They didn't think it was impossible, but certainly, they didn't expect this.
Better? Yes. A contender? Possibly. The postseason? Couldn't be ruled out.
In spring training, as the Red Sox ran through their simulations of plausible outcomes for the season, the Rays emerged as the likeliest victors of what the team described as a "flat" American League East.
The highest-probability outcome for the Red Sox based on their roster and that of the rest of the league? That, according to the team's analysis, was 86 wins -- a drastic improvement from the colossal failure of 2012, but a record that put the team on the fringes of wild card contention. Those simulations, based on playing out the season thousands of times, did suggest the possibility of upside -- a roughly 30 percent likelihood, for instance, of a win total in the 90s.
But 94 wins, with seven games to go and a shot at 98, 99, 100? No one in the Red Sox organization will suggest that they had the audacity to bet on an upper-90s win total that had a roughly 1 percent (perhaps less) probability based on those preseason simulations.
Well, almost no one.
"All I know is that Dustin Pedroia might have had it," recalled Sox chairman Tom Werner. "He said to [principal owner John Henry] and me in spring training, 'We've got a really awesome team.' "
But Pedroia's characteristic self-confidence and sense of certainty didn't necessarily find an echo throughout all levels of the organization. The Red Sox had been, in the words of CEO/president Larry Lucchino, "chastened" by their collapse of 2011 and the soul-crushing exercise in failure of 2012.
The team was careful during the offseason only to promise that they would be better. They did not want to be selling a false bill of goods. They *hoped* to contend. There wasn't certainty that they would do so.
After all, the need for a drastic overhaul last August had become glaringly obvious, the offer made by the Dodgers to take a wrecking ball to a roster that was playing, well, as if it had been gutted by a wrecking ball a virtual no-brainer if the team wanted to re-establish hope in the coming years, never mind for 2013.
"I think [GM Ben Cherington] said it well when he made the trade last year, that we weren’t the team that we wanted to be," said Henry. "We had the second highest payroll but we didn’t do it on the field."
In 2013, the opposite was true. The Red Sox emerged as overachievers in a fashion that had members of the organization somewhat stunned as they literally and figuratively soaked in their triumphant surroundings following the 6-3 victory over the Blue Jays that clinched the AL East title.
"I think we're all in a bit of shock," acknowledged Werner. "I had a projection but it was less than this."
So how did the pieces come together in this fashion? How did the Sox separate themselves so completely from the wreckage of 2012? A lot of those elements were on display on Friday night.
THE RESTORATION OF A TALENTED CORE
The Red Sox were one of the worst teams in baseball in 2012. But they did not believe they had one of the worst talent bases in the game heading into last offseason, even after bidding adieu to their three highest paid players (Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett) in the Dodgers trade.
They had Dustin Pedroia as the building block. They knew that there was a likelihood of finding common ground to retain David Ortiz. The team expected a return to health and productivity from Jacoby Ellsbury, who missed half of last year due to his shoulder subluxation and then could not reclaim his swing when he was back on the field.
Perhaps more importantly, the Red Sox believed that, despite one of the worst ERAs of any rotation in the majors in 2012, they had the most important pieces for a turnaround. Despite a bad start and finish, Clay Buchholz was mostly dominant over the majority of his season. Felix Doubront showed considerable promise in his first full season in a big league rotation. And perhaps foremost, the team believed that Jon Lester (9-14, 4.82 ERA in 2012) was a very different pitcher than his record of a year ago suggested.
"We were not a 69-win team. We played to a 69-win level, but we weren't a 69-win team on talent. That gets overlooked," Red Sox assistant GM Mike Hazen noted. "It probably shouldn't have been [a 30-game swing]. It probably should have been a 10- to 15-game swing."
Lester's performance down the stretch this year, highlighted by his 100th career victory in Friday night's clincher, underscored the point. With seven innings of one-run ball in which he punched out eight, Lester improved to 15-8 with a 3.67 ERA for the year. He's 7-2 with a 2.30 ERA in the second half, easily his lowest mark for any half in his career (surpassing the 2.78 mark he posted prior to the 2010 All-Star break).
