Commentary

These Red Sox never made it easy, which makes their playoff trip all the sweeter

"We’re a bunch of fighters and grinders on this team.”

Red Sox Team Photo
The Red Sox posed for a team photo in Washington after reaching the postseason on the final day. Nick Wass/Associated Press

COMMENTARY

The 2021 Red Sox died as they lived, which is to say they’re still kicking despite copious efforts not to be. Despite tempting us to wish they’d just pack it in and spare the grief. Resurrecting themselves at the last possible moment despite all reason and logic.

A 92-win season, just like the 1967 Impossible Dream from which every modern Red Sox expectation has sprung, and another return to the playoffs no one saw coming. I don’t think we need another “Red Sox Appreciation Week,” giving Rafael Devers the third-base bag in tribute, but we do need to take a minute before that winner-take-all showdown with the Yankees threatens our sanity again.

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They won despite cowering from Ol’ Man Luxury Tax. Despite never actually employing an actual first baseman at first base. Despite consistent bonehead defense and chasing too many pitches. Despite Alex Cora and Chaim Bloom and every other punching bag du jour. Despite a 12-16 August and a COVID-19 outbreak and bookend Baltimore flops and “Hansel Robles, September Closer” and everything else we tore them apart for.

These Red Sox pushed through them all. It doesn’t justify the decisions, but it does justify them as the best team we could have expected. And then some.

“It’s never giving in, never giving up,” Nick Pivetta told reporters, after the starter finished out the playoff clincher with a comedic curveball to get all-world Juan Soto looking. “We fought really hard to get to this point. We’re a bunch of fighters and grinders on this team.”

And whatever happens from here shouldn’t erase just how engrossing this all was. How, dare I say, fun.

“It wasn’t easy,” a bleary yet clearly beaming Alex Cora told reporters on Saturday night, after the weekend’s first set of ninth-inning heroics. “It hasn’t been easy the whole season.”

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As so often happens, the Red Sox and Yankees stole everyone else’s fun. No four-team play-in, no Game No. 163, just the American League’s two neutron stars back Tuesday as the only show in town on ESPN.

Gerrit Cole vs. Nate Eovaldi at Fenway Park. Ace vs. ace. Not even Chris Sale would argue after he spit the bit Sunday.

But like so much else this season, it only made the ending all the sweeter.

The lefty we waited for, was the spark after that dreadful August and the tentpole of this final week run to October, was outpitched by Joan Adon, who was in High-A the same week Sale made his 2021 Sox debut. Sale got seven outs for a cratering bullpen, handing a bases-loaded, one-out disaster to Hirokazu Sawamura, who hadn’t pitched in nine days.

Fast forward past the ensuing double play, past J.D. Martinez spraining his ankle running to his position, past the hole growing to 5-1 with 12 outs to go, and the Blue Jays champing at the bit to come to Fenway for a tiebreaker game Monday. These Red Sox might be best watched at double speed anyway, through the cracks in your fingers, or by reading the recap the next day.

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They’re still around to test the theory, because those last 12 outs yielded six runs. Three came off the bat of Devers, who closed the door on the MLB regular season with its final home run.

“He was so relaxed,” Cora said. “He works on his craft so hard. It seems like sometimes he’s out of control. In that at-bat, he swings at a breaking ball and almost falls down and flips the bat and talks to himself. But he was able to stay in the moment.”

Three home runs and five RBIs on the final two days, sandwiched around stranding nine runners on Saturday. Thirty-eight homers, 113 RBIs, and 22 errors at third base. Their poster child. As able to make you slam your head into a table, only for you to wake up and discover you missed something spectacular, as any of them.

The 2004 Red Sox declared, “Why not us?” The 2021 Red Sox are, “Sure, why not?”

Forty-seven comeback victories. Twenty-two when tied or trailing going into the eighth, and 13 in games where they blew a save. José Iglesias and Travis Shaw won them games, this year! Their best reliever, Garrett Whitlock, was a Rule 5 pick, and their arguably second best, Josh Taylor, came from college power Scottsdale Community College. And both of them missed significant time while back-end stars Matt Barnes and Adam Ottavino fumbled.

Hunter Renfroe finished tied for the major-league lead in outfield assists (16) while simultaneously leading it in errors (12, including six from that cannon arm). Alex Verdugo is pure enthusiasm in human form, a promised “no, no, no, no!” or “no, no, no, yes!” every time he enters the camera frame.

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Kiké Hernández? Who’s made more out of a second chance at major-league life, signed amid questions whether he was an everyday player and ending up one of Cora’s most indispensable names. (Put that flip play he made on Friday night in the Louvre.)

I, and everyone else, have gotten this team wrong time and time again. They were a dud coming out of the spring, then tied for the best record in baseball the second week of July. They were going to cruise in after crushing the Yankees in an electric four-game set three weeks later, only to collapse. They were doomed as September dawned, back after winning seven in a row, doomed again by a New York sweep and two embarrassing nights in Baltimore …

But I got one thing right: Cora was the perfect fit. He had everything to prove after a year at the bottom, just like his organization did. He didn’t prove it all, but Seattle’s Scott Servais likely beating him out for Manager of the Year doesn’t change there’s a pretty short list of guys who could’ve gotten a playoff berth out of this flawed crew.

Credit to him. Credit to Bloom, who hit on more guys despite relative budgetary constraints than we can count. Credit to all of them. Tuesday night was well earned.

Make the movie already: “It Can Never Be Easy: The Story of the 2021 Boston Red Sox.” The finished product will be a lot easier to watch than the making was.

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Even if I still can’t quite believe it had a happy ending.

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