This is not the way it was supposed to happen. If anyone was going to be celebrating clinching the American League East division on September 20 at Fenway Park, it was supposed to be the Toronto Blue Jays. Somewhere along the way, however, the scripts got reversed.
Perhaps the Blue Jays mistakenly received the Boston Red Sox script from a year ago. Toronto fans were giddy in November when they fleeced the Miami Marlins of Mark Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio, Josh Johnson, and Jose Reyes. Toronto also traded for the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, R.A. Dickey. They signed outfielder Melky Cabrera who was coming off a tainted 2012 season in which he hit .346. The Jays hired an old-school manager who hadn't managed in the major leagues in five years. They were the next "super team." Sound familiar?
Instead it was the Boston Red Sox that were punting beer cans into the stands and dancing around half-naked on the field. The same Boston Red Sox that went 69-93 just a season ago.
It's been a terrific turnaround.
Spare me, however, all the "worst-to-first" fanfare. This is not your grandfather's "Impossible Dream" of 1967. Don't fool yourself. The Red Sox payroll in 2013 is the fifth highest at $140 million. It should be "impossible" not to win with that kind of a payroll. What Bobby Valentine and the Red Sox did in 2012 is what should be considered "impossible."
Having gotten that off my chest, time to give credit where credit is due. I predicted the Red Sox for 83 wins this season with the caveat that if David Ortiz played over 120 games that they would be playoff contenders. I love caveats.
I just realized the previous paragraph comes off as me giving myself credit. That's not my intention. Even though I did recommend most of their acquisitions on offense and the pitching staff (including Koji Uehara). Thanks for reading, Ben, Tom, Larry, and John.
In all seriousness, Ben Cherington deserves a lot of credit for eradicating his predecessor's recent misdeeds. It started with the trade last August of Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford which cleared out much of the payroll and gave Cherington a fresh start. It also helped remove some of the passivity from the clubhouse.
Those malcontents were eventually replaced by the free spirits of Koji Uehara, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, Ryan Dempster, and Shane Victorino. The sense of unity and camaraderie was obvious even before all the "Fear the Beard" lunacy. It begs the question-- Does chemistry lead to winning or does winning lead to chemistry? Was there any talk of bad chemistry when the Red Sox were steamrolling through the summer of 2011?
While the lineup has received a face lift, the top half of the rotation isn't any different than the one that collapsed in 2011. Josh Beckett may be gone, but Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and John Lackey remain. And the biggest reason for the Sox resurgence in 2013 is thanks to these three.
John Lackey, in particular, embodied everything that went wrong with the September 2011 collapse. In hindsight, he pitched most of the season with an elbow injury which would have shelved every other pitcher in the majors (except maybe for Jake Peavy). He came into the season with an entirely new approach and a new, slimmer physique. Things almost derailed for him in Toronto in April when it appeared to everyone watching that Lackey blew out his elbow again. Shockingly, Lackey only missed a couple of starts and would go on to have his best season since 2007.
Clay Buchholz has had a pretty good year. That is if you consider an 11-0 record with a 1.51 ERA a "pretty good year." His durability remains a concern, but he is available right now which is all that matters.
Jon Lester has returned to ace form since the All-Star break. So much so that he is the leader in the clubhouse to be the Game One starter in the playoffs. He has a 7-2 record since the All-Star break with a 2.29 ERA.
The Red Sox pitching staff has shaved nearly a run off their team ERA from a year ago. Last year, they were 12th in the American League with a 4.70 ERA. This year they have a 3.74 ERA. Credit whoever you wish-- manager John Farrell, pitching coach Juan Nieves, or the pitchers themselves. The improvement of the pitching staff is the reason for this team's turnaround.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the improvement in the bullpen. Credit goes almost entirely to the signing of one Koji Uehara. It's funny how things played out. Farrell looks like a genius having Uehara shore up the closer role, but Uehara was never the first, second, or even third choice for the role. Joel Hanrahan (remember him?) was supposed to be the closer. When Hanrahan went down, it was Andrew Bailey who stepped into the role. Even when Bailey went down, Junichi Tazawa was given first shot at the ninth inning gig. The thinking was the Red Sox didn't want to remove Uehara from his important role as the eight inning set-up guy. When Tazawa faltered, Uehara took over the closer role out of necessity. As the regular season is coming to an end, Uehara is seemingly taking on the role of set-up guy and closer. The end result has been the best season any Red Sox reliever has ever had.
The offense has never been the issue. In 2012, despite only winning 69 games, the Red Sox ranked fifth in the American League in runs scored. This year, they are first, having already scored 71 more runs than 2012.
The beauty of this team is that it has reinforced itself from within. It may not have been "sexy," but it has been effective. They didn't go out and pilfer their farm system in order to acquire a stop gap, "big name" player at the trade deadline. Sure they traded for Jake Peavy, but they didn't give up much (no, I don't think giving up Jose Iglesias was giving up much). Peavy came a lot cheaper than getting somebody like a Cliff Lee which would have required giving up a package which would have started with top prospect Xander Bogaerts.
Cherington didn't panic and go out and trade for Michael Young to fill the void at third base. Instead, he waited patiently for Will Middlebrooks to find himself at Triple-A. Cherington was prepared with Xander Bogaerts as a backup plan in case Middlebrooks continued to struggle. Young, by the way, is a mere bench player for the Los Angeles Dodgers now.
Home-grown talent like Daniel Nava, Junichi Tazawa, and Felix Doubront have played key roles this season. Ryan Lavarnway, Jackie Bradley Jr., Brandon Snyder, Brock Holt, Allen Webster, Alex Wilson, and Rubby De La Rosa have contributed.
One of Cherington's most unsung deals was bringing in Craig Breslow at the trading deadline in the ill-begotten 2012 season. Breslow has a 0.40 ERA in 25 games since July 22. But there's been other valuable under-the-radar moves made by Cherington.
Mike Carp has been a pleasant surprise, hitting .302 with 9 HR and 42 RBI. He has given the Red Sox a viable left-handed bat off the bench.
Stephen Drew has restored his family's name here in Boston. He has played solid defense and driven in a respectable 64 runs in 118 games.
It's odd that the Fenway sellout streak ended in a season in which the team won the American League East pennant and had a legitimate shot at 100 wins. Maybe the Red Sox brass was correct in saying that the Red Sox weren't "sexy" enough. But if not being sexy means growing beards and winning championships, bring on the slobs. True baseball fans appreciate winning. Let someone else buy bricks.