Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Red Sox, Raised From the Dead

By Jeff Kallman

A year ago, the Red Sox were playing out a disheartening string, just hoping to finish the season with whatever was left of their dignity. They played under the lash of a front office who'd become something like lost souls, and a manager whose idea of quelling the gases remaining from that stupefying September 2011 collapse was to light matches.

Today, the Red Sox sit, stand, scamper, and strut as the American League East champions. And one of the keys was shown by pitcher Ryan Dempster, in the middle of the champagne-spraying clubhouse celebration, after they nailed the division on the arm of Jon Lester's 100th career win.

"This is an unbelievable group of guys here," Dempster told ESPN's Gordon Edes. "At the end of the season, if it was over, I wouldn't be disappointed one bit. I've never had so much fun playing with a group of guys."

Not that these Red Sox want to call it over at the end of the regular season. They've got a bigger destination in their plans if they can do it. "This year, every day, we did it on the field," said majority owner John Henry. "[Former manager Terry Francona] used to say if we had nine Dustin Pedroias, we'd be champions. This year, I felt like we had 25."

Jake Peavy told Edes that the day he arrived, in a trade deadline deal with the Chicago White Sox, the first Red Sox he bumped into was catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia — who told him the Red Sox were going to the World Series. "Push 'play,' pal," were the catcher's words as Peavy quoted them. "If you want to come along, push 'play.'"

Oh, what a difference for Lester, too. Last year, Bobby Valentine left him in to take an unconscionable 11-run, 9-hit 22 July beating from the Toronto Blue Jays, with nine of those runs surrendered in the first two innings. It shoved him further toward a lost season. This year, he's pitched better than respectably (a reasonable 1.27 WHIP; an ERA comfortably below the American League average) and with a postseason shot in the bargain.

The whole team? How does a team batting average of .276 and on-base percentage of .349 strike you? (Not to mention a team average of .274 with men on base and an OPS of .800 with men on?) of How does a team ERA of 3.74 and a team WHIP of 1.29 strike you?

Team president Larry Lucchino had this much to say for it all: "On the whole, there's also a lot of maturity on this team, a lot of leadership that comes from unlikely sources. So I'd say the looseness of a Dempster contributes, the fiery focus that Gomes contributes, to the maturity that John Farrell and his entire coaching staff brings. Just a blend of a lot of important characteristics.

"I think it's a validation of [general manager] Ben [Cherington]. Absolutely," Lucchino continued. "Last year was his rookie year as GM. I think he learned a lot from that and didn't miss a beat this year. The team he assembled was sensational. And I take great satisfaction in the blending of all the elements of the organization — ownership, the business side, the baseball side. There was a kind of team feeling we had that maybe got lost along the way."

Lost along the way? The Red Sox brass overruled Cherington after the 2011 collapse and Terry Francona's get-while-the-getting's-good departure and brought in Valentine over Cherington's choice, the man the Chicago Cubs ultimately hired, Dale Sveum.

Then they sat back, sometimes in horror, sometimes in bewilderment, often in ignorance, as injuries piled up while Valentine lived up to his longtime reputation and detonated one after another clubhouse bomb making it difficult to impossible for those Red Sox to play without looking over their shoulders, like abused children cowering in wonder of what their insane parents might wreak next.

Some people have to learn the hard way. And when the Red Sox brass figured out Cherington might actually know what he was doing, they sat back and let him have his head. And what did he do? He merely swung the big deal of the century, or so it seemed, freeing up a ton and a half of payroll to enable him to do what he really thought he should do: augment the best of the Red Sox veterans with pieces that weren't exactly top of the line but weren't exactly losers, either.

Cherington also got to dump Valentine and bring aboard Farrell, who knew a lot more about the Red Sox's innards from having been Francona's pitching coach when they won two World Series in the Aughts. Farrell's now a possible runaway American League Manager of the Year. Cherington brought aboard such pieces as Gomes, David Ross, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Koji Uehara, Stephen Drew, Joel Hanrahan, and Brock Holt, too.

