of a career journeyman reliever, Koji Uehara, who struggles to break 89 miles per hour on the radar gun and offers up strike after strike for batters to hit? How does a team get better by subtracting Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett without adding a single player in the same trade who made an impact this season?

This year’s Red Sox team hit below .200 for much of the postseason, rarely providing fans with the celebratory atmosphere that existed last night in the deciding Game 6. But to the confusion of baseball executives who quantify such things, the Red Sox won because they hit grand slams in huge spots. They won because their third option as closer, who had durability issues heading into the season, was Mariana Rivera for four months. They won because the man who could never seem to get over the hump as an undisputed ace, Lester, was the best pitcher in baseball in October.

Perhaps the lasting image from the season as we reflect on what made this Red Sox team a champion is a photo that surfaced in early August of three Red Sox during an off day after a stretch of 17 games in 17 days. Pedroia, Gomes and Saltalamacchia arrived in Toronto a day before a series against the Blue Jays, and as teammates, they took in a regular-season Toronto Blue Jays game just for fun.

Being a baseball fan is supposed to be fun, and if anything bothered Sox fans in 2011 and 2012, it was that the team they followed didn’t seem to be enjoying the game as much them. This group of bearded grinders made baseball fun again in Boston long before they could call themselves champions.