Monday, September 30, 2013

It's great to be back!

"The men from the press said we wish you success, it's good to have the both of you back."

It was probably never the intention of the Boston Red Sox to have anyone channel "the Ballad of John and Yoko" in talking about their first appearance in the playoffs since 2009. But there it is.

And as we learned from the September 2011 fade and the 2012 Bobby Valentine fiasco, "Christ, you know it ain't easy ... you know how hard it can be."

But I don't come here today to crucify the Boston Red Sox. No, sir. To twist a phrase from "Julius Caesar around, "I come not to bury the Red Sox, but to praise them."

Who know, back in March, that the Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals would end up with the best records in Major League Baseball. In spring training, the bets were more along the lines of "will they even finish .500?"

John Farrell was the popular choice to be the next manager after Terry Francona was fired in 2011, but couldn't extricate himself from his Toronto Blue Jays contract. Otherwise, we might have been spared the Bobby Valentine fiasco. It's easy to say this now, but some of us -- last year -- were telling anyone who would listen to us that Bobby V, as much of a bon vivant as he might be, was the wrong person to minister to the hangover that resulted from 2011.Yes, these guys are professional athletes, but after something like that, the Sox needed a morale builder, not someone who was so obviously all about himself.

It happened a year late, but the Red Sox got their guy. Right from the introductory press conference, it became obvious Farrell was a  no-nonsense guy who understood how badly the Red Sox had squandered their standing as the most other-worldly popular franchise in Boston since the Big Bad Bruins.

And it his first mission was to win it back.

Spring training was a love-in. The "character guys" certainly added likeability to the club, but none of that would have mattered had it been simply character alone. If they couldn't play anymore, we'd be talking about next year already ... if we were talking at all.

However, the character guys ended up being among their most clutch players. Mike Napoli may have struck out a lot, and it may have infuriated me to watch him do it as often as he did. But in between, he hit some mighty clutch home runs. Jonny Gomes didn't hit for average, but every time you looked up, he was getting a bit hit in a big situation.

But Shane Victorino, to me, epitomized character in the way he gutted through a season when he wasn't always healthy, and the way he kept coming up big himself when the situation called for it, both offensively and defensively. And I have to ask the question: Would Jacoby Ellsbury have even made it back for the end of the regular season if Victorino wasn't around to, perhaps, help him realize that sometimes, you just have to close your eyes and play through it? Yeah, I know it's a contract year, but Ellsbury is going to get his money from someone. It's just a matter of who. We all know what he brings to the table.

(One wonders, however, what it took to get Clay Buchholz back on the mound, but this is a positive piece so let's let it at that).

This is a happy column and it's a happy story. One can only imagine the effect Farrell had on Jon Lester, who might have started out hot but seemed destined for another season of agonizing nibbling and mound tantrums. Whatever he said to Lester behind the scenes worked, as the big lefty got hold of himself in August and finished by throwing almost unhittable stuff up there.

John Lackey's only value coming into the season was as a whipping boy. He was to the Red Sox what Milan Lucic is to the Bruins: someone I can pound on when there's nowhere else to turn. Lucic acquitted  himself somewhat in last spring's playoffs, and it goes without saying Lackey change a lot of opinions, including mine, by how he did this year ... not only his pitching, but by the classy way he handled some luckless outings where he pitched phenomenally while the team couldn't score runs for him.

And again, one wonders whether that's the influence of a guy like Ryan Dempster (I had to think a minute before writing that name, as my usual term for him is The Dumpster), another one of those character guys who seemed to keep it all in perspective. Dempster, if he pitches during the post-season, will be coming out of the bullpen. And he is publicly fine with that, even if, privately, he might not be. That's OK. At least he's pulling his oars in the same direction. Contrast that to Felix Doubrant, who, when faced with the same situation, mailed it in against Baltimore. I doubt we'll see him on the rooster (yeah, I know ... roster).

One also has to wonder how much of a factor the Marathon bombing was in all of this. There's no doubt the incident galvanized the city, and perhaps gave its athletes some impetus to re-examine some of the petty issues that might otherwise rip a team apart. My own belief is that the incident gave this team, in particular, a rallying cry. That, and, I suppose, the beards.

About the beards. One of the great things about that 2004 team was how sloppy they appeared. Their slovenliness, from Johnny Damon to Mark Bellhorn to Manny Ramirez, was almost a badge of honor ... as was the moniker "idiots." 

Don't the beards remind you of that team? The Red Sox look like Civil War veterans who simply changed uniforms. But again, I'm not judging a fashion show. I just want to see them win games.

