If you’re a Red Sox fan and you’re still waiting for the other shoe to drop, stop. It’s not going to happen.
Long gone are the 2012 horrors of a 69-93 ballclub filled with entitled, overpaid players and a stink that rotted from the manager’s office. Even deeper in our memories is that nightmarish collapse of September 2011, when a team expected to win 100 games jumped out to an 83-52 start and then tragically disappeared into quicksand. A turbulent offseason between, and supporters of the folks on Yawkey Way endured 14 of the worst consecutive months in the history of the franchise.
“I’m sure next year will be a turnaround year,” Bobby Valentine said upon being fired after one miserable season guiding the Sox to their worst record since a 62-win campaign in 1965.
It certainly wasn’t all Valentine’s fault, but he was on the Mount Rushmore of ugly faces, along with new Dodgers Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez. A change in leadership and that trio’s trade to Los Angeles, as has been well-documented by now, shifted the balance of Boston’s baseball future for years to come. It’s possible that Valentine’s truest words ever spewed here were some of his last.
The 2013 Red Sox have produced a turnaround of epic proportions. It’s not just the 23-win improvement (and counting), but also the overall attitude, chemistry, and feel watching a group of men who genuinely enjoy being around one another, playing the game and, most of all, winning.
Their identity harkens back to the days of the 2004 “Idiots,” a group of fun-loving, carefree, why-not-us, never-say-die guys who had nothing to prove to themselves and everything to prove to the world. Expectations for that team entering the year were high but clouded because each annual incarnation of the Red Sox found a different way to let the fan base down.
That’s where this year is different.
Following last season’s on-and-off-the-field cataclysmic disappointments, general manager Ben Cherington empowered former pitching coach John Farrell to guide a transformation that didn’t have a concrete timeline. Character players like Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Dempster, and David Ross were added as part of a seemingly pedestrian offseason to boost clubhouse morale, but their on-field contributions weren’t entirely predictable. It was a glorified bridge-year, and you would have been hard-pressed to find someone who had this group ticketed for the postseason. An 85-win year with no drama would have been more than enough.
Fast-forward several months and here stands a blue-collar bunch that represents the best team in all of Major League Baseball.
Along the way, we’ve marveled night after night at each tug of the beard, frantic high-five off the mound, and effortless ninth inning. We’ve been left stunned at each of the 35 comeback victories and 22 final at-bat wins. We’ve tipped our rally caps to Farrell every time Gomes or Mike Carp has come through in a pinch. We’ve grown to value Victorino more with every painful stride he’s grimaced through to track down a fly ball he never should have reached. We’ve been rejuvenated each time Clay Buchholz has pitched a scoreless outing following a lengthy absence, and appreciated every pound left behind by John Lackey.
Boston’s magic number over Tampa Bay currently stands at four. Within a few days, it will be zero and the Red Sox will be American League East champions for only the second time since 1995. Yes, it’s all far more than we expected, but to continue gazing in awe at each heroic, unpredictable win would only discredit one breathtaking reality: this team is really, really good, and a serious World Series contender.
So now that they've raised the bar for us, we should elevate our expectations for them.
Health isn’t a problem. Only Jacoby Ellsbury, the club’s leadoff hitter and centerfielder, is missing, though the Sox continue to say they expect him back from his foot injury by the postseason. In the meantime, as has been the case all year, the restructured replacements have filled in admirably and shined offensively, rendering his absence inconsequential. Even those problems against lefthanded pitching have dissipated as the Sox have won 10 straight starts against southpaw starters. Top to bottom, the line-up is deep, clutch, and paces all of baseball in runs scored (791) and OPS (.795).
Their starting pitchers are healthy and, for the most part, throwing well. Unlike Septembers of recent past, their surplus of rotational arms will be bound for the bullpen in the playoffs to help bridge a gap to a 38-year-old set-up man who’s become the best closer on the planet, save maybe for a future Hall of Famer humorously honored at Fenway on Sunday night. The group isn’t perfect, having converted only 57 percent of their save chances (31-for-54) – a far cry from the Tigers’ 71 percent (35-for-49) – but, somehow, those hiccups have rarely resulted in losses. If you had to have a concern – any concern – heading into October, it would be the team’s middle-relief. Ineffectiveness over the course of a long season can be overcome, but that’s not nearly as easy in a five or seven-game series.
But if there’s one reason to be excited about this team, it’s not because it’s hot, which it is with wins in 19 of 25. It’s consistent. Aside from May, when Boston finished 15-15, it has sat at least four games over the .500 mark each and every month. In September, the Sox are 11-3, and remarkably eight wins shy of their first 100-win season since 1946.
Add to that, there isn’t a single bad egg – at least that we’re aware of. No player is leading a secret mutiny against the manager, complaining about the schedule, or counting his days off. In fact, this squad features players who go to baseball games on their off-days.
Maybe chemistry breeds winning, or perhaps that cohesiveness comes from success but, either way, we’re taking notice.
None of this means, of course, that anything less than a championship would be a failure. Detroit is equally as potent a challenger, and the National League has its horses as well. But, this team's realistic promise should be reassessed.
It’s no longer a surprise that the 2013 Boston Red Sox are going to win their division, and they should at the very least reach the AL Championship Series. Fortunately, they will, because they’re that good.
And maybe there’s a little something in that dirty water, too.
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About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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