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Boston Strong

Game 6 of the World Series capped a lightning-fast turnaround for the worst-to-first Red Sox.

Boston Red Sox

The Boston Red Sox won their third World Series in 10 seasons by beating the St. Louis Cardinals at their own game, with timely hits in big spots.

The Cardinals were a beautifully built team this season, riding savvy veteran signings like Carlos Beltran and a cavalcade of elite, homegrown talent, including an armada of wildly talented rookie pitchers. They scored more runs than any other National League team. Still, the most remarkable feature of this year’s Cards was their incredible success with runners in scoring position. St. Louis posted some of the best numbers ever seen in those situations, hitting an obscene .330, with a .402 on-base percentage and .463 slugging average. Some of the individual RISP performances were absolutely unbelievable. Allen Craig, who has made a (short) career out of crushing the ball with runners in scoring position, hit .454/.500/.638 this season in those situations — and just .262/.321/.393 the rest of the time. The Cards might’ve won the NL Central and put themselves in prime position to take the National League pennant without those otherworldly numbers. But at the very least, it would’ve been a much tougher climb.

Whatever it is that caused those incredible results during the regular season (and in spots during the first two rounds), it all disappeared during the World Series. The Cardinals hit just .214 in 42 World Series at-bats with runners in scoring position, managing just a single extra-base hit. Game 6, in multiple ways, proved to be the cruelest of all, a disheartening combination of line drives scalded right at fielders and blown opportunities with men on base.

The very first batter of the game, Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter, cranked a line drive all the way to the wall in left, before Jonny Gomes hauled it in. The next batter, Beltran, smacked a ball through the hole on the right side, but the ever-shifty Red Sox had Dustin Pedroia positioned perfectly in short right field to make the play. In the second inning, the Cards strung together two consecutive singles, putting runners on first and second with nobody out. Matt Adams then lined another pitch to the wall in left … caught, again. David Freese, a postseason monster two years ago who couldn’t hit his weight in this year’s playoffs, flied out harmlessly to right. Both runners advanced on a wild pitch, but Jon Jay couldn’t do anything with the opportunity, striking out to end the inning. John Lackey was leaving pitches up and over the plate, and the Cardinals just couldn’t string together enough hits to score any runs. They ended the second inning at 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position.

In the top of the fourth, Craig laced a one-out single. The Cards caught a break when just-anointed Gold Glove winner Pedroia booted a routine double-play ball. Two on, one out for Adams. Sharp line drive to left … again right at Gomes. Freese took strike three on a fastball right on the black. Now the Cards were 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position. Top of the fifth, Jay reached on an infield single. Daniel Descalso cranked a wicked line drive … caught by a diving Stephen Drew. Carpenter rapped a single, once again giving the Cardinals men on first and second with one out. Beltran and Matt Holliday both flied out. Now it was 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position.

The Cards’ last real chance to do damage came in the top of the seventh. Lackey had long since settled down by this point, locating pitches where he wanted, getting ahead of hitters, and putting them away, shutting out St. Louis as Boston built a 6-0 lead. He retired the first two hitters in the seventh, then ran into trouble. Descalso cracked a ball down the right-field line that might’ve been a double but instead went for a single thanks to a nice play by Shane Victorino. Carpenter then lined a double to left, putting runners on second and third with two outs. Playoff juggernaut Beltran then hit a weak single to left with the shift on, scoring Descalso and putting the Cards on the board. After a passionate meeting on the mound, Lackey walked Holliday, ending his night. This brought Craig to the plate with the bases loaded and a chance to shove the Cardinals right back into the game. John Farrell summoned Junichi Tazawa to pitch to Craig. In one final, giant kick in the nuts, the world’s reigning RISP champ slammed a ball to first … but right at Mike Napoli, snuffing out the Cardinals’ last hope. Now it was 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position. That’s the ballgame. That’s your season.

Boston actually stranded more runners in this game (11) than did St. Louis (nine), thanks to the seven free passes dished out by Cardinals pitchers, three of them intentional walks of David Ortiz. But the Sox still came through with big hits when they needed them, none bigger than the one struck by Victorino. The health of Boston’s right fielder was one of the six key factors we highlighted heading into Game 6; Victorino launched one of the biggest hits of the postseason with his grand slam against the Tigers in the ALCS, but he hadn’t produced in the World Series, and sat out Games 4 and 5 with a bad back. He looked great Wednesday night, making slick plays in the field and coming through at the plate.

