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The Boston Globe

Sports

Christopher L. Gasper

Don’t consider these Red Sox underdogs

Jon Lester, center, and the Red Sox welcome the Tigers for the start of the ALCS on Saturday.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Jon Lester, center, and the Red Sox welcome the Tigers for the start of the ALCS on Saturday.

They might be Dirt Dogs Redux, but the Red Sox are not scrappy underdogs or overachievers or a team that should be surprised to be playing in the American League Championship Series.

If the 2004 Red Sox spawned the DVD “Faith Rewarded,” then the slogan for the 2013 Sox would be “Faith Withheld.” For a long time, some members of the Fenway Faithful simply refused to believe the Sox were this good. But after dismantling Tampa Bay in four games in the Division Series, the Sox have a serious shot at some restoration hardware.

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It’s not bearded lightning in a bottle or being touched by the baseball gods. The Sox are just a very good team, one that should be favored against the Detroit Tigers. The Sox aren’t playing like underdogs. They’re playing like top dogs.

The portrayal of the Red Sox as “scrappy underdogs” — a term used by president and CEO Larry Lucchino back in February — is laughable. It’s only missing a brick-wall background to pass as a comedy routine. Fans in Kansas City and San Diego and Miami must scoff at the notion that a team with a pork barrel payroll and a minted landmark of a ballpark was billed as an underdog before the season.

One epic implosion, a few questionable personnel investments, and a last-place finish don’t make you an underdog.

Looking for some love and to distance this group from the 2012 edition, Lucchino said on Valentine’s Day that the Toronto Blue Jays were the favorites in the American League East, and the Red Sox were just “the scrappy underdogs trying to win for our franchise and our fans.”

Lucchino got the scrappy part right. These scruffy Sox have grown on a skeptical, disconnected fan base by grinding out at-bats, working walkoff wins, and having an infectious, relentless approach to each and every inning that has carried them to the franchise’s first ALCS since 2008.

They have a deep and dynamic lineup that led the majors in runs, on-base percentage, and OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). They have a starting rotation with veterans Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Clay Buchholz — all of whom have restored their reputations and their level of performance — and trade deadline pickup Jake Peavy.

There is nothing about the Red Sox that says fluke.

“They have all that stuff going on,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon after his team was eliminated by the Sox, three games to one, in the Division Series. “They have a wonderful bullpen. They’re just good, man. They’re good.

“They’re the reason we’re sitting here not winning right now. They beat us all season. They beat us in a five-game series. I’ve got to give them credit.

“I should take this moment to say I want to give them a lot of credit, John [Farrell] and the entire Red Sox organization, what they’ve done this year, based on the difficulties they faced last year. Obviously they made some wonderful decisions and they deserve to advance. I commend them.”

They’re going to have to be at their best to defeat the Tigers.

Detroit might be bankrupt as a city, but the Motor City Kitties have a wealth of talent and a lovable curmudgeon of a manager in Jim Leyland, who you can be sure doesn’t see the Sox as a speed bump to the World Series.

The Sox have earned the right to be favored against the Tigers, the team of Justin Verlander, Miguel “Triple Crown” Cabrera, and presumptive AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer. The Tigers are good and they have higher Q-scores than guys like Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, or Koji Uehara.

This is Detroit’s third straight ALCS. The Tigers lost in six games to Texas in 2011. Last year they swept the Yankees, before being swept by the San Francisco Giants in the World Series. They’re like the top-10 golfer who can’t break through and win a major.

With home field in their favor, the Sox should be favored in the ALCS, which starts Saturday at Fenway Park. They’ve been best in show in the AL just about wire to wire from a performance standpoint.

This isn’t 1967, with an improbable band of dreamers. It’s not 1988 with magic spurred by a managerial change. Despite the presence of Peavy’s cigar store Indian figure, there is nothing mystical about this season, just good, hard-nosed baseball.

The Sox easily could have swept the Rays. Jose Lobaton’s walkoff homer off Uehara in Game 3 was akin to Congressional comity on the incredulity scale. Tampa Bay’s biggest lead in any game in the series was two runs. That happened in Game 1, when Sean Rodriguez and Ben Zobrist hit solo shots off Lester.

Boston outscored Tampa Bay, 26-12. Led by Jacoby Ellsbury’s .500 batting average, the Sox hit .286 to the Rays’ .225. Playing with a fractured bone in his foot, Ellsbury was a force, stealing four bases and scoring seven runs. Imagine what he would have done with a healthy foot.

Victorino, who is the personification of “taking one for the team” with his propensity for getting hit by pitches, had a .556 on-base percentage against the Rays. He was hit by a pitch four times.

David Ortiz has played in 61 playoff games for the Sox and is going to pass Jason Varitek (63) for the most in franchise history. He is not acting his age, and the Sox are grateful for it.

Winning 97 games and reaching the ALCS a year after the scorched-earth 69-93 campaign of 2012 is an accomplishment.

Few, if any, people saw the Great Redemption coming, at least not to this degree.

The Sox were underestimated, but that doesn’t mean they’re underdogs.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.
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