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October 03. 2013 8:48PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Oh, how things have changed


Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz is greeted by teammates after scoring in the ninth inning against the Orioles during Sunday's game. (REUTERS/Doug Kapustin)

BOSTON -- A year ago this morning, the most senior members of Red Sox management met at Larry Lucchino's house in Brookline to take a necessary step in steering their franchise forward. Owners John Henry and Tom Werner joined the club president there, as did General Manager Ben Cherington, and they invited Bobby Valentine, too — but only for the purpose of telling him his managerial tenure in Boston would last just one season.

A year later, Sox brass will gather again on the fourth of October, except this time instead of in Brookline it'll be at the corner of Brookline Avenue and Yawkey Way, and with a far different focus and feeling than they had a full calendar earlier. Despair and dysfunction has yielded to happiness and hope. Embarrassment has been overcome with beards. Worst has turned to first.

It's been a remarkable turnaround, really, the franchise having so quickly fixed its ills that the Sox will today host the Tampa Bay Rays in the opener of a best-of-five division series, entering the postseason as the top seeds in the AL playoffs just 365 days after axing the manager who oversaw the club's worst season in 46 years. The juxtaposition between then and now is incredible.

And it's significant — because the date isn't merely a cute, symbolic coincidence. It's a demarcation.

The year that began with Valentine's dismissal was about rebuilding, and redemption, and restoring the faith of a shattered fan base. But the year that begins with Jon Lester's first pitch this afternoon is about winning a World Series. It's about making the most of the position they've put themselves in, about seizing opportunity, and about showing that Cherington has already succeeded in his mission to build the "next great Red Sox team" — no longer about worrying where the last one fell apart.

There are some who have already declared this season a success, solely on the jump from 69 to 97 wins, and the climb in status from the outhouse to the penthouse. And that's fair. What the Sox did over the previous six months was certainly unforeseen, and its unexpected nature made the journey all the more enjoyable.

But now the expectations should change. Boston put itself in first place with a win on April 1, and it was still there on May 1. Still there on June 1, July 1, August 1, September 1 and October 1. The Sox spent 164 days atop the division, trailing after only 18 of 162 games, and never entering any game with a losing record. They were the only team in the majors to never lose more than three games in a row, and they lost even that many in succession only five times.

They outscored their opponents by an aggregate of 197 runs, finishing the season with the best offense in all of baseball, and ranked among the AL's top five in pretty much every offensive category. On the other side, their starting rotation was nearly the equal of the vaunted staff the Rays bring with them to Fenway Park — Boston's earned run average was 3.84, Tampa's 3.81 — and at one point their closer retired 37 batters in a row.

So they've been consistently excellent from start to finish. They're well equipped in almost every facet of the game. They approach the game with the attitude and attention to detail that facilitates success this time of year. And with that combination of character traits and talents they've done exactly what they set out to do at the start of spring training.

In other words, they've met their own expectations while exceeding those of others — so it's fair for everyone to raise the bar, with a ring at stake.

"We've got a good group of guys, good group of baseball guys, that understand day‑in and day‑out what they need to do to succeed," Lester said Thursday. "And from there I think we kind of took it and ran with it. (Manager John Farrell) and the coaching staff has done a great job of guiding us through a couple of slumps through the season, but everybody is prepared, everybody was ready to go from day 1, and I think that showed."

Everybody was motivated by the chance to establish their place in the history of a proud franchise. For the holdovers like Lester, the motivation was to prove that the collapse of 2011 and the calamity of 2012 were not something they deserve to be associated with. For the host of new players brought in with chemistry and character in mind, the motivation was to come in and change the culture.

Both sides have succeeded

"This was part of the mindset at the end of last year, a strong desire to rewrite what took place," said Farrell, whose team took 12 of 19 games from the Rays this season. "There was embarrassment that was shared by those who remained or that had been here. And I think when you think of Johnny Gomes or Shane Victorino, David Ross, all the guys that have signed here or traded for, they felt this was a rare and unique opportunity to come in here and put Boston back on the baseball map that might have not been there the last three or four years.

"So, to a man, this was the mindset in spring training: to get back to the level that's been accustomed here in Boston."

And they have. It's October 4 again, and the Red Sox' priorities are the same today as they were on this date six times in the seven seasons from 2003-09 — and far different than they were on this morning in 2012.

That makes the last year a resounding success. But it's the next year that matters more than anything now, regardless of how fun the ride has been so far.

"It's been a joy to be around," Lester said. "I never thought just being around this market for a couple of years, I never thought you could actually do that here. It's a pleasant surprise, and hopefully we can continue to carry it over for the remaining time that I'm here, the other guys are here, and really just have fun playing the game."

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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