Kiké Hernandez lifted the ball high into the air, dropped the bat and stood still.

Before it landed, Alex Cora turned to his coaching staff in the dugout, put his arms around them and mouthed the words, “we did it.”

The ball finally landed in the glove of left fielder Austin Meadows, allowing Danny Santana to run home from third and send Fenway Park into bedlam.

Against all odds, as heavy underdogs on the American League side of the playoff bracket and nearly 2-to-1 underdogs in the Division Series against the Rays, the Red Sox became the first team to punch their ticket to the Championship Series with a 6-5 walkoff win over the Rays on Monday night.

No matter what happens from this point on, there’s no denying the 2021 season was a giant success.

They’re playing with house money now.

Even in a city like Boston, one that demands championships and often refuses to settle for less, some teams deserve an exception. This one falls in that category.

Two years ago this month, Chaim Bloom took over with one of the worst farm systems in baseball and the likelihood that he would be in charge of trading one of the best players ever to wear the uniform, Mookie Betts.

Things only got worse in the coming months, when Cora was determined to be the mastermind in a cheating scandal that shattered the sport to its core. Cora was let go, and later suspended for a year, leaving the team in the hands of veteran skipper Ron Roenicke.

Roenicke barely got a chance to manage. A global pandemic stopped the world, and the baseball season, until July. And when the Sox finally got going, it was one wrong turn after another.

Chris Sale missed the whole 2020 season with Tommy John surgery. Eduardo Rodriguez missed the whole season with myocarditis after contracting COVID-19. And the players who were left looked uninspired while they underperformed in empty stadiums on their way to an embarrassing last-place finish.

Bloom was quick to hire Cora back in the off-season, but the moves that followed weren’t particularly inspiring. His three core offseason acquisitions were Hernandez, Garrett Richards and Hunter Renfroe, who cost a combined $20 million in salaries this year.

With Sale still out, uncertainty around Rodriguez and a starting rotation that looked destined to spend half the season on the injured list, the Red Sox hadn’t had expectations this low in years.

But Cora believed when nobody else did. The guys who played under him in 2018 did, too. And some of the new ones who signed here, Hernandez especially, did so with a lifetime of postseason experience and the idea that Cora would bring out the best in them.

For 3½ months, he did, as the Red Sox looked like the surprise of the 2021 season.

Hernandez, Richards and Renfroe were key contributors, but Cora’s genius was in getting the most out of old friends Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, J.D. Martinez and Nathan Eovaldi, while maximizing the edges of the roster with some of Bloom’s finer pickups in Renfroe, Garrett Whitlock and Nick Pivetta.

As the team fell apart in late July, Bloom stayed the course, refusing to give up any of his top prospects for a chance at a playoff run. He said the franchise wasn’t in position to do that, and said there would be future years where it made sense.

He gave up little to acquire Kyle Schwarber, Hansel Robles and Austin Davis, all three who became important members down the stretch.

And while the Sox fell apart in August and September, needing a miracle in the final weekend to hold onto a playoff position, they put 162 games behind them and started from scratch last Tuesday.

Had they fallen flat against the Yankees in the wild card game, it would’ve been a disappointment.

And if they showed up to the ALDS and got beat by a Rays team that tried to outsmart the rest of the league, the Sox would remain on the outside looking in as one of the game’s best.

Instead, they steamrolled the Yankees in a one-sided victory in the Wild Card Game, then overcame a flat performance in Game 1 of the Division Series in Tampa and won three straight to eliminate both their rivals and become the last team standing from the AL East.

David Price led the 2018 Red Sox in postseason innings and Betts led in postseason at-bats. Both are now in Los Angeles. But there’s no escaping the comparisons of the ‘18 team to this year’s team.

There’s one common denominator: Cora, who is now 5-for-5 in postseason series while his teams have gone 15-4 in the playoffs.

There’s excitement at Fenway like there was then. At this point, whatever happens, happens.

The 2021 Red Sox gave their fans a season to enjoy.