I think the guy who benefitted most from havingn like-minded players around him was Dustin Pedroia, who must have felt as if he was Tom Hanks on the raft with Wilson last year. He was surrounded by whiny, kvetchy teammates who seemed more interested in undermining Valentine than simply going out and playing (not that I didn't sympathize, but you still have to do your job).

All that negativity affected him, and during stretches last season, he seemed as mutinous as the rest of them. He fought against it, though, and ended up doing all right. But one can only imagine how refreshing it was for him to come to the park and play alongside the stalwarts on the team this season. He's still the heart of the team, and as he goes, it goes. And since he goes all out, every day, and has teammates who do as well, there's no limit to what they can accomplish.

As anyone can tell you, injuries (or lack of same) can make or break your season. Ask the Patriots. They've just been dealt a crushing blow with reports that Vince Wilfork has a torn Achilles. That's a killer. There's no telling what happens to them from here, as Wilfork was -- after Tom Brady -- their most indispensable player.

The Sox were remarkably lucky that nothing untoward happened to their everyday lineup. They had all their main components. And they're especially fortunate that David Ortiz stayed healthy and productive, because without him they'd be nowhere. I don't always like some of the things he does (like F-bombing a civic ceremony and smashing a phone because he didn't like an umpire's call), but there's no denying that his presence in the lineup makes everyone else just that much better. Hitting 30 homers and knocking in 100-plus runs, again, makes him irreplaceable, silly antics notwithstanding.

 It just proves you don't have to like everyone personally to appreciate their value to the effort. I still think Bill Belichick is an excellent coach, even if he appears to be totally devoid of personality.

But the pitching staff was a mess, and Farrell gets huge props for keeping it above water. Clay Buccholz was on his way to a Max Scherzer-type season before his shoulder ailment sidelined him for three months. The Red Sox lost closer Joel Hanrahan ... and then lost the guy who was supposed to replace him (Andrew Bailey). They turned to Koji Uehara out of desperation, and look what happened? He should at least be in the conversation for the Cy Young Award, although Scherzer should win it hands down.

If the Red Sox have an Achilles heel it's the transition from their starters to Koji. It just seems that the seventh and eighth innings are a nightly chore for this team if the starter runs out of gas after six. They can only hope, with a week's worth of rest, that the starters are able to go into the seventh so that it's only the eighth inning we have to worry about. Uehara has pretty much made the ninth academic, and there's no reason to expect him not to now.

Of course, the other knock is that the Red Sox don't hit good pitching all that well, but, you know, that's why they call it good pitching. If wasn't good pitching, everyone would hit it. But if they end up facing a team like the Tigers, that could be a problem. The Tigers hit all pitching. They have, by far, the most potent offense of the teams that are left and they are probably the only team the Red Sox might have trouble outslugging if it came to that. That's why it was so important that they clinch the No. 1 seed and avoid playing the Tigers until they absolutely had to.

Yet they have their issues too, the back end of their bullpen being one of them. 

Tigers or no Tigers, the team I would prefer not to see is Tampa Bay. Even when the Red Sox beat them, it's like taking a chunk of flesh out of them. It's always a struggle. I alternate between liking Joe Maddon because he's refreshing, and hating him because he tends to be way too full of himself at other times. He has this tendency, sometimes, to act as if he invented the game.

Yet the Rays have pitching to burn, and they are perhaps the only team out of the three Wild Card contenders who can burn through their two best pitchers getting to the first round and still throw quality arms out there for the duration. Lord help the Sox if they play Tampa Bay and fall behind with Price and Moore waiting in the wings. See you later. So let's hope that doesn't happen.

In other words, Gooooooooo Texas.

Obviously, the Cleveland Indians are intriguing. It's a great story ... Francona coming back to the scene of his unfortunate demise. But from a different perspective, I've a feeling the sooner they're out of his the better it'll be for everyone else. The Indians are the "which of these things is not like the other" of the post-season. If you're scratching your head wondering how the Red Sox did it, then you have to be convinced the Indians did it with mirrors. Give them any hope at all, and look out!

That's why, from a purely baseball standpoint, I'm hoping the Rangers survive. I don't want to be on the wrong end of someone's Cinderella story (ask the Cardinals and the Raiders how that feels), and absolutely want no part of Tampa Bay. The Rangers seem to be the best option. I'll take my chances with either Oakland or Detroit, but obviously, if I had a choice, I'd take the A's. Miggy and company could use the rest, couldn't they?

The Red Sox have just as much of a chance as anyone else does to bring another championship to the city. Will they? An awful lot has to go right. One possible danger sign is that the Red Sox coasted on this vibe for 162 games, but they may have to catch another wave to get through the playoffs, just as they did in 2004, when all looked lost.

The good news is that this team is full of good vibes, so it's not out of the question that they'll come up with something. If they do, we could be watching duck boats at the end of October.

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