Victorino’s big chance came in the third inning, after the first of the backfiring intentional walks issued to Ortiz. Napoli did strike out immediately afterward, the second of his Golden Sombrero’s worth of whiffs on the night. But after Gomes got hit by a pitch, Victorino came up with the bases loaded and a chance to relive his ALCS heroics. Victorino got a 2-1 fastball he could handle and blasted it to left, the ball banging off the Green Monster and scoring all three baserunners. The man who had been picked twice among the dregs in the Rule 5 draft … the player who got offered back to his original team only for the Dodgers to say they’d rather keep $25,000 than take him … the owner of the best baseball shoes of 2013 … had just delivered another World Series to Boston.

The Cardinals might have had a chance to win their third World Series since 2006 had a few of those line drives fallen in for hits, especially the ones struck with runners in scoring position. But in the end, the Sox were simply better. They got huge performances from Lester, and Koji Uehara was unhittable, as he’d been all season. Other players up and down the roster also chipped in, from Gomes’s massive three-run homer to Tazawa getting multiple big outs. Then there was Ortiz, who became such an unstoppable force that the Cardinals finally resorted to putting him on every time up while the game was still in doubt, and who hit .688 (!)/.760 (!!)/1.188 (!!!) for the series, taking home World Series MVP honors, a new truck, and the permanent title of Planet Eater.

The Sox even managed to outmanage the Cardinals in the end, which is saying something for a series in which your skipper orders a relief pitcher (Brandon Workman) to make his first major league at-bat during a tie game in the ninth inning. Yet Farrell got better at pushing buttons (and not pushing buttons) as the series wore on, and he finally got rewarded for one particular bit of patience in Game 6. Drew had looked absolutely awful at the plate throughout October, going just 4-for-51 leading up to his at-bat in the fourth. With one swing of the bat, he erased all (OK, most … OK, some) of those memories, pulverizing a pitch over the wall in right-center. Call it a lack of great alternatives if you must, given Will Middlebrooks’s ugly postseason. But Farrell could’ve still given up on Drew after watching him fail again and again. Instead, he stuck with one of the Red Sox’s best hitters this season against right-handers and got rewarded for it. The Cardinals, and Drew, finally had the numbers catch up with them.

In Boston’s case, this was actually a good thing. Once again, the Red Sox could celebrate.


John Lackey

If you want to understand how unlikely this Red Sox World Series really was, check out what the team’s ace PR man Jon Shestakofsky tweeted a few minutes after Uehera’s final pitch.

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You can be cynical about Boston’s $159 million Opening Day payroll, and about the historic dump trade with the Dodgers, the one that gave the Red Sox enough room to make a bunch of moves over the winter. Just don’t get too swept away with revisionist history. The Sox might’ve spent a bunch of money, and might’ve caught a break when an overaggressive Dodgers team relieved them of some enormous financial commitments. But it’s not like the baseball world lined up in unison to declare the Red Sox preseason favorites this year. No one other than maybe their moms picked Boston to go all the way in 2013. Not with the memory of that nightmarish 2012 season still rattling around in everyone’s heads.

You remember 2012, don’t you? The Red Sox were terrible, posting a 93-loss season that was their worst in 47 years. This wasn’t just a losing environment, though. It was, we were told, a poisonous one. You can call Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez going to John Henry and Larry Lucchino in July and expressing their dissatisfaction with then-manager Bobby Valentine either an honest exchange of thoughts and ideas or, if you’re feeling more sensationalistic, a full-on mutiny. Either way, the Red Sox clubhouse was completely dysfunctional last year. Maybe that dysfunction caused the Sox to lose two games … or five games … or no games. But coming on the heels of the 2011 September collapse and reports of players consuming fried chicken and beer in the clubhouse, the midsummer coup made this more than your standard losing season, at least in the eyes of many fans and media members.

Yet really, last season was a worst-case scenario for the Sox in just about every conceivable way. The team got racked with injuries, with lineup mainstays like Ortiz, Pedroia, and Jacoby Ellsbury as well as half the pitching staff missing huge swaths of games. Making matters worse, the Sox didn’t have suitable replacements ready when those injuries hit. The bench was awful, the bullpen was miserable, and with a couple of exceptions, the farm system wasn’t yet ready to produce the kind of talent that could help at the major league level. Blame Valentine all you want — the chemistry narrative probably had at least something to do with 2012’s losing, just as it might have with 2011’s collapse. But you’re not winning anything when you’re throwing out terrible excuses for starting pitchers in the middle of a pennant race, like Boston did in ’11. And you’re going to lose a ton of games when you’re using replacement-level players throughout your lineup, in your rotation, and in your bullpen, as the Sox did in ’12. If you think about last year’s team in the context of a range of outcomes, with the 99th-percentile outcome being a season in which everything went right and the first-percentile one in which everything went wrong, you’d have to call 2012 … pretty damn close to first-percentile, an apocalypse of injuries, bad performances, and disharmony, in a city that kicks you in the ass when things go wrong.