On Friday, he was the embodiment of a front-of-the-rotation starter. Manager John Farrell approached the left-hander after his sixth inning of work, a 109-pitch undertaking at that point, with the thought of congratulating him on a job well done. Lester told him in no uncertain terms that he was not exiting the game.
"He's pitching as well right now as he has at any time in his career I think," said Farrell. "Look at not only the bottom-line performance, but the stuff that he's thrown, the durability and the stamina that he's showing. He's in a very good place right now. There was some thought of taking him out after six innings. He was adamant he was going back out for the seventh. On a night when he knocked down his own 100th personal win, he earned that one tonight."
"I feel great. Just getting back to being me. I had it in the beginning of the year, hit a little bit of a bump in the middle and now I’m back to being me," Lester submitted. "It’s something I’ve always said especially when I started so slow in years past, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish."
Of course, part of the reason why some of the underperformers of a year ago have flourished in 2013 is ...
JOHN FARRELL, A TIRELESS COACHING STAFF AND THE RETURN OF FOCUS AND STABILITY
No need to rehash the ways in which Bobby Valentine wasn't a fit, beyond saying that he sent ripples of discomfort in every direction throughout the organization. The ability to replace him with John Farrell had the opposite effect. Given his prior experience as the Sox' pitching coach from 2007-10, he entered a job as a known and trusted quantity -- the opposite of his predecessor. Seemingly everyone in the organization was immediately at ease with Farrell, a necessary departure from the jangled nerves of 2012.
"[Farrell is] extraordinary. I don't think of him as a first year guy," said Lucchino. "He's a regular, popular guy. He's Gary Cooper with a high IQ."
Farrell returned the focus squarely to the field. Players could focus on maximizing their performance on the field. There were no distractions to pull them away from the focused preparation for an opponent. To the contrary, through the efforts of Farrell and his carefully selected coaching staff, the Sox were able to formulate plans to attack opposing teams, and an information-hungry roster embraced every piece of information that was shared.
"We thought going into this season we had a chance to compete for the postseason. We weren't putting a win total on it. We were trying to get back to doing things a certain way, and let the win total take care of itself," said Cherington. "[Farrell] did that. He and the staff and the players did that. So here we are. We've got 94 wins and we're not done. We'll keep going and see where it goes, but the culture that he started in spring training, that he started to build and the guys started to build, is a big reason why we're here today."
How would Farrell describe that culture?
"Relentless," said the manager. "That's one thing we tried to talk about in spring training, to be relentless in our work, to be relentless in our approach whether on the mound or at the plate, and that's the one thing that continues to shine through."
It is a trait that has indeed stood out amongst a vast ensemble of Red Sox players, something that reflects ...
EXTRAORDINARY DEPTH: THE MIKE CARP PHENOMENON
Injuries and poor performances crippled the Red Sox in their last three failed (i.e., non-playoff) seasons. The team was resolute that it would not be struck down by another too-shallow accumulation of talent.
"We've had 13 real position players on the club all the time," said Hazen. "Not nine. Not four. It's been 13 real position players. When [Shane] Victorino goes down early for multiple weeks, someone steps in. When [Stephen] Drew went down for two weeks, [Jose Iglesias] was up.
"That's been a consistent theme, too, that's allowed us to succeed. It was always at the forefront of the offseason planning. You can't just build depth at your Triple-A team. You have to build depth through major league players."
The Sox entered the offseason without an identified shortstop (Mike Aviles had been dealt to the Jays as compensation for Farrell), first baseman (to replace the departed Gonzalez), right fielder (barring a re-signing of Cody Ross) and perhaps left fielder (where Daniel Nava represented a viable option but not one to which the Sox had decisively committed) along with a starting pitcher (with Beckett gone).
