All season long the Red Sox have been converting non-believers into believers, creating born-again baseball fans out of hardened cynics and reticent supporters. If there were any doubters left who thought the Red Sox couldn’t possibly be this good, their skepticism disappeared into the October night along with a baseball off the bat of Shane Victorino.
The final holdouts, if there are any, have nothing to hold on to. These are the real Red Sox. They’re really good, and they’re really going to the World Series. A season of redemption and rebirth includes a chance to win a championship, after the Sox won the American League Championship Series, four games to two, with a 5-2 victory Saturday night at Fenway Park.
Doubt died in the seventh inning, when Victorino lofted a one-out, 0-2 pitch from Tigers reliever Jose Veras into the Monster Seats for a grand slam, turning a 2-1 deficit into a 5-2 lead.
It was a fitting symbol of the hope restored by these Red Sox. Victorino had been 2 for 23 in the series before his thunderclap sent Fenway Park into a frenzy and the Sox on to the World Series to face the St. Louis Cardinals.
Game 1 is Wednesday night at Fenway Park. That’s a sentence few expected to see written when pitchers and catchers reported in February.
Victorino is emblematic of this team — undervalued, underappreciated, and dismissed from the outset. People scoffed when the Sox agreed to give Victorino a three-year, $39 million deal. He was the poster child for what was supposed to be a bridge year for a team that was somewhere between breaking bad and being good again.
“Yeah, last year was a rough year. I know coming into it a lot of people were iffy about our team,” said first baseman Mike Napoli, as he soaked in the celebration on the field. “But every single one of us believed that we were going to be a good team. We went out there and showed everybody. This is awesome.”
Seasons like this are always the rewarding ones. The ones you don’t see coming. An elderly gentleman in a Red Sox cap shuffling out the grandstand summoned up the feelings of many of the Fenway Faithful. “Wow,” he uttered to no one in particular as he walked out into the concourse.
That’s the joy of being a sports fan, a joy this team restored after last season’s 69-93 debacle.
This is one of the more unanticipated World Series teams the Red Sox have ever fielded. Instead of being at the forefront of the Boston sports scene, the Sox were background noise most of their season.
Still embittered and alienated by the team’s epic 2011 collapse and drama-filled futility in 2012, Red Sox Nation had become disinterested and distant.
The Bruins’ run to the Stanley Cup Final allowed the ignore button to be hit on the Sox. Attention was deflected away by the shocking murder charge against Patriots tight Aaron Hernandez. Then the intrigue of Patriots training camp loomed in late July.
On Aug. 20, the Sox’ 5½-game lead was gone. They were tied for first in the AL East. Those who had been waiting for their collapse were now circling like cynical sharks.
But the Sox went 33-11 the rest of the way and ran away with the division, clinching a playoff berth Sept. 19 and finishing with the best record in the American League.
It wasn’t easy to win back the fan base over the course of an unforeseen season, or vanquish the Tigers. These redoubtable rapscallions did both the hard way, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Facing presumptive AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, the Sox were locked in a scoreless game through four innings, as Clay Buchholz matched zeros with Scherzer.
Dustin Pedroia missed a three-run homer by inches in the third, as the ball sailed just left of the foul pole made famous by Carlton Fisk. Pedroia ended up grounding into an inning-ending 5-3 double play.
The Sox finally broke through against Scherzer in the fifth to take a 1-0 lead. Baby-faced, 21-year-old Xander Bogaerts rocketed a two-out double high off the Green Monster in left-center field. Jacoby Ellsbury lined the next pitch to right field for a single and Bogaerts scored to put the Sox 12 outs away from the World Series.
But the lead was gone before the Sox could record another out. Buchholz started the sixth by committing baseball’s cardinal sin — he walked the leadoff man, Torii Hunter. Miguel Cabrera followed with a single to left. Sox manager John Farrell then lifted Buchholz, who had allowed just four hits and struck out four, after just 85 pitches, for Franklin Morales.
Morales walked Prince Fielder and gave up a two-run, Wall-ball single to former Red Sox Victor Martinez.
In the bottom of the seventh, Jonny Gomes just missed a game-tying home run. He led off the inning by hitting a ball 36 feet and 11 inches up on the 37-foot-high Green Monster. His double turned out to be a prelude to Victorino’s heroics.
Victorino stepped to the plate with the bases loaded after Bogaerts chased Scherzer with a six-pitch walk and Jose Iglesias committed an error on what could have been an inning-ending double play off the bat of Ellsbury.
Then Victorino launched himself into history and the Sox on to the center stage they deserved to be on sooner than now.
“It was a special moment. It’s been a special year,” said Victorino.
The Sox remain aware that few thought they were capable of this type of season.
These guys believed this was possible when few did. Everyone is on board and with beard now.
“Those people weren’t in spring training with us wearing uniforms,” said Gomes. “If we didn’t do this we would have been really [ticked] off.”
The Sox have given us something to believe in.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.