ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — For six months the Red Sox have been under the radar, working their magic at Fenway Park in relative obscurity. While the Bruins skated into the Stanley Cup Final and Doc Rivers and Wes Welker walked away from Boston, the Sox grew beards, bonded in fraternity style, and ran away with the American League East.
Now the Redemption Tour goes national. John Henry and Larry Lucchino’s “scrappy underdogs” Wednesday morning finished off the Tampa Bay Rays, 3-1, at the Cirque-du-Trop. Winning the ALDS, three games to one, the Sox advanced to the American League Championship Series (opening Saturday at Fenway against the A’s or the Tigers) for the fifth time in 11 years.
Get ready, America. Prepare for a bombardment of Boston baseball discovery. The Red Sox are back. They look like the old House of David barnstormers. They genuinely love one another and they have rewritten their sad story line from 2011-12. Manager John Farrell has restored dignity in the corner office at Yawkey Way. Big Papi is better than he was 10 years ago when all this started. General manager Ben Cherington is executive of the year because he tricked the Dodgers into assuming $261 million in future payroll, then went out and got Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, Ryan Dempster, Koji Uehara, David Ross, Jonny Gomes, Mike Carp, and Jake Peavy.
It’s a different guy every day for the fuzzy Fenway warriors. Tuesday night it was Craig Breslow, a Yale graduate. All he did was come into the game and strike out Tampa Bay’s four best hitters. Consecutively. Yale has been very good to the Red Sox through the years. Yale gave the Red Sox Thomas Yawkey, Theo Epstein, and Larry Lucchino (Yale law). Now a Yalie gets the win in the ALDS clincher.
The final pitch came at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday when Uehara fanned Evan Longoria on a 2-2 pitch. Minutes later, Gomes was wearing his combat helmet, punting beer cans in the clubhouse. A couple hundred Boston fans gathered near the Sox’ third base dugout, chanting “Let’s go Red Sox!” as the rest of the Tropicana Field fans filed out of the dome.
It was a goofy series. The Sox slaughtered the Rays in the first two games at Fenway, then endured a 5-4 walkoff loss in Game 3 at the Trop Monday night. The excruciating defeat might have crushed a lesser team. Not these guys. The Sox went back to work Tuesday night and beat the Rays with two “scrappy underdog” runs in the top of the seventh.
Game 4 was Tampa’s fifth elimination game over 10 days and the Rays were showing the strain. Tampa’s innovative manager Joe “Watch Me” Maddon worked with a relay team of hurlers. It’s not often you see nine from a single team in a 3-1 game. Instead of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance, we saw Hellickson-to-Wright-to-Moore-to-Torres — all in the first six innings without the Red Sox scoring a run.
Peavy carried the load for Boston. Acquired in a controversial midsummer deal for popular young shortstop Jose Iglesias, Peavy was the perfect bulldog for a gut-check game in a noisy, yahoo stadium. Peavy matched Tampa Bay’s college of hurlers pitch-for-pitch, right up until he finally cracked in the sixth.
Peavy was just over 60 pitches but looked slightly cooked at the start of the sixth. Yunel Escobar led with a liner off the wall in left for a double, went to third on a groundout, and scored on a hard single to right by David DeJesus. Breslow came in for Peavy and fanned James Loney to end the inning. It was only the beginning for the Eli southpaw.
There was no Ted Williams/Jim Rice thumping from the Sox. They bled the Rays to death. Boston scored on a wild pitch, a 100-foot single, and a sacrifice fly.
The slow bleed started with one out and nobody aboard in the seventh, when Farrell sent rookie Xander Bogaerts up to hit for Drew against lefty Jake McGee. This smacked of urgency. Monday night, against the same pitcher, Farrell stayed with Drew and the manager was roasted when Drew failed to produce a hit. Bogaerts is one of only three Red Sox to play in a postseason game before turning 21. The other two are Babe Ruth (1915-16) and Ken Brett (1967).
Bogaerts worked a walk, which is something Drew hadn’t done against a lefty since late August.
“I reserve the right to change my mind,” said Farrell. “Given some of the struggles Stephen’s had, as tough as lefthanders had been on Stephen, I felt we had to try something different. We had to get something started. [Monday] night did play into it.”
Bogaerts moved to third on a two-out single by Jacoby Ellsbury (nine hits in the series). Joel Peralta relieved McGee and Bogaerts scored the tying run when Peralta’s first pitch bounced to the backstop. Ellsbury was running on the pitch and made it all the way to third.
Next up was Victorino. He bounced a dribbler to short and beat the throw to first allowing Ellsbury to score the winning run.
“I knew it was going to be a tough at-bat,” said Victorino of the 100-foot hit. “Whatever it took. I was just telling myself, ‘Put this ball in play. Try to make something happen.’ A broken-bat infield hit. Doing whatever it takes to win.”
Staked to the lead, Breslow struck out three of Tampa’s best hitters in the seventh. In the ninth, Dustin Pedroia’s sac fly interrupted a parade of Ray pitchers and provided an insurance run.
“I can’t understate how important Pedey’s sacrifice fly was,” Farrell said.
Uehara, Monday night’s goat, redeemed himself with a four-out save, fanning Longoria for that final out.
“The one thing this team has done is continue to build opportunities,” Farrell said. “This was a unique game. We faced nine pitchers. Tonight was a big night, for obvious reasons.’
The Sox celebrated on the infield, then in their clubhouse, but they know there is work to be done. They would like you to think that the party is just getting started.