Evaluating a disaster like that with a clear mind is no easy task, not for team management, and especially not for us doubting Thomases in the media and fan land. When the Sox started making moves last winter, no one was planning any parades.

Shane Victorino for three years, $39 million? You’re going to pay a 32-year-old outfielder coming off a year in which he hit .255/.321/.383 that much money, when the guy’s already fading (or so it seemed) and would only get worse with age?

Mike Napoli? Sure, the Sox had managed to extricate themselves from the multiyear deal they planned to execute with Napoli earlier in the offseason. But with a serious hip injury looming, how much could Boston possibly expect from this guy, much less while moving him to a new position at first base?

Jonny Gomes? A decent platoon player who has been on some winning teams, but why give a two-year deal to a part-time player?

Stephen Drew? You’re giving $9.5 million to the guy who hit .223/.309/.348 a year earlier, while missing 83 games? And just to piss off the karma gods further, you’re signing J.D. Drew’s brother and giving him the same number worn by the senior Drew, one of the most vilified players in Red Sox history? Good luck with that.

Based on recent results, not one of these players jumped off the page at you. They (Victorino and Gomes in particular, along with newly acquired reserve catcher David Ross) were labeled as chemistry guys, the types who could help repair a corrosive clubhouse. From the outside, it appeared they were stopgaps, half-decent players brought in to play respectably and allow the Sox to go through the season without drama, in what most figured was just a bridge year for the team. Some have argued that this kind of chemistry was more important than that, that these were players who were asked point-blank if they would be up for the challenge of playing in Boston, and responded that they would embrace the task. From a performance standpoint, though, this was a different experiment. The Red Sox had just come off a first-percentile kind of season. So why not double down and go after players who had also run into some lousy recent outcomes themselves, whether due to dips in performances, injuries, or both? Though Boston would carry one of the game’s biggest payrolls, the budget wasn’t unlimited, so buying low could make some sense. The Sox just bought low on practically everybody they acquired.

What followed in 2013 was the polar opposite of what had taken place the year before, if not a 99th-percentile outcome, then something close to it. Key players like Ortiz, Pedroia, and Ellsbury stayed healthy and put up big numbers. The bullpen was transformed. Rookies like Xander Bogaerts and Brandon Workman emerged to help the big club. Slightly more advanced young players like Daniel Nava and Felix Doubront took steps forward. And the winter’s free-agent crop turned to gold. Victorino won a Gold Glove and revived his offense. Napoli went on multiple power jags during the course of the season to carry the team. Gomes’s numbers slipped a bit from the year before, but he was still far more productive than the fill-in stiffs who polluted the 2012 roster. Drew smoked right-handed pitchers and played very good defense at short. And Uehara, the team’s fourth choice as closer, did his best impression of vintage Dennis Eckersley, destroying just about every hitter in his path.

We wrote about the worst-to-first Red Sox and their seemingly impossible transformation multiple times over the course of the season. In July, with Boston already claiming the best record in the American League, we took a shot at explaining why they were suddenly winning so many more games:

Which dramatic, next-to-impossible events unfolded that took the Red Sox from one of the darkest periods in the history of the franchise all the way back to the top of the heap? Turns out, not that many. They did make one monumental trade, of course, one that cleared a huge sum of money off the payroll. That deal aside, the Red Sox used a patient, incremental approach to become a first-place team again. Sometimes the best thing you can do after a disaster is just wait for your luck to turn.

In September, we tried again, this time highlighting the offseason pickups that nobody liked … until they caught fire. On Victorino:

It turns out the 2012 season was not the beginning of the end for the player in his age-31 season, though. It was simply a down year, and a reminder that players’ stat lines aren’t always perfect bell curves; there are random dips and spikes along the way.

On Napoli:

Napoli has out-homered [Josh] Hamilton this season, despite snagging 41 fewer plate appearances and getting $120 million less in guaranteed money than the Halos gave their power-hitting buy last winter.

