OAKLAND, Calif. — They started the season in New York, still shamed by 2012, promoting Jackie Bradley Jr. as the face of the franchise, admitting their phony sellout streak soon would end, and hoping to return to respectability. New manager John Farrell said he liked his team and Boston’s embattled ownership group promised “What’s Broken Can Be Fixed.’’
Sunday night the first-place Red Sox pause for the All-Star break. David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, and Clay Buchholz will travel to New York for the Midsummer Classic, while their teammates go home for a well-deserved rest.
After stumbling through their worst season in 47 years, the 2013 Red Sox own the best record in the American League, and a significant lead (3½ games entering Sunday) in the ever-competitive AL East. The Sox have 58 wins, tops in franchise history at the All-Star break.
How did this happen?
“We had a core group of talented players eager to rewrite their story,’’ explained Farrell, who has proven to be exactly what the team needed after the Bobby Valentine’s 69-win clown show of 2012.
Pedroia is part of that “core group.’’ He’s been a World Series champion and was AL Most Valuable Player in 2008. He was embarrassed by what happened last season. He’s responded with perhaps his best all-around season and says he believed all along that something like this could happen.
“I felt it the first day of spring training,’’ the second baseman said in the visitors clubhouse at O.Co Coliseum Friday. “Right after the first workout. Everything was different. I just felt like we had something special. All the guys we had, when they walked in the door, winning was the only thing on their mind. Winning baseball games. That’s been everybody’s focus and that’s what we’re all trying to do.’’
The scene in the Sox clubhouse after Friday night’s 4-2 win over the A’s said a lot about the 2013 Red Sox. While John Lackey — the poster boy for Red Sox rehabilitation — smiled and held court with the media (two things that never happened in 2011 or 2012), a group of players sat together around a small table in the cramped clubhouse. Jonny Gomes, Andrew Bailey, Mike Napoli, Jon Lester, Ryan Dempster, and Jacoby Ellsbury chatted and joked as they tore into the postgame food spread. It was the image of clubhouse camaraderie, something that was sadly missing throughout 2012.
This wouldn’t have happened in Oakland last year. For starters, there was rarely an afterglow of victory. The Sox went 0-6 in Alameda County. Oakland is where Bobby V arrived late to the ballpark after getting stuck in traffic while picking up his adult son at the airport. Last year we would have seen Aaron Cook, Scott Podsednik, Danny Valencia, Pedro Ciriaco, Mauro Gomez, and maybe Daisuke Matsuzaka in the Sox clubhouse. We would have seen Adrian “The Cooler” Gonzalez bitching about umpires or Sunday night charters. We would have seen Carl Crawford searching for imaginary boogeymen and snarling Josh Beckett looking for snitches instead of getting in shape.
Everything is different now. Built around the core talent of the Sox All-Stars, plus Lackey, Lester, Ellsbury, Daniel Nava, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and youngsters Jose Iglesias and Felix Doubront, the Sox are winners again. The glacial patience of general manager Ben Cherington thus far has paid off.
Even after the disaster of 2012, the Sox GM and new manager both believed that the Sox were still good. They opted for an offseason plan of acquiring veteran character guys who had played in big games and big markets. And it has worked. The Sox are far from dominant, but they are grinders and they are good enough. So far.
Gone are the days when the Sox couldn’t wait to make outs. Deep counts have been restored to the Boston lineup. The Sox don’t hit a lot of homers, but they score more runs than any team in baseball. Boston’s stable of starting pitchers enabled the team to burst from the blocks (20-8 out of the gate), and lately Farrell has gotten unexpected contributions from the Brandon Snyders, Mike Carps, and Brock Holts of the world. The closer situation is far from resolved, but we can only marvel at the amazing contribution made by 38-year-old Japanese righty Koji Uehara.
“Guys have stepped up and filled their roles,’’ said Pedroia.
Understated. Just like the 2013 Red Sox.
Hard-core seamheads love this team, but casual fans have been slow to embrace the New Edition Sox. Our local sports pie has been overstuffed since April and there was hardly time to notice a first-place baseball team during a Stanley Cup run, a seismic Celtics shakeup, and unimaginable Patriots disgrace. As good as the Sox have been, they are a little boring. Cherington studiously failed to make the “sexy” acquisitions NESN wanted when its ratings first started to dip back in 2010. That’s when Tom Werner said, “We need to start winning in more exciting fashion.’’
Walkoff wins are exciting. Players who genuinely like one another are exciting. A playoff team would be exciting.
It’s still early. The Tampa Bay Rays are charging hard and the Orioles and Yankees have not quit. Detroit, Texas, and even Oakland can be ferocious, and there may come a time when the Sox have too much Brock Holt and not enough Buchholz.
But no one can quarrel with the job they’ve done so far. It’s the All-Star break and the Red Sox have made a case for themselves as the best team in baseball. See you Friday night at Fenway when the Yankees finally come to town.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.