Vin Sylvia: Somehow, these Sox find a way to win
Along the way to their third World Series in 10 seasons, the Red Sox continuously have amazed with their ability to achieve the unexpected.
They went from worst to first in the American League East division, winning 97 regular-season games under new manager John Farrell a year after winning just 69 under Bobby Valentine.
They not only overcame season-ending injuries to newly acquired closer Joel Hanrahan, alternate closer Andrew Bailey and flame-throwing middle reliever Andrew Miller, but actually wound up winning the AL title largely on the strength of their bullpen.
Among their seven AL playoff victories, they won games started by 2011 Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander of Detroit, 2012 Cy Youg winner David Price of Tampa Bay and presumptive 2013 winner Max Scherzer of the Tigers — twice.
In Saturday night's clinching Game 6 of the AL Championship Series, a 5-2 Boston victory before the home crowd at a packed Fenway Park, the decisive blow came with the bases loaded from Shane Victorino, a veteran whose offseason signing as a free agent drew little excitement and who had totaled two hits in his previous 24 ALCS at-bats. The only player to reach base three times against Scherzer was Xander Bogaerts, a 21-year-old rookie, who in May was playing Double-A games for the Portland Sea Dogs against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats in Manchester.
By Saturday night, it was anything but a surprise that Koji Uehera set down the Tigers in order to close out the game in the ninth, but in a season of surprises, the emergence of the 38-year-old Japanese right hander as the best relief pitcher in the major leagues was the most unforeseen development of all. If you had said before the season that Uehara would be named Most Valuable Player, most Sox fans would have responded, "Koji who?" Now if Uehera allows so much as a runner to reach base, it's considered a sub-par performance.
But this may be the biggest surprise: In making us re-assess what we know and what we thought we knew about them, the Red Sox did something none of us who have agonized and exulted over this team most of our lives — who have prided ourselves on our passion, loyalty and baseball sophistication — ever thought possible. They've made us better fans.
Thanks to this cast of bearded characters assembled by Plainfield native and Lebanon High graduate Ben Cherington, Red Sox fans rooting on their team when it opens the World Series against the National League champions St. Louis Cardinals at Fenway Wednesday night will have a greater appreciation for the finer points of baserunning, the behind-the-scenes role of advance scouting and the bigger-picture complexities of roster composition than did our pre-2013 selves.
To the casual observer, nothing about this team screams "World Series-bound!" There are no Cy Young contenders on the Red Sox pitching staff (though Uehera would have received serious consideration had he occuppied the closer's role for the entire season), no MVP candidates. No one threatened for a batting, home run or RBI title.
Even among diehards, the feeling persisted through much of the season that mediocrity was just a four-game losing streak away. But that streak never came. The Sox have gone the entire season without losing three straight, and since falling from a 5 1/2-game lead into a first-place tie on Aug. 20, they've won 40 of 54, postseason included. And now they just have to win four of a possible seven to give the franchise its third world championship after an 86-year drought.
It won't be easy. The Cardinals — who lost the '04 Series to the Sox in four games but beat the Tigers in '06 and the Rangers in '11 to become one of only three teams, along with the Red Sox and San Francisco Giants, to win two world titles in the 21st century — are one of baseball's great franchises and a formidable opponent. But if there's one thing we've learned about these Red Sox, it's that they find a way to win. We might not see it coming — it might be a complete surprise — but somehow they find a way.
Vin Sylvia is a New Hampshire Union Leader deputy managing editor. Email him at email@example.com.