On Drew:

The Red Sox got a capable defensive shortstop who, when healthy, could produce roughly average offensive results. Given how tough it is to play short every day and both field and hit effectively, a player who can do both is a valuable commodity. Drew has delivered on both fronts this year.

On Gomes’s bearded running mate (and fellow offseason pickup) Mike Carp:

Carp’s making more or less the league minimum, so no one questioned the expenditure in his case. But he had earned a reputation with the Mariners as something of a Quadruple-A player, a guy with good minor league numbers who never seemed to do much in the big leagues. All he’s done in Boston is hit .310/.371/.545 in 210 plate appearances. Granted, a big chunk of that performance has been fueled by a flukish and unsustainable .410 batting average on balls in play. But even regressing that number, Carp has been a steal and a half at $508,500 this year.

And on Uehara:

Though his value is inherently limited because he’s a relief pitcher, Koji Uehara’s numbers smack one in the face in a way that Victorino’s and Napoli’s simply don’t. That’s because Uehara is having one of the best per-inning seasons of any reliever in MLB history.

All of that is how we got here, to a Red Sox team that pulled off a World Series title that was in some ways more unlikely than the one bagged nine years ago, the one that erased 86 years of misery.

If you’re looking for one avatar to sum up this Red Sox season, you could argue that it’s not the old standbys like Ortiz or Pedroia, or the new stars like Victorino and Uehara. It was John Lackey.

In that seventh inning of Game 6, when the Cardinals looked like they might claw their way back into it, a gripping moment happened. With Holliday coming up, two runners on, two outs, and a run in, Farrell walked to the mound, presumably to yank his starter from the game. Lackey immediately shot him a glare, one that expressed anger at Boston’s manager for popping out of the dugout, while also pleading with him to let him have one more batter. Lackey wasn’t miked, but you could read his lips very clearly. “This is my guy!” he implored, as Holliday stood in the on-deck circle. Farrell left Lackey in. Grady Little tweets started popping up among the snarky and pessimistic set. Despite his best efforts, Lackey walked Holliday and did get pulled from the game, with Tazawa coming in to put out the fire. But it wasn’t the battle with Holliday per se that made the moment so poignant. It was the fans’ reaction.

In 2011, Lackey was simply hated by Red Sox Nation. First off, he sucked, posting a 6.41 ERA that was more than a full run worse than the second-lousiest starter in baseball that year. He carried himself with a sour disposition, glaring at teammates or yelling into the air when the defense failed to make plays behind him, and never acknowledging the crowd on the rare occasion when he did pitch well and got a hand. People resented that he was making tons of money, in Year 2 of a five-year, $82.5 million deal. Some were even outraged by his filing for divorce, considering his New England native wife Krista, the one who helped convince Lackey to sign with the Sox in the first place, was now battling cancer. When Lackey went under the knife a few weeks earlier for Tommy John surgery, much of Red Sox Nation had a standard wiseass response ready: Good, at least we don’t have to watch that bum pitch next season.

When Lackey returned from injury and showed up to spring training this year, he looked like a different person — half the person he used to be, really, having lost a ton of weight while rehabbing his elbow injury. The list of players reporting to camp in the best shape of their lives only to crap out anyway runs a mile long. But at the very least, a newly svelte Lackey suggested a player who might now be more committed to his craft. All of it paid off this season, with Lackey chopping nearly three runs off his 2011 ERA, pitching deep into games, and emerging as a rotation mainstay.

By the time Game 6 rolled around, he had already won the respect of Red Sox fans, if not necessarily their love. Then he twirled six shutout innings, followed by the Cardinals’ mini-rally, and the “This is my guy!” moment. Then, something strange happened: Sox fans began chanting his name. “Lackey! Lackey! Lackey!” as Farrell pondered his decision before leaving him in to face Holliday. “Lackey! Lackey! Lackey!” again as the right-hander exited the game, walking slowly back to the dugout. The man who’d been the bane of Red Sox fans’ existence two years earlier was now hearing his name being chanted on the game’s biggest stage. When the Sox went on to win the game, Lackey became just the third pitcher to win clinching World Series games with two different teams. That wasn’t even the most improbable part of it all. As Lackey crossed over the foul line, he looked up at the delirious Fenway crowd, the one that had finally embraced him as one of their own. For the first time in his Red Sox career, he tipped his cap.

That moment right there, that was the 2013 Red Sox season. A worst-to-first player, redeemed on a worst-to-first team. And a recently despondent fan base, now ready to party.