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Boston Red Sox: Who are these guys?


Published:   |   Updated: October 4, 2013 at 06:20 AM

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Heading into today’s Game 1 of the American League Division Series, it seems like a perfectly legitimate question.

After all, the Boston Red Sox were coming off a 69-93 train wreck of a season. Their clubhouse seemed to be the height of dysfunction.

They made some changes — the most prominent of which was replacing Bobby Valentine with John Farrell as manager — but no one saw this turnaround coming.

Sports Illustrated predicted the Red Sox would go 75-87 and repeat as last-place finishers in the AL East. Maybe you just saw that 10 people on ESPN’s voluminous team of experts picked the Red Sox to win the World Series. But back in March, not one of them said they would even win the division.

The Red Sox have had plenty of great moments in the past decade, including World Series titles in 2004 and 2007. But Boston hasn’t enjoyed this kind of unexpected baseball season since the “Impossible Dream’’ AL champions of 1967.

So what gives?

“A lot of why they’ve been able to do this is the people on the team,’’ said Rays manager Joe Maddon, who knows something about a worst-to-first turnaround. “It goes well beyond sabermetrics and numbers. It comes down to personalities, character and people. You really need to combine all of that to be successful today. They’ve combined the numerology behind the game, as well as having those old-school tough guys.’’

That’s who they are.

Here’s a closer look at why the Red Sox are here:

THE BEARDS

Is this hockey? The playoff beard craze has taken hold.

But actually, it has been going strong since spring training, when ex-Ray Jonny Gomes and Mike Napoli first decided to grow out their facial hair. One by one, their teammates joined in. Fans have turned it into a full-fledged phenomenon, and Fenway Park now offers “fake beards’’ in the style of your favorite Red Sox player.

As the New York Times recently put it: “First baseman Mike Napoli has reached a level of forestation so impenetrable that a family of squirrels could be living on his face.’’

Or as Napoli himself recently put it: “I wake up in the morning. I shampoo it. I condition it. It’s part of me now.’’

It’s great fun. It’s a bonding agent, somewhat reminiscent of the 1970s era Oakland Athletics, “The Mustache Gang.’’ Mostly, it’s an episode of “Duck Dynasty,’’ complete with bats and balls.

BOSTON STRONG

Shortly after the Red Sox wrapped up an early-season victory against the Rays on April 15, baseball was quickly forgotten after the tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon.

But baseball helped in the healing process.

Players wore “Boston Strong’’ T-shirts. Fenway’s center-field grass was cut to display a “B Strong’’ logo, which has been displayed on the Green Monster and the left sleeve of Boston’s home uniforms.

Manager John Farrell said he’ll always remember the feeling of his players during a moment of silence in Cleveland on April 16, the day after the attacks.

“Whether that was the galvanizing moment for this team, I can’t say that,’’ Farrell said. “But it was a moment in time where guys showed a different side of them that this was a special group. What the performance was going to be, the total number of wins achieved, we didn’t know. But there was a characteristic that showed through in that moment that was special.’’

THE MANAGER

Manager Bobby Valentine’s one-season reign was a mess. From the outside, there weren’t great expectations when John Farrell, the Toronto Blue Jays’ manager and former Red Sox pitching coach, returned to Boston.

But on the inside?

Second baseman Dustin Pedroia: “All I know is when John Farrell walks into our clubhouse, everyone listens.’’

DH David Ortiz: “When I’m talking to my manager, I feel like I’m talking to my brother. I’m not dealing with someone who is a dictator. John walked in letting us know the rules. He asked us not to violate them. At the same time, he promised, ‘I will be there for you.’ There’s no negativity coming from him, even when we screw up.’’

THE CLOSER

Once, the Red Sox had Jonathan Papelbon. But since he left for free agency following the 2011 season, the closer’s role has been dicey.

Joel Hanrahan was ticketed for closer this season, but he had season-ending elbow surgery. When Andrew Bailey blew three save opportunities in five chances during June, manager John Farrell turned to Koji Uehara, who became Baltimore’s closer in 2010 and also worked in that role for Japan’s Yomiuri Giants in 2007.

Uehara has been a revelation. His statistics have been borderline absurd.

He had a 1.09 ERA, best of any pitcher with at least 50 innings this season. He had an average of 0.57 walks plus hits per nine innings — the WHIP statistic that true seamheads love — that surpassed the 0.61 by Dennis Eckersley in 1989. He had 101 strikeouts and nine walks, two of which were intentional. Forty-four of his appearances were perfect — no base runners.

“When you can’t remember the last time a guy’s been on base, he’s having a good year,’’ Red Sox teammate Craig Breslow said.

THE REMADE ROSTER

On Aug. 25, 2012, the Red Sox executed a massive trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, shipping away Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett. It was a massive salary dump, freeing up $262 million.

Instead of pursuing more high-priced talent, Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington went after clubhouse chemistry and players who fit into valuable roles. Everyone seemed to fit, whether it was OF Shane Victorino, SS Stephen Drew, C David Ross, 1B Mike Napoli or OF Jonny Gomes.

“There’s something to be said for 25 guys with one goal — that’s winning,’’ Gomes said. “Not free agency, not Cy Young, not Gold Glove, not MVP, not, ‘Let me get my 25 homers and 100 RBIs.’ I keep joking with everyone, ‘Man, we’re all having a down year individually, but as a team, we’re rocking it.’ ”

THE NUMBERS

Numbers, numbers, numbers.

There are many fascinating numbers surrounding this season’s edition of the Red Sox.

* The Red Sox are the 11th team to go from worst to first in one season. The others: 1991 Twins, 1991 Braves, 1993 Phillies, 1997 Giants, 1998 Padres, 1999 Diamondbacks, 2007 Cubs, 2007 Diamondbacks, 2008 Rays and 2011 Diamondbacks.

* It was the first time since 1903 a Red Sox team went an entire season without losing four straight games. The Red Sox never fell below .500 and were swept once all season (at Texas, May 3-5).

* CF Jacoby Ellsbury led the majors with 52 stolen bases, and his 92.9 stolen base percentage was the highest ever for a player with 50 or more steals.

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