IF YOU were holding on to some lingering doubts, and the first 97 wins weren’t enough to convince you that the Red Sox are the team to beat this season — even though those victories let them party as champions of the American League’s most competitive division, then enjoy the privileges accompanying the AL’s best regular-season record — it may be time to let go of those reservations.
Instead, embrace a reality that became almost indisputably apparent over the past week, en route to triumphs 98, 99 and 100.
Just ask Joe Maddon, the manager whose Rays were the victims of those victories, and thus eliminated by Boston, 3-1, in the American League Division Series that was clinched by the same count in Tuesday’s Game 4.
“They were really good,” Maddon said. “They didn’t make any mistakes. You could see their grit. I talked about from spring training on, I think they’ve really promoted the character within that group, and they’re just gamers, they’ve got a bunch of gamers over there.
“They’re just good, man. They’re good,” he continued. “They’re the reason we’re sitting here not winning right now. They beat us all season. They beat us in a five-game series. I should take this moment to say I want to give them a lot of credit, (Manager) John (Farrell) and the entire Red Sox organization (for) what they’ve done this year. Based on the difficulties they faced last year. Obviously they made some wonderful decisions and they deserve to advance.”
If you were worried that the Sox’ baseball-best offense would have trouble against good pitching in the postseason, they dismissed those concerns by scoring as many runs as any club through its first four games of these playoffs. Despite going up against the elite arms of Matt Moore and David Price, they posted 26 runs over four games, while leading American League contenders with a .286 average, a .390 on-base percentage, and an .803 on-base plus slugging.
If you were worried that the Sox didn’t have a top-of-the-rotation starter to match up with an opposing ace, Jon Lester authored a performance that should allay some of those fears, allowing Tampa Bay just three singles and a walk before he took the mound in the eighth inning of Game 1.
If you were worried that the Sox seemed to lack reliable setup men at the back of the bullpen, Junichi Tazawa offered four outings that could restore the club’s early season confidence in him, while Craig Breslow confirmed his status as Boston’s second-best reliever. Together they combined for six innings of scoreless relief, striking out six while yielding just a walk and three hits.
If you were worried about Koji Uehara’s spotty postseason track record, and concerned his ridiculously good regular season might not carry over, you can relax now. Yes, he allowed a walkoff homer to Jose Lobaton in Game 3. But that was a good piece of hitting on a pretty good pitch. And of the nine hitters Uehara faced in the series, Lobaton was the only one who reached base. Four of them struck out.
So if you were worried for whatever reason that the Sox might not have the pitching it takes to win in October, know that they entered Wednesday with the lowest earned run average of any team in the division series — a product of consistently excellent game plans that consistently neutralized threats like Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist and Wil Myers, and spoke to the club’s ability to exploit advantages with preparation and attention to detail.
If you were worried those advantages wouldn’t carry the Sox as far in the postseason, when the chance to play for a championship tends to make everybody more purposeful and passionate and intense, let Boston’s clean, crisp, in-control style of play stand as proof that’s still a strength — even in comparison to a team with a reputed manager and revered for fending off three straight elimination games before Tuesday.
“There’s accountability, and 25 guys who prioritize winning baseball games, beyond any kind of individual achievement or accolade,” Breslow said. “The resiliency is a word that continues to come up. (Monday) was a tough loss in a good, well-played baseball game, and we came out (Tuesday), we grinded through at-bats, we came back from a one-run deficit — and that’s been the trend all season.”
If you were worried about the depth throughout the roster, consider that it was Xander Bogaerts, the 21-year-old rookie, who started the critical Game 4 rally with a patient walk; it was Jake Peavy, the fourth starter, who pitched well enough to keep the team in the game to that point; and they scored 6.5 runs per game despite the No. 3, 5 and 6 spots in the order combining to go 9-for-44 (.205) around David Ortiz.
If you were worried that the Sox don’t have too many home-run hitters capable of changing the game with one swing, take comfort in that last fact. The Dodgers had eight more hits, including five more homers, en route to beating the Braves in the NLDS — but Boston and Los Angeles still scored the same number of runs, in part because the Sox have all season found other ways to be productive.
“Talk about executing and doing the little things, and doing whatever it takes to win,” Shane Victorino said, “and we were able to do it.”
If you were worried about Farrell in his first trip to the playoffs as a manager, and particularly concerned about his ability to adjust and adapt to circumstances concerning affecting strategy, Game 4 should be a relief. After some questionable decisions a night before, he pulled all the right strings in the clincher — from knowing precisely when to pull Peavy, to expertly using his bullpen, to avoiding the traps of stubbornness by pinch-hitting Bogaerts for Stephen Drew (after not doing it a night earlier).
If you were worried about the Red Sox, they showed that you shouldn’t have been. In retrospect, the series probably should’ve been a sweep. It’ll be more difficult in the AL Championship Series, because the Tigers and A’s are both better than the Rays. But, then again, neither of them is the team to beat. With 100 wins to prove it, that’s the Red Sox.
So, Red Sox fans, heed the words Bob Marley will be singing as Victorino digs into the batter’s box Saturday, and the crowd sings along as “Three Little Birds” blares throughout Fenway.Don’t worry about a thing.
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.