An idea that seemed crazy one year ago, all but impossible at the start of the season, and unlikely perhaps, even at the the All Star Break has come to fruition. The Boston Red Sox have won the AL East, and they have won it running away from the pack. The September 20th clinch date ties the 1995 sons of Kevin Kennedy for the earliest clincher. The '95 club also won the AL East by more than any of the previous six Sox AL East titles, by 7 games, which this club will hopefully surpass.
Let's just briefly touch on some of the cast of characters responsible for the last to first revival.
General Manager Ben Cherington. His first off season in post 2011 was marred by the refusal of Larry Lucchino to take off the training wheels and saddling Ben with a manager( who we won't mention by name) that he did not want and I suspect knew would not work. In his first winter Ben was also totally handcuffed by the bloated payroll. The August 2012 one quarter billion dollar payroll purge( thanks, LA) ridded the payroll of wasted dollars and allowed Ben some freedom from the front office to start over. Ben got the manager he wanted, even trading a big league player for him, and developed a strategy to sign multiple mid range free agents rather than one or two high priced stars. As we will mention down the roll call, Ben got both the managerial and players decisions exactly right.
Manager John Farrell. Maybe any guy off the street would have looked good after 2012, but Farrell proved that his previous connection with the veterans on this team, his personna, and leadership made him the perfect manager for this particular team. Ultimately, the players make or break a team, but the respect Farrell commands from his players and returns to his players and staff ( I am sure every player on that team noticed Farrell got Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino into the lineup and onto the field for the clinching inning at the end of last night's game!) are one of the bedrock foundations of this group.
Coaching Staff. Each and every member of the staff should be commended for their work, and a return to normalcy between a Sox skipper and his coaches. But two in particular should be mentioned. Pitching Coach Juan Nieves came into what could have been a very awkward situation, a first time pitching coach with no previous connection to this franchise working under a manager who recently ( and very successfully) held your job. All winter long the talk filled the air of how Farrell was going to fix his pitchers. Based on the results and from the comments heard, Nieves ( and Farrell, too for that matter) handled the relationship perfectly.
The other coach deserving special mention is Orono's own Brian Butterfield. Long recognized in baseball circles as a tireless worker and outstanding instructor, he brought these qualities and more to this special team. Not only did he do an outstanding job coaching third, but his work developing the defensive shifts used by the Sox has been very important. He also deserves commendation for his infield coaching of players such as Mike Napoli, Daniel Nava, Jose Iglesias ( as a 3rd baseman), and recently with Xander Bogaerts.
Starting Rotation. All six starters who were regular contributors at some point of the year have ranged from outstanding to solid innings eaters. Jon Lester's mid year slump has been bookended by ace-like stretches. John Lackey coming off Tommy John surgery has been excellent all year long, only his lack of run support has kept him from winning about 17 games. Ryan Dempster has given the team solid innings all year long and now may be a key bullpen guy in the postseason. Felix Doubront had about a three month period where he allowed 3 runs or less every start. Clay Buchholz was 9-0 with a sub 2.00 ERA on June 8 when a neck ailment kept him out until a week or two ago. Clay is now 11-0, and while he was out kids Allen Webster and Brandon Workman helped keep the Sox afloat until they traded for Jake Peavy. Peavy, a tough as nails vet, filled the Buchholz role from late July on, and could be part of a dominant post season rotation.
Koji- Uehara gets his own mention apart from the rest of the bullpen because he has been the savior at the end of games. After losing All Star closers Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey to injury ( a blessing in disguise??) and trying, briefly, Junichi Tazawa as closer, Koji grabbed the reins and turned in perhaps the greatest half season of closing in baseball history. He walks no one, and lately every save is a 12 to 14 pitch 1-2-3 inning. He is probably the one Red Sox player, who if they can duplicate their regular season in October, would most likely signal a championship.
Returning Vets: David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Will Middlebrooks, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and ( to some degree) Daniel Nava. Some of these guys had a bump or two along the way, Papi was not healthy at the start, and Jacoby is not healthy at the end. ( and his ability to play in October could be a very big factor). Middlebrooks of course crashed and burned for the middle( no pun intended) before returning with a vengeance. Pedey has been beyond outstanding in the field and on and off at the plate ( probably due to a lingering thumb injury suffered on Opening Day). Salty has hit fewer home runs this year, but a bushel of doubles, and has improved his game all around. Nava, who barely qualifies as a vet, and was somewhat of a surprise to make the team, was at last look second to Mike Trout in OPS for AL outfielders.
Ben's free agent crop: Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, David Ross, Ryan Dempster ( see pitching comment), and not a free agent but a helluva steal, Mike Carp. Every single guy on this list ( maybe with the exception of Dempster, maybe) has met or exceeded evey on and off the field expectation for them. Napoli, yes he now holds the Sox single season strikeout record, has provided right handed power, and has also repeated his career long super September surge. Drew, maligned all year ( hey, it's JD), has played and hit better and better all year long. Victorino is the toughest son of a bitch I have ever seen play for Boston, and fantastic defensive player. And what can you say about Gomes. He must be lucky everywhere he goes they win ! And the pitching staff always seems to up their game when Ross is behind the plate. Carp, whose last name is an anagram for Crap has been anything but, with many big pinch hits and home runs in limited but increasing playing time. The culture of this club has changed completely and I suspect these new guys have a lot to do with that.
There is still work to do because finishing with the best overall AL record is very important. And this crew is embracing the chance to do that. In the last day I have seen or read tweets with Gomes, Workman, and Buchholz all mentioning going for 100 wins. They need 6-1 from here out and that would give them the #1 seed in the American League.
Thanks, Red Sox for a great year, so far. Go get the job done.