October 3, 2013

Steve Solloway: No one saw '13 Red Sox coming

Few expected Boston to reach the playoffs, let alone tie the St. Louis Cardinals for the most wins – 97 – in major league baseball.

Got tickets to Friday’s baseball game at Fenway Park? Lucky you.

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Boston Red Sox pitcher John Lackey winds up to throw to shortstop John McDonald (10) during a team workout at Fenway Park on Tuesday. The Red Sox host the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 of the AL divisional series on Friday.

The Associated Press

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The first game of the American League Division Series, the first step to the 2013 World Series, is at hand. You dare to think the Boston Red Sox can follow their championships of 2004 and 2007 with a third. A cautious optimism has replaced the gloom of last year’s losing season.

Raise your hand if you knew the Red Sox would return to the postseason this October. Hoping doesn’t count. Neither does guessing.

The point is, few expected the Red Sox to reach the playoffs, let alone win more games – 97 – than any other team in major league baseball save the St. Louis Cardinals, who also won 97. You didn’t expect this, didn’t see this coming. Not after the dysfunction of the Bobby Valentine-managed Red Sox last year.

Remember your disgust at that team that won only 69 games, something the Sox had last done in 1965. Remember the fall from grace. Remember the empty seats at Fenway and the end of the years-long sellout streak.

Remember being able to buy tickets for good seats at face value a year ago. That won’t work this year.

So you’ll hand over $60 or $80 just to park your car near the stadium for playoff games, and you’ll smile at the robbery. Crowds of Red Sox fans on Lansdowne Street and Yawkey Way will push and shove and step on your feet, and you won’t care. Lines 20 or 30 deep will form for food and drink, and you’ll happily take your place at the end.

The Red Sox are in the playoffs. The boys of summer with the mountain man beards are fun to watch, fun to hear in interviews. They spill out of the dugout like so many Little Leaguers after last-inning rallies. They win.

After the ugly collapse in 2011 that cost Manager Terry Francona his job and the disastrous 2012 season, you couldn’t run from the stink fast enough. The passion for everything Red Sox was gone. Everything that felt so wonderful about 2004 and 2007 turned so sour.

You thought it would take years to wash the bad taste out of your mouth. It took months.

Think back to last winter. Red Sox ownership got the manager it wanted when former pitching coach John Farrell returned from two years managing the Toronto Blue Jays. Not an inspiring two years, either. Was the new manager fool’s gold?

You wanted troubled free agent Josh Hamilton and would ignore his substance abuse issues to get his powerful bat. Instead, the Red Sox went after Mike Napoli, and discovered a slugger with a balky hip.

Shane Victorino was fun to watch when he played outfield for the World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies, but that was in 2008. The man nicknamed the Flying Hawaiian wasn’t flying very well last year in Los Angeles.

Stephen Drew signed to play shortstop, but you thought Jose Iglesias, the wonder on defense, was ready. Stephen Drew? Any relation to the oft-injured J.D. Drew who played right field? They’re brothers. Same DNA.

In April, David Ortiz still couldn’t run to first base because of a sore and tight Achilles tendon. The pitching staff looked good on paper, but Jon Lester had labored through two seasons of inconsistency. John Lackey, maybe the most despised pitcher on the staff, thanks to his role in the beer-and-chicken-in-the-clubhouse episodes in September of 2011, was coming back from arm surgery.

The Red Sox had Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey to come out of the bullpen and close out victories. Then, both were hurt. Hello, Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara. No one dreamed Uehara would become the next Jonathan Papelbon, the hero of 2007.

Red Sox fans are supposed to be the most astute in all of major league baseball. In fact, no one could have foreseen a lineup that could hit consistently and when it mattered most, and a pitching staff that got the job done.

Today, you’d buy Lackey a beer and say thank you for his season. Can there be a better example of a baseball world turned upside down?

I think not.

Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:ssolloway@pressherald.comTwitter: SteveSolloway

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