Dave' D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: For Victorino, it only took one
BOSTON -- WHEN IT BEGAN, Shane Victorino was shrouded in doubt. He had a track record that was lengthy, and largely successful, and deserving of some faith — but he'd struggled so significantly of late that reservations about his ability to produce were justified. Hope was not in abundant supply.
However, when the time came to deliver, he had confidence. He had a plan, an approach, an attitude. He had a reverence for pressure, for opportunity, for relentlessness. He had prepared for this physically, emotionally, and in terms of what to expect at the plate.
And so with intelligence, intensity and an incredible flair for the dramatic behind his mighty hack, one Victorino swing came to embody the 2013 Red Sox.
The 2013 American League champion Boston Red Sox.
Victorino was just 2-for-23 in the American League Championship Series when he came to the plate in the seventh inning of Saturday night's Game 6. He'd looked so lost that he'd been swinging at bad pitches, and was desperate enough to try hitting left-handed in Game 5 after two months of batting exclusively from the right side. There were calls for John Farrell to move him out of the No. 2 spot in the order, where he'd been slotted most of the season.
The manager stuck with Victorino there, though, so it was his spot that came up with the Sox trailing by a run and the bases loaded by way of a Jonny Gomes double, a Xander Bogaerts walk and an uncharacteristic error from old friend Jose Iglesias on Jacoby Ellsbury's grounder to shortstop. That same spot had come due in a big spot earlier in the game, too, though Victorino had failed to get a sacrifice bunt down, and admitted that he'd already started thinking about how he'd answer, figuring he'd be asked to explain his inability to execute afterward.
It turned out that Victorino didn't need to explain away anything. It was all right there for all of Red Sox Nation and the baseball world to see. After twice using the pitch to get ahead in the count, 0-and-2, Tiger reliever Jose Veras threw a third consecutive curveball — and the Red Sox right fielder was ready for it.
Reaching down in the zone he put an uppercut swing on it, so as least to tie the game with a sacrifice fly, but the ball kept carrying. By the time it landed it was in the Monster Seats, sending Fenway into a frenzy like few others in its 101 years, sending shivers down the spines of its 38,823 patrons, and sending Victorino around first base screaming, bouncing, leaping and pumping his fists like he'd just hit a grand slam to win the pennant.
Because he had.
"I couldn't be happier for Vic," said Sox outfielder Daniel Nava. "He had a situation before where he couldn't get a bunt down; he takes pride in that stuff, so I think a lot of the emotion that came out was that it had been a frustrating game so far — and now we're going to the World Series. All that together was awesome."
To an extent, the way it went is emblematic of the chip-on-my-shoulder mentality that makes Victorino who he is. He admitted that he heard the criticisms of his play in the ALCS, and heard the calls to move him down in the lineup, but "it's not the first time my back was against the wall or people doubted me." In fact, one national pundit called the Sox' acquisition of Victorino the worst free-agent signing in all of baseball last winter, and he wasn't alone in wondering whether Victorino could still be an effective everyday player after hitting .255 between Philadelphia and Los Angeles in 2012.
But Ben Cherington wasn't among them. He said he knew Victorino would help the club defensively and on the bases, and he knew Victorino was better with the bat than he'd shown, so as he sought to rebuild the character of his club, the general manager from Meriden made the aggressive three-year offer, worth $39 million, that the outfielder accepted.
"We knew there was offensive upside," Cherington said. "We didn't know exactly what was going to happen. Players' careers go through ups and downs and a range of possibilities, and we knew he had a better offensive season in him than what he had last year. It made sense to us. He's a very tough player."
And that's what made Victorino's heroics a most appropriate way for these Red Sox to clinch their World Series berth — considering the parallels between the circumstances under which he was hitting, and the story of the team's whole season.
The Sox, too, were doubted. They'd enjoyed most of a decade as one of the best teams in baseball, but the disasters of late 2011 and all of 2012 had diminished expectations and depleted the faith of their fan base. Almost nobody predicted they'd go from worst to first in the American League East, and those who foresaw them potentially contending for a wild-card berth were considered optimists.
As when Victorino stepped into the box in the seventh inning Saturday, hope was not in abundant supply.
But while the public was generally hesitant to jump aboard the bandwagon, the players bought in from the early days of spring training. Farrell had a plan, an approach, an attitude. Cherington brought in players who thrived under pressure, sought opportunity, and played with a renowned relentlessness. They were the most consistent team in the game, in large part because of the intelligence and intensity that permeates the roster, and perpetually gives them a chance for the type of late-game dramatics that they used to spoil both of Max Scherzer's ALCS appearances.
So there they were Saturday night. The legendary Luis Tiant wearing a trash bag and goggles. New Hampshire's own Bob Tewksbury, the team's mental health coach, popping champagne and pouring beers in the clubhouse. Mike Napoli shirtless. Dustin Pedroia in an "Iron Man" welder's mask. Jonny Gomes wearing his customary Army helmet, and a robe that said "Ironsides" across the back. Quintin Berry dancing around and seeing to every new song. Most everybody sharing the moment with family. Victorino, the "Flyin' Hawaiian," walking around wearing a lei. And the jubilation as omnipresent as the alcohol.
It'll be dry by Wednesday, when they'll get back to business against the Cardinals in a battle to see which team can be the first to win three World Series this century. And it will be a battle. St. Louis matched Boston with a baseball-best 97 wins this season, and the top of their starting rotation is arguably as good as Detroit's was. The Sox will have their hands full.
But, by now, no one should be doubting what this team can do.
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.