The last shall be first in the American League this season. The improbable Red Sox are headed back to the World Series.
Shane Victorino’s grand slam in the seventh inning catapulted the Sox to a 5-2 victory against the Detroit Tigers on Saturday night as they won the AL Championship Series in six games.
Victorino’s home run off Jose Veras cleared the Wall in left field and sent a sellout crowd of 38,823 at Fenway Park into a frenzy. Victorino bounced around the bases and literally hopped off the plate into the arms of his teammates.
Craig Breslow and Koji Uehara secured the victory as the Sox claimed their 13th AL pennant, the first since 2007. Game 1 of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals is Wednesday night at Fenway Park.
The series will be a rematch of the 2004 Fall Classic, which the Red Sox won in four games to end their 86-year curse.
Uehara was named the Most Valuable Player. He saved three of the four victories and threw six scoreless innings in the series.
“All I can say is that I’m extremely happy right now,” said Uehara, speaking for many. “But I am tired.”
The victory was the latest step up for a Red Sox team that was 69-93 last season and came in last in the AL East.
General manager Ben Cherington and new manager John Farrell rebuilt the roster with veteran players known for their competitiveness. Victorino was high on their list and was a key to the team’s success in the regular season.
But Victorino was 2 for 23 in the series with one run batted in as he came to the plate with the bases loaded, one out, and the Sox trailing, 2-1.
Righthander Jose Veras, Detroit’s third pitcher of the inning, threw him three curveballs. The first was a called strike and Victorino fouled off the second one. The third was over the plate and Victorino didn’t miss it.
It was his seventh career home run in the postseason, the second grand slam.
“I told myself to get a pitch I could handle and at least tie the game,” Victorino said. “I got a curveball and was able to hit a home run. A special moment. Moments like this, you cherish.”
Said Farrell: “He’s come up big a number of times this season, tonight no bigger.”
From there, it was a rising tide to a wild celebration at Fenway that started in earnest when Uehara struck out former teammate Jose Iglesias for the final out and threw his arms in the air.
“I’m so proud of this team and what they’ve done,” Sox owner John Henry said. “We’ve been to the World Series before, but this is special.”
The winning rally started when Jonny Gomes doubled off the Wall in left, just inches from a home run. Stephen Drew struck out after failing to bunt, leaving him 1 for 20 in the series. But rookie Xander Bogaerts, ever patient, walked.
With starter Max Scherzer at 110 pitches, Tigers manager Jim Leyland went to lefthander Drew Smyly.
Jacoby Ellsbury grounded a ball up the middle for what could have been a double play. But the usually sure-handed Iglesias bobbled the ball and that got Victorino to the plate with the bases loaded.
“That’s part of the game. I have no problem with that,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “Probably could have turned that even though Ellsbury runs good.”
Until the slam, it was a tight game.
Scherzer allowed one run on two hits and two walks over seven innings in Game 2 and struck out 13. He didn’t give up a hit until the sixth inning.
The Sox had a much better approach this time and made Scherzer work in the early innings, putting runners on the first and third inning.
Bogaerts and Ellsbury drew walks to start the third inning. Victorino tried to bunt the runners over and popped up a 94-mile-per-hour fastball. Scherzer came off the mound and made a sliding catch.
Pedroia swung at the first pitch he saw and sent a rocket down the line in left. The ball was foul by inches, coming so close to the foul pole that it left a shadow. A video replay showed the call was correct.
Pedroia grounded into a double play to end the inning.
The Sox broke through in the fifth inning. Bogaerts worked the count full with two outs and drove a fastball off the wall in center field for a double. Ellsbury lined the first pitch he saw into right field for an RBI single.
Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz was working on a three-hit shutout to that point. But he walked Torii Hunter and Miguel Cabrera followed with a single to left field.
Buchholz fell apart in the sixth inning of Game 2, giving up four runs. Farrell pulled him out of the game this time but made the surprising decision to bring in lefthander Franklin Morales.
Morales had pitched twice in the postseason in far less important situations. He was not up to the task. Morales walked Prince Fielder on four pitches to load the bases.
Victor Martinez got up in the count and hammered a fastball off the Wall in left for a two-run single.
Martinez should have been on second base but retreated to first. That proved important. Rookie Brandon Workman got Jhonny Peralta to ground to second and Pedroia was able to tag Martinez and throw the ball to the plate.
Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia chased down Fielder, who cooperated by flopping face down in the first 2 feet from third base. Workman then struck out Alex Avila and the Sox were down 2-1, and fortunate that was all.
“That was huge,” Workman said. “We were able to keep it close and give the offense a chance to win it.”
The Tigers put two runners on base with two outs against Workman in the seventh. With Cabrera up, Junichi Tazawa came in.
Cabrera grounded to shortstop, Drew making a diving play to save a run. That left Cabrera 0 for 3 against Tazawa in the series, all with runners on base.
That left it up to Victorino.
“I knew all along that this was going to be a special team,” he said. “I really did.”