Oh, how it paid off. Especially Uehara. When Hanrahan and then Andrew Bailey went down with injuries, Uehara stepped up as a lights-out closer and then some. (How does a 1.14 ERA and a 0.58 WHIP strike you, not to mention a 12.4 strikeouts-through-nine rate?) Then, come Friday night, he nailed down the save and the East with a dazzling strikeout of Brett Lawrie. He may be the best relief pitcher in the American League this season — at age 38. He's certainly got one vote from a man who's been the best in the business since the Clinton Administration.

"He's just going at people. He's not messing around, not pitching around hitters," says The Mariano himself. "He's going at people right away. That's the meaning of a closer." That's pretty damn good for the guy Cherington picked up last winter hoping he'd be the perfect seventh-inning relief option.

Then there's Victorino. He merely played right field like a center fielder, turning in the best performance out there Red Sox Nation had seen since the heyday of Dwight Evans, and swung a pretty solid bat while he was at it. Until he got a little too banged up, that is. The latest: a jammed thumb. He's still been hitting a small ton through it, but you have to wonder. Even if he refuses to.

Reworking his bench, fortifying his bullpen, letting his regulars and his starting pitchers be themselves (and getting a potential Comeback Player of the Year in John Lackey), and bringing aboard a manager who didn't know the meaning of the term put out the fire with gasoline, Cherington could be the Executive of the Year next to Farrell's Manager of the Year.

Farrell came to spring training asking only one thing of his players: "Win." Red Sox Nation probably asked only one thing of Farrell: "Anything but last year's poisonings." He braced his players and worked with them, himself and his coaching staff. It encouraged even veterans in slumps to seek out the right coaches and get some adjustments, swiftly enough.

It's paid off in a Red Sox team that never lost more than three straight, opened the season 11-4, and showed a team having the time of their lives while laying the AL East to waste. Farrell's the seventh Red Sox manager to take the team to the postseason in his first season at the bridge. And he's probably the one among the seven who really had to do it the hard way. He had to restore accountability and professionalism to the players and he had to do it without reminding them even once of the manager who'd throw them into the middle of a pit of poisonous snakes at the slightest mistake, the merest injury, the most minuscule misread.

Farrell proved adroit at shifting players struggling in one role toward another where they wouldn't embarrass themselves or the team. When Dempster struggled further as a starter, Farrell moved him to the bullpen, in which role he once collected 85 saves as a Cub closer. There was no mutiny. There wasn't even a promise to drill the next suspected user of actual or alleged performance enhancing substances.

David Ortiz and Mike Napoli look to be hanging up 100 RBI seasons each. Pedroia could end up with 200 hits and 90+ RBI, not too shabby for an early-in-the-order guy. Clay Buchholz managed to work around his injuries and still stand undefeated, looking like an elite pitcher (1.51 ERA, 1.00 WHIP in 14 starts) when the Red Sox really needed it. A lot of men had some injury issues but the team didn't let themselves collapse over them.

Farrell didn't leave injured players to twist under any hint that their health issues equaled lack of heart. And, perhaps most significantly, he provided just enough cool that Lackey — bedeviled by shoulder issues since signing a big deal in 2011, and missing all of last season recuperating — revived himself into something just about equal to what he'd been for all those splendid Angels seasons. The ones that began with him winning Game 7 of the 2002 World Series.

Lackey merely pitched the Red Sox to the clinch of at least a postseason berth, and with a complete game at that, the night before Lester pitched them to the division clinch. Lackey's come a long enough way from being a viable candidate for Public Enemy Number One.

And how satisfying could it have been for Farrell that his charges clinched the East at the expense of the team he'd just managed for two years in a testy enough situation? Everything he tried and failed to foster on the Blue Jays he succeeded in fostering with the Red Sox. His Toronto successor, the prodigal John Gibbons (who managed the Jays the four years before Farrell took a crack at it), is playing out an injury-bedeviled string exacerbated by starting pitching troubles. Not the way the Jays expected the season to go after reaping big from the Miami fire sale last winter.

Put it this way: As Farrell began a pre-game news conference Thursday, Ortiz blasted in to satirize his own 2011 outburst over a scorekeeper. "I'm just [bleeping] with you all," he cracked. His manager grinned. They'd just lost two straight to the Orioles but were on the threshold of clinching first a postseason berth at all and, the night after, the AL East.

'13's an extremely lucky number for the Red Sox. So far.

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