What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, the Boston Red Sox were knee deep in trying to recover from one of their worst seasons in decades, a 69-win campaign that was marred by injuries to star players and controversies, some of which involved manager Bobby Valentine, who was fired immediately after the 2012 season ended after just one year on the job. In 2013, John Farrell got the gig and not only did he have the respect of fans and players alike right away, he led the BoSox to the best record in the American League in winning 97 games, and 11 more in the playoffs en route to winning the World Series over the St. Louis Cardinals in six games. The BoSox won that final game last night convincingly and without any (“obstruction”) controversy by a score of 6-1.
It’s Boston’s third championship in nine years (10 actual seasons), having swept the Cardinals in four games to win it all in 2004 and swept the Colorado Rockies too in 2007. But those sweeps happened on the road. This World Series title was clinched at home at Fenway Park and no Sox team has done that since Babe Ruth wore the uniform in 1918. WS MVP David Ortiz is the only player to have been on all three championship teams and also matches the Babe in winning three titles. For a team that was supposedly cursed with no titles and heartbreaking losses for 86 years (between 1918 and 2004), these are truly incredible accomplishments!
It’s also one of the most incredible one-year turnarounds in major league baseball history. And few outside the Red Sox clubhouse could’ve predicted it at the start of the season. If you did and put money on it (in Vegas or elsewhere), you are probably a rich man right about now – outside of fun, entertaining betting sites like DraftKings.com, I probably wouldn’t have much luck on that front, but that’s another story. (I did predict on MLB.com’s free fantasy league pages though they would make the playoffs as a Wild Card team. But only halfway through the season did I realize and think they were the best and deepest team in the majors, and ready to win a World Series trophy.)
So how did they do it? GM Ben Cherington had a lot to do with turning his team around and do it quickly, since (my fellow) Boston fans do not have a lot of patience and won’t put with up prolonged mediocrity. He started to make things right by successfully completing the most shocking and unexpected of trades in August of 2012, in getting rid of over $200M in payroll in a huge trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers (goodbye Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Nick Punto). That freed him up to sign big and small-name players alike for 2013. And then soon after the disastrous 2012 season ended, he traded Mike Aviles to Toronto to get Farrell to leave his job as Blue Jays manager and come back to the Red Sox to do that same job (he previously served as a well-liked pitching coach for the BoSox from 2007-2010).
From there, it was hit (with just about all seven free agent signings) or miss (on off-season and mid-season trades, with one “mild” exception) for the Sox front office. What didn’t work out was the mid-season acquisition of veteran lefty reliever Matt Thornton from the White Sox, and right-handed closer Joel Hanrahan, who had been one of the National League’s top closers while with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2011 and 2012 before being traded to Boston last off-season. He, like Andrew Bailey before him, was inconsistent and eventually came down with a season-ending injury, so Farrell was forced in June to try out a couple other relievers for the closer role, including setup man Koji Uehara (one of those seven off-season free agents). He struck gold.
Even though he is getting up there in age, 38-year-old Uehara’s youthful energy and ability to be a strike-throwing machine enabled him to succeed at an unbelievable rate and often with few pitches thrown per outing. More mixed was the other mid-season acquisition from the White Sox, veteran pitcher Jake Peavy. He had a respectable 4.04 ERA in 10 starts with Boston as a fill-in for the then-injured Clay Buchholz, but come the postseason, struggled in two of his three outings. Still, the trade was a mild success, though it hurt to see young shortstop wizard Jose Iglesias go to Detroit as compensation in the three-team deal. Ryan Dempster was also another mild success, but as a free agent signing. He was a veteran starter at the back of a solid five-man rotation all season long. His 8-9 W-L record and 4.57 ERA wasn’t great and a bit worse than expected but in line with past Sox starters from that spot in the rotation (think Tim Wakefield, for instance).
And finally, on the position player side of the free agent front, Cherington brought in a sea of veterans that contrary to popular belief were more than just “character guys.” Shane Victorino (who helped the Philadelphia Phillies win the World Series in 2008), Jonny Gomes (who has played on nothing but winning playoff-bound teams his whole career), Mike Napoli (also World Series tested with the Texas Rangers) and catcher David Ross (who was briefly previously a Red Sox in late 2008). And let’s not forget Stephen Drew, who like his retired brother J.D. before him, wore the number 7 and quietly did his job at the plate and on the field at a highly efficient rate all season and postseason long. In effect, Cherington’s decision to sign these non-big name players that helped greatly to get the Sox back to championship form was much like his predecessor Theo Epstein’s 2003 signings that planted the seeds to the 2004 World Series title run. That’s when names like Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller, and of course, Ortiz came aboard.
That’s not all, of course. Lefty reliever Craig Breslow (who was not only once a Red Sox reliever early in his career but close to being out of baseball before the Sox gave him a second chance in 2012 and again this year) was another unsung hero. He was one of the most consistent go-to relievers to get big outs late in games that Farrell leaned on throughout the season. He was especially counted on after lefty Andrew Miller went down with a season-ending injury in July and while Thornton was either ineffective or on the disabled list. Junichi Tazawa surprisingly became a reliable reliever from the right side and was a bit more successful in crucial situations during the postseason than Breslow.
Health among the major star players also factored greatly in this title run. Even though Dustin Pedroia and Victorino were less than 100% for most of the season, their respective hand and back problems didn’t hamper their ability to get clutch hits or make incredible plays. In fact, both just earned Glove Gloves (Pedroia for second base and Victorino for the outfield/right field). Jacoby Ellsbury too was a little dinged up in the WS, but as a speedy center fielder, leadoff hitter and the game’s best base stealer (with over 50 stolen bases), his presence was invaluable this past regular season and postseason, just as it was during Boston’s title run in 2007 when he was a rookie.
Jon Lester, John Lackey and Buchholz got back to form in 2013 after having sub-par seasons last year (and in Lackey’s case, no season at all while recovering from Tommy John surgery). And in the postseason, Lester and Lackey were unbelievable, out-dueling some of the game’s best. Who would’ve though that Lackey would lead his team over the likes of Justin Verlander and Michael Wacha, and be the first pitcher in history to win a WS-clinching game for two different teams (last night and with the Angels in 2002)?
But the biggest key to this World Series victory was Big Papi, no question about it. His ridiculous .688 batting average in the WS is the second-best ever. More than that, his spirit and determination to win, highlighted by his mid-game pep talk in the dugout in Game 4 that led to Gomes’ go-ahead and eventual game-winning three-run shot, is now the stuff of legend. His grand slam off a Detroit reliever that tied the score 5-5 late in Game 2 of the ALCS at Fenway is perhaps his most legendary hit in recent memory. Without it, the Sox likely would’ve lost the game and went down 0-2 to the Tigers. The prospects of going to the World Series would’ve been remote.
There are several other unsung heroes I could go on about (namely outfielder Daniel Nava, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, lefty Felix Doubront, who got some crucial late game outs in this World Series, and young 21-year-old infield stud Xander Bogaerts), but if you’ve followed the team all year long, you pretty much know their stories of success.
Pedroia was right to say in March (via Twitter) that 2013 was going to be a special season. In light of the Boston Marathon bombing, it was more special and important to the place I call home than I or anyone could’ve ever imagined.
Boston Strong indeed.
Photo credit: Flickr