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Red Sox should be excellent again, but their degree of difficulty will be greater

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  February 10, 2014 11:44 AM

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It's been 103 days since Koji Uehara whiffed Matt Carpenter and sent the heaven-bent 38,000 or so in attendance into an instant and delirious celebration of the first World Series title clinched on Fenway's soil since Babe Ruth's age-23 season.

During those 103 days -- from victory to duck boat parade, from departures (Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia), arrivals (Edward Mujica, A.J. Pierzynski, reconstructed Grady Sizemore) and even a holding pattern (Stephen Drew) -- the mental images collected along the way have crystallized into memories to be kept and savored.

With that passage of time, even just a few months between seasons, the context of what we witnessed becomes clearer, sharper. And between the happy flashbacks to Jon Lester's mound masterpieces and Xander Bogaerts's poise and David Ortiz's damn ridiculous .688 World Series batting average, I keep coming back to one conclusion that wasn't apparent in October's heat of the moment:

Man, it all went right, didn't? I mean, there were bumps that needed to be overcome -- early-season ace Clay Buchholz's injury, and the attrition in the bullpen, namely.

But so many question marks brought affirming answers. Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, and Jonny Gomes brought value real and intangible. Lester became the quasi-ace he was before his dismal '12, and John Lackey became the quasi-ace he was with the Angels before his elbow and reputation were ripped apart. Koji Uehara was as untouchable as a relief pitcher could be, and miracle among miracles, David Ortiz stayed healthy virtually from his April arrival.

In baseball's postseason, luck is incredibly crucial. A call here or there can change a team's fortunes permanently. Consider: If Derek Jeter's sweep tag on Dave Roberts dupes Joe West into the wrong call ...

... or if A-Rod gets away with slapping the ball out of Bronson Arroyo's glove ...

... maybe everything, or just one crucial thing, changes, and thus so does the outcome.

Heck, from a non-Boston perspective, if Jeremy Giambi is called safe here during Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS ...

... there's a decent chance that Billy Beane's agenda-addled detractors no longer can point out that his A's have never won a World Series.

The Red Sox endured a minimal number of those hiccups during their most recent championship run (it was fun to write "most recent" there, but you knew that). The Pete Kozma transfer play could have gone against them in Game 1 of the World Series, and the obstruction call on Will Middlebrooks that ended Game 3 might have haunted them at another point in franchise history.

But it didn't. You know why? Because they were an extraordinary team -- probably the second-most-likable Red Sox team I've seen in my 36 seasons as a fan -- that also had the requisite good fortune to win a championship.

If you're skeptical that good fortune is a key ingredient, consider their last title defense, 2008. That was an outstanding ballclub. They scored 845 runs en route to 95 wins. Six regulars hit at least 17 homers, including MVP Dustin Pedroia and second runner-up Kevin Youkilis. Four starters had an adjusted ERA between 112 and 160 ... and the 160 belonged to 18-3 Daisuke Matsuzaka. Terry Francona said in his book with Shaughnessy that he considers the '08 squad the most talented team he managed in his eight years here.

I believe the 2014 Red Sox are going to be an excellent team, a genuine contender to play late into October. A championship hangover like the one that struck in '05 would stun me. This core, led by Pedroia, is too competitive to become complacent -- it's encouraging and hardly surprising that 15 position players are in camp five days before pitchers and catchers are due to report.

Bogaerts is going to be an instant star, I am convinced. The pitching is deep, and the bullpen is stacked with arms capable of high velocity and pinpoint control. The high minors are full of intriguing potential reinforcements.

Sure, I wonder how Jackie Bradley Jr. will acclimate in Jacoby Ellsbury's place, or whether Will Middlebrooks is anything more than the next Russ Davis, or if the October workload will affect any of the pitchers. But I don't worry about it. The Red Sox are in a great place.

They can be as good as they were last year. Here's hoping they're also as fortunate. I'm not rooting for a greater degree of difficulty -- there's no need to name Bobby Valentine bench coach or anything like that.

But I'm expecting a greater degree of difficulty, sure. Because in 2013, the Red Sox's combination of talent, health, competence and luck sure made it look easy.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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