Spring training is the starting point for a baseball team, with the postseason as its preferred destination. For the Red Sox, it was a six-month journey with a GPS that was always being forced to find a new route.
Starting pitcher David Price, the team’s highest-paid player, missed the first two months of the season.
Steven Wright, another starter expected to play a large role, lasted five starts before undergoing season-ending knee surgery. Rick Porcello, the Cy Young Award winner in 2016, lost 17 games.
Third baseman Pablo Sandoval, a redemptive figure in spring training, was released in July. Hanley Ramirez, who so badly wanted to replace David Ortiz as the designated hitter, had one of the worst seasons of his career.
Even homegrown All-Stars Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Mookie Betts were less productive than a year ago. For the first time since 1993, the Red Sox hit the fewest home runs in the American League.
The Sox were forever recalculating, becoming what they so rarely have been: a team that relied on dominant pitching while the offense scratched for runs.
“Things turned out much different, much different than we anticipated,” said manager John Farrell, who in May was perhaps a loss or two away from being replaced. “But in the end, we have a chance to do some special things.”
They already have. The Red Sox went 93-69 and repeated as American League East champions for the first time in franchise history, holding off the Yankees.
Ace lefthander Chris Sale thrived in a new environment, winning 17 games and striking out 308, the most in the major leagues in 15 years.
Craig Kimbrel was an untouchable closer, striking out nearly half the batters he faced.
Drew Pomeranz, who in October 2016 had stem cells injected into his sore left elbow, had the best season of his career. He won 17 games, including the division clincher.
The Sox had the second-lowest earned run average in the American League and the third-most strikeouts.
Rookie left fielder Andrew Benintendi emerged as a star, and the Sox found their replacement for Sandoval at third base in baby-faced power hitter Rafael Devers, a 20-year-old.
Betts, while unsatisfied with his season, was one of eight players in the majors with at least 100 runs and 100 RBIs. He added 72 extra-base hits and stole 26 bases.
“I thought we’d have more power,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. “I thought we would score more runs. But we’ve been a different type of club. We pitch very well. It always doesn’t look like it defensively all the time, but our defense has been good. We have a deep bullpen. We score enough runs because we run the bases pretty well.”
But now comes the true test, seeing where the road ends. The Sox open the best-of-five Division Series in Houston Thursday, with Sale on the mound. They are not the best team in the league, but they may have happened on the formula for postseason success.
“We’re not going to hit a lot of home runs,” Pedroia said. “But pitching and defense can win games in October. There’s no secret to winning, just score one more run than the other team. We don’t care how we do it, just find a way.”
The Sox resemble the 2015 Kansas City Royals, a team that won the World Series with pitching, defense, and speed. Kansas City was 14th in the league in home runs that season but second in steals and third in ERA. Like the Sox, the Royals had a deep bullpen and an outfield that seemed to run down every ball in the air.
“Very similar styles,” said Jonny Gomes, a champion with the 2013 Red Sox who joined the ’15 Royals late in the season. “Athletic, good pitching, and they found ways to win. In the playoffs, it’s a good way to play.”
That the Red Sox would be a different team without Ortiz in the lineup was certain. Less quantifiable was to what degree they would miss his presence in the clubhouse. That also was significant and defined the season in a different way.
The first example came April 21 in Baltimore. In what appeared to be a routine play at second base in the eighth inning, Orioles star Manny Machado aggressively barreled into Pedroia and injured the second baseman’s left knee.
Traditionally, a team would exact revenge by having a pitcher hit Machado in his back or legs his next time up. The Red Sox took no action the next day. But two days after the incident, Matt Barnes threw a fastball that nearly hit Machado in the face.
Pedroia was not appreciative, feeling the pitchers waited too long to act, then did so irresponsibly.
The situation worsened May 2 when Sale threw a pitch behind Machado’s back, nearly two weeks after the initial incident. The Sox appeared rudderless.
On June 29, Price confronted NESN broadcaster Dennis Eckersley on a flight to Toronto, cursing at him for what he perceived as negative commentary about teammate Eduardo Rodriguez.
When the Globe reported on the incident, fans turned on Price. But he refused to apologize to Eckersley, a respected Hall of Famer. Farrell offered little other than to say he had spoken to Price. It was another situation Ortiz likely would have moved to defuse.
But the controversies, however poorly handled, did not affect the team’s play. The Sox moved into first place for good Aug. 1. They were 43-30 after the All-Star break.
“We were able to focus on the field,” Betts said. “Inside the clubhouse, this was a tight team.”
The Sox were 15-3 in extra innings and came from behind to win 43 games, statistics that suggest a sense of purpose.
“I think we have a very high-character club,” Dombrowski said. “It’s a tribute to the players and the staff that they battled through it.”
When the Sox won the World Series in 2013, it was with a team of veterans that drew inspiration from a lack of expectations. This team, of which much was expected, needed time to develop an identity.
“It has been satisfying, more fun in some ways,” Farrell said. “It’s been more of a concerted effort on all our parts. When you win close games, there’s a lot that goes into that. Whether it’s players or staff, there’s been a meaningful role for everybody.”
Sale, as is his way, was more direct.
“This team has a lot of guts,” he said. “Even in games we lost, we were working hard in the ninth inning. That’s what impressed me the most.”
When the season started, the Sox were expected to make the playoffs and contend for the World Series.
Here they are.
“Our goals are all still attainable,” Pedroia said. “We need to keep pushing, keep getting better. That’s when you have a good team, when you go through hard times and still get to where you need to be.”