By Christopher Smith
---- — BOSTON — The Boston Red Sox are headed to the postseason for the first time since 2009 — and after the organization’s most gloomy two-year stretch since winning just 62 games in 1965 and 72 games in ‘66.
Maybe only the world’s best clairvoyant could have predicted the Red Sox would go from 69 wins under an egomaniac named Bobby Valentine in 2012 to a World Series favorite under the well-prepared and understated John Farrell in 2013.
Boston’s turnaround from last year to this year is larger than its turnaround from 1966 to ‘67, the Impossible Dream season when the Sox and the great Carl Yastrzemski, who will be honored with a statue in his likeness today at Fenway Park, made the World Series but lost in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Boston entered Thursday having won 23 more games than last year, marking the club’s largest increase in wins — excluding the strike-shortened 1981 and 1994 seasons — since the 1946 club (104-50) won 33 more games than in ‘45.
Order has been restored from Boston’s front office to the manager to the coaching staff to the players. Up and down the roster, this team is filled with leaders from Jonny Gomes to David Ross to Shane Victorino to Dustin Pedroia to Ryan Dempster to Mike Napoli to David Ortiz.
“That’s how you win — with leadership,” said Ortiz, who has been a fixture in the middle of the Red Sox batting order since 2003. “Guys are into it. Guys try to give everything they have every day. That’s how you get to that point.”
As of now, Boston is the top seed in the American League.
This Red Sox team is filled with high character players (unlike 2011, ‘12), but several other factors had to come together for Boston to win the AL East besides a change in culture on the field and in the clubhouse.
First, Ortiz’s health was a main concern entering the season. He was coming off a bad Achilles injury that caused him to miss most of the final two and a half months last year. Without the 37-year-old power-hitting designated hitter producing, this team would not be AL East champs right now.
Others such as Victorino and Napoli also have done their jobs offensively in the way GM Ben Cherington envisioned when he signed them to contracts this offseason.
The pitching staff has done outstanding after ranking 27th out of 30 major league teams in ERA last year and 22nd in ‘11. Boston entered action Thursday with the 11th best ERA in baseball (3.76).
Lastly, the Red Sox unknowingly signed arguably the best closer in baseball. Koji Uehara was inked to a deal in the offseason to be a setup man. But with season-ending injuries to Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, the 38-year-old Japanese pitcher has stepped up and dominated. He recently had a remarkable stretch in which he retired 37 straight batters.
Major League home run leader Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles discussed Boston’s turnaround, saying, “Last year was obviously a special situation with the manager being what it was. I think there were times when there was a little bit too much light shed on that as opposed to what the team was doing. And I just don’t think it was a good fit for either the Red Sox or Bobby.
“I think this year obviously John (Farrell) has done a great job,” Davis added. “But they’ve brought in the personnel — guys like Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, guys that are going to go out there every day and give you what they’ve got and give you a chance to win.”
Red Sox players clicked early on in spring training through a love for the game. It might sound simplistic (because they are a baseball team), but it’s true and it all starts with Gomes, who certainly is not the most talented player but a natural-born leader.
“He’s a baseball junkie,” Ross said about Gomes, who talks baseball history, game scenarios, current baseball, everything. “And it’s fun to have those guys around here. He talks baseball all the time. Something rarely comes out of his mouth that is not something baseball. Same with Pedroia and Nap and Salty (Jarrod Saltalamacchia). We enjoy talking baseball.”
Pedroia agreed, adding: “We like talking about the game and situations and trying to get better.”
This team not only is talking baseball but playing it at an extremely high level. The Sox entered Thursday with 35 come-from-behind wins, 11 walkoff wins and a 73-4 record when leading after seven innings.
Everyone was talking about the parody of the AL East entering the season. But the Red Sox ran away with the division.
“They’re certainly having one heck of a season,” Baltimore Orioles left fielder Nate McLouth said. “They’ve been really, really consistent the whole season. They’ve pitched well. They’ve hit the ball well. They’ve done it all and their record shows it.”
The depth Cherington created on the roster went fairly unrecognized for most of the season but it helped Boston go 18-8 in April and stay in first place the majority of the summer.
Mike Carp, acquired late in spring training, has done a tremendous job off the bench. Daniel Nava, who some thought might not make the team, has been one of the AL’s most productive offensive outfielders.
The Red Sox also survived a three-month stretch without ace Clay Buchholz because of pitching depth in the minors and with the July 30 addition of Jake Peavy, who gives Boston a strong fourth starter in the postseason.
Remember when Ortiz batted .185 with just one homer during the first two months of the 2009 season? Pretty much everyone thought his career was finished.
Some also thought the designated hitter was nearing the end when he had such trouble overcoming his Achilles injury. It appeared foolish for Cherington to sign Ortiz to a two-year deal this offseason.
But Ortiz has stayed healthy and extremely productive since returning from the DL on April 20. He’s the rock in the middle of the order with an OPS (combination of on-base percentage and slugging percentage) over .950.
With so many other leaders, Ortiz doesn’t have to be the main voice in the clubhouse. But he has remained the face of this franchise — and the stats he has posted are irreplaceable right now. He is a big reason the Red Sox lead baseball in runs scored.
“He’s just one of the greatest personalities in our game — great ambassador for our game,” New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez said about Ortiz, who he played with in Seattle’s organization at the beginning of their professional careers. “And to me, he’s sneaking up on the Hall of Fame. One of the all-time great clutch players. And I’m happy with how well respected and how revered he is in Boston.”
While the Red Sox bullpen has suffered through injuries and inconsistencies throughout this summer, Uehara is putting together a Mariano Rivera-like season. He arguably is the team’s MVP.
Boston entered Thursday with a 76-3 record when leading after eight innings and Uehara, who recently had a 30.1 scoreless innings streak, is a big reason for that.
Most incredible about Uehara’s dominance is that he does it with a fastball that has averaged just 89.3 mph this year, according to fangraphs.com.
“Guys see it good — it’s 89 mph — but guys are always late on it,” Yankees first baseman Lyle Overbay said. “I’ve swung through it many times. It’s not really difficult to pick up. You see it. His splitty comes out the same spot so that’s a little deception. I don’t know, man. I’m trying to figure it out myself.”
Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson also said Uehara’s fastball is difficult to pick up because it comes out of the same slot as the splitter.
“That and also the same arm speed,” Granderson said. “So when they both come out, they both look the same. The split typically starts down and drops even farther down and the fastball usually elevates enough to get it out of the zone so there’s never really too many balls in the middle of the plate.”
Like Uehara, the Red Sox have surprised everyone this year. But can they keep it going in the postseason? We’ll see soon enough.
Follow Christopher Smith on Twitter @SmittyOnMLB