EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 20, 2013

True grit

Like other local champs
Sox have key ingredient: toughness

---- — BOSTON — Detroit Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer’s lips said it all, about two minutes after Shane Victorino’s eventual winning grand slam in the seventh inning: “Unbelieveable! Unbelieveable!”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

From where Scherzer sits, there is no plausible explanation for what transpired last night and really the last week. He pitched two of the best games of his life, in the postseason, leaving the game allowing only one run. But he flew home early this morning with nothing to show for it.

We’ve seen a lot of this around here since the turn of the century. Our teams — only one (the Celtics) of which had some substantial championship hardware in their modern history — go bonkers when it came to competing for and/or winning their sport’s Holy Grail the last dozen years?

Well, if you want to pick through our championship teams the last dozen years you’ll see a trail of superstars, Hall of Fame head coaches and character guys when the Duck Boats were running through downtown Boston.

You don’t win without some upper tier talent.

But here’s another abstract quality that is oftentimes forgotten but might trump them all come Duck Boat time:

Toughness.

And I’m not referring only to punches, elbows or plowing over people. And not the imposing bushy beards either.

Did the Patriots roll over and play dead in January of 2002, in Pittsburgh, with a Super Bowl at stake? No, they beat the Steelers up before doing the same thing two weeks later against the “unbeatable” St. Louis Rams.

Did the Red Sox call it a night after falling behind their American League Championship Series with the Yankees in 2004, 3-0? No, they won seven straight games and their first title in 86 years.

Was there a tougher team than the Celtics in 2007-08, Year 1 of the Big Three?

And what about the Bruins in 2011? In fact, if you talk tough, you might have to put that Boston champion at the front of the line when it came to grit.

There were other titles, including the Patriots and Red Sox, and several near-misses by the Celtics, Patriots and Bruins. The best word to describe all of them is tough.

We fast-forward to Fenway Park.

The Red Sox had opportunities to fail. Dustin Pedroia’s 3-run-homer-turned-foul-ball in the third inning could have killed the Sox. In fact, Franklin Morales disastrous relief appearance (two walks and a single) should have killed the Sox. The cheap single of reliever Brandon Workman’s glove which was followed by an error could have killed the Sox.

Of course, none of it. Nothing has killed off this team nobody had winning more than 84 games.

Let’s be honest. The Tigers pitching staff, really the starting pitching staff, dominated this series. Verlander, Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez are aces on many staffs in baseball — at least their “stuff” is — and they were as good as advertised.

Each guy had a no-hitter through five innings in Games 1, 2 and 3, which is an amazing feat and even more amazing that it came consecutively in the post-season. There is one problem. That wasn’t good enough. In fact, the Sox won two of those games.

What was tougher, grinding out Scherzer in Game 2, forcing him to leave after seven innings, allowing the eventual donnybrook on the Tigers bullpen (see David Ortiz grand slam) or Mike Napoli’s home run in the seventh of Game 3, which was preceded by six strikeouts in six at bats?

We could talk about Jonny Gomes dive into first base in the ninth inning of the Game 2 comeback to start the inning, eventually scoring the winning run. We could talk about the Red Sox starting pitching, which probably would be story if not for their Tigers brethren. We could talk about lefty reliever Craig Breslow pitching the best of his long career or Junichi Tazawa’s domination of Miguel Cabrera (are you kidding me?) with Game 2 and 5 on the line.

Well, last night was another one of those games. The Tigers got the lead, 2-1, with Scherzer dealing, but working hard. Next thing you know the bases are loaded and the Red Sox are going to the World Series.

This is not a new occurrence either, at least for most of this team. Despite injuries, a messed up bullpen and no legitimate No. 3 hitter (Dustin Pedroia should be batting second the rest of his life), the Red Sox never lost more than three games in a row.

This is supposed to be a sport of ebbs and flows, slumps and winning streaks. But the Red Sox never wavered, from Day 1.

“They were really good. They didn’t make any mistakes. You could see their grit,” said Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon after his team was eliminated 3-1 a dozen days ago.

“I talked about (that) from Spring Training on,” said Maddon. “I think they’ve really promoted the character within that group, and they’re just gamers, they’ve got a bunch of gamers over there. And that’s what really I felt from the other side.”

While many Red Sox fans feared the worst, despite the big wins early in this series with Detroit, due to the fact that Scherzer and Verlander were possibly awaiting the Red Sox.

Do you think the Red Sox feared either matchup or possiblity?

No answer is needed. The Red Sox wouldn’t be here if you had to answer that question.

You can email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.