Sox Beat: Greater than the sum of their parts
SINCE the day the club officially promoted New Hampshire's Ben Cherington a couple of Octobers ago, installing the Plainfield native and Lebanon High School graduate as general manager, he has steered the baseball operations side of the organization with a stated purpose.
He said it when he was tabbed to replace Theo Epstein. He said it when he pulled off a mega-deal with the Dodgers that freed a quarter of a billion dollars in salary. Then he said it again when he hired John Farrell to manage his team on the field.
He said his mission was to assemble "the next great Red Sox team."
On Wednesday night, before boisterously happy full house at Fenway Park, that mission became complete.
After winning 97 games in the regular season, after battling through the elite pitching of the Rays and Tigers, and, finally, after overcoming a Cardinals club that was the best the National League had to offer, the Red Sox year-long fight for redemption finished like a fairy tale.
The local team become the second in baseball history to be crowned World Series champions after finishing in last place a season before, celebrating a 6-1 win over St. Louis that clinched the title round by a count of four games to two.
"The 2013 Red Sox team was great," Cherington said. "It doesn't mean the work stops, obviously. We still think we need to be a little bit better, and there are ways that I can be better, and the organization can get stronger.
"But they won their last game of the postseason, so this team was great for 2013."
Indeed it was — and from the start.
From the start of spring training, it was clear that Cherington's choice to bring in high-character veterans with reputations for being good teammates had combined with the respected voices of Farrell and his trusted coaching staff to successfully change the culture of a clubhouse that had been corrupted over the two previous seasons.
But by the time the Sox pulled away from the Rays to wrap up the division title it also was clear that Cherington's additions were more than merely cheerleaders. And when it mattered most — in the postseason — it became clear that they had, in fact, made Boston a great team.
Consider the newcomers:
Koji Uehera appeared in 13 postseason games, allowing just one run over 13 2/3 innings, striking out 16 while walking none and recording seven saves. Mike Napoli had enormous hits that decided games in two different series. Stephen Drew was as steady as they come at shortstop. Jonny Gomes was started 11 postseason game and the Sox won all but one, with the catalytic left fielder reaching base three times in the clincher. David Ross emerged as the team's starting catcher in the World Series.
And then there was Shane Victorino.
Probably the most accomplished of the players Boston brought in, Victorino struggled mightily against both Detroit and St. Louis, managing only five hits in 42 plate appearances. But one of those hits was a seventh-inning grand slam that won Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, and another came under similar circumstances Wednesday night.
In the third inning of a scoreless game, Jacoby Ellsbury singled to right, David Ortiz, later to be named Series MVP, drew an intentional walk, and Gomes took a fastball off his arm, loading the bases. Victorino came up against Cardinals' wunderkind Michael Wacha, worked the count to 2-and-1, and delivered. Again.
Batting from the right side, he hammered a shot about two-thirds of the way up the wall in left-center field. Ellsbury and Ortiz scored easily, Gomes narrowly beat the throw to the plate, and the Red Sox had a 3-0 lead. A ballpark that had been buzzing since about two hours before the game erupted into bedlam.
Suddenly there was a sense that in a series of tight games, the Flyin' Hawaiian just might have hammered a nail into the Cardinals' coffin.
Drew continued the fun in the next inning, leading off with a first-pitch homer into the home team's bullpen — "He actually told me he was going to hit a home run tonight," Napoli later said — and the Sox tacked on two more tallies when Napoli drove in Ellsbury and a Victorino single plated Ortiz (after Big Papi walked for the third time in four innings).
That stretched the edge to 6-0, and that proved plenty for John Lackey, who epitomized this season of redemption. A pariah in the previous two seasons of his Red Sox career, he left the mound after 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball, and tipped his cap to a crowd that he'd converted from adversaries to adorers over the course of a season he capped with three straight excellent postseason starts and a clutch relief appearance that helped the Sox draw even with the Cards in Game 4.
"His turnaround mirrors that of this organization," Farrell said. "It's almost fitting that he's on the mound to finish it out tonight. When you think of the ovation he got coming off the mound, I think people have seen the turnaround in him, they've seen the turnaround in us."
The bases were loaded when Lackey left, so there was work still be done, but Junichi Tazawa got Allen Craig to ground to first base, and the threat was thwarted. Brandon Workman then came on for a perfect eighth. And Koji Uehara wrapped it up with another sparkling ninth, striking out Matt Carpenter to start a party that began in front of the home fans for the first time since 1918, carried into the clubhouse and raged well into the morning.
"When you win the ALDS, the ALCS, it's a feeling of accomplishment, but you know there's that next step. It's not over," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "Tonight was let your hair down, let your beard down, and just enjoy it."
They did, with Korbel and Budweiser and cigars and celebrities, and they'll continue doing so at least through Saturday, when they board the duck boats and parade through the city.
After that there will be questions to be answered and tough decisions to be made, with several key free agents about to hit the market and a surplus of veteran starting pitchers. Cherington and coampany will waste little time in beginning the process of building the next great Red Sox team.
After three titles in 10 seasons, and after such a remarkable turnaround, Red Sox fans can expect that team to come together soon — particularly with Cherington in charge.
"Ben Cherington deserves all the credit in the world for what he has done for this roster, the players that he's brought in," Farrell said. "And most importantly to the players, to come in and see the energy and the commitment that they had, the buying into a team concept every single day, and the one thing that really stands out more than anything is just their overall will to win, and that was (never) more evident than in this entire postseason."
No, but in retrospect, at least, it was clear from the season's outset.
"I had a lot of confidence," said Victorino. "The pieces of the puzzle were here. They guys that were added to that puzzle -- we were just trying to be complementary players. I didn't come with the mindset that I'm going to be the guy -- that guy. All of us, we went with the mindset that we were going to be one team -- we're going to go out there, we 're going to have fun."
"We'd just go out that day and try to win," said Napoli. "We never got ahead of ourselves. We just kept rolling.
"And now we're world champs."
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.