But the team not only addressed those voids -- adding Shane Victorino in right, Mike Napoli at first, Stephen Drew at short, Ryan Dempster for the rotation -- but also spent aggressively to build a deep, powerful bench to give the team legitimate options in case of injury or disappointing performance. Hence, committing $10 million over two years to Jonny Gomes, signing David Ross for $6.2 million over two years and the decision to deepen the bullpen with the additions of Joel Hanrahan (whoops!) and Koji Uehara (not bad). Moreover, the decision to sign a Stephen Drew was premised on the idea not just that he would have the potential to be an impact performer, but also on the possibility that a player like Iglesias could become a depth option rather than a primary one without a legitimate everyday fallback behind him.
Yet perhaps the best embodiment of the Sox' commitment to build depth happened not in the offseason but instead in the early days of spring training. The Sox had signed Mike Napoli, but given the uncertainty about the health of his hips and David Ortiz' Achilles, the team needed a talented bat as protection for both players.
Enter Mike Carp.
The Sox were believers in his offensive potential based on his minor league track record and what he'd done in 2011, hitting .276/.326/.466 with 12 homers in 79 games with the Mariners. (He struggled in 2012 due to a shoulder injury incurred on Opening Day.) When he was designated for assignment by the Mariners, the Sox zoomed into the picture in an effort to land him in a deal that required them to part only with a low six-figures sum.
The result? Carp hit .302 with a .368 OBP, .537 slugging mark, nine homers and 28 extra-base hits in 81 games. On Friday, he had two of the critical at-bats of the game, accepting a bases-loaded walk to push across the second run of the game and later lining a two-run single to left-center (improving his line with runners in scoring position to .352/.397/.611) to help give the Sox separation from the Jays.
His role was fitting.
"This team was a lot about the sum of the parts, the whole, instead of any individual," said Cherington. "A guy like Mike Carp, who we got after spring training started, and probably had a right to feel like he should have been playing more at points in the regular season, but he understood the situation, understood the team we had, understood the role, and he was ready every time he was called upon. He's a good example of what this team is all about."
Carp's performance, as Cherington suggested, was such that he could have been forgiven for wanting a larger role. But he reflected not only the important that the team placed on creating considerable roster protection -- what Lucchino called "deep depth" -- but also the team-first attitude that put collective accomplishments ahead of individual ones.
"I never thought I'd be putting on a Red Sox uniform and playing at Fenway Park. Just to have that opportunity itself is something I'm going to treasure the rest of my life.
We have a good chance of doing something special here," said Carp. "I knew after being designated, I just hoped it was on to bigger and better things. It's turned out to be nothing but better things all year long. It's been an amazing run. I couldn't be happier to be in this position right now."
It would be fair to suggest that, while the Red Sox considered Carp a talented player and a good fit for their roster, his performance surpassed any reasonable expectations. He wasn't alone. It's worth reflecting on the fact that ...
THE RED SOX ROLLED SEVENS OVER AND OVER AND OVER
It wasn't a perfect offseason for Cherington and his staff. Mistakes were made.
The decision to trade for Joel Hanrahan (and utility backup Brock Holt) in exchange for All-Star Mark Melancon, Stolmy Pimentel and two other prospects? Brutal. The decision to designate David Carpenter (the Blue Jays' throw-in to make the trade involving John Farrell a player-for-player transaction) for assignment, thus permitting the Braves to claim him off waivers and enjoy the services of a pitcher with a 1.86 ERA, 70 strikeouts and 20 walks in 63 innings? Not so good.
Still, the number of players who either hit on or exceeded their projections was remarkable. The Red Sox remade themselves in the offseason primarily by having one successful free agent signing after another.
That's hard to do. There are so many variables involved in players changing organizations that a team that hits on the projections of perhaps half of its free agent targets has done reasonably well. The 2013 Sox are a club that nailed one bull's-eye after another while turning over roughly a third of its roster, trying to replace a starting pitcher and four everyday position players and creating depth behind those headliners.
-- The team decided to outbid the rest of the market for Shane Victorino, betting on a bounceback at the cost of $13 million a year over three years. The signing was blasted as one of the worst in the offseason. Victorino instead made a compelling case as one of the most valuable Red Sox, hitting .295/.353/.453 with 14 homers while playing amazing defense in right.
-- Despite inconsistency throughout the year, Mike Napoli performed to his career track record, hitting .257/.355/.480 with 23 homers and 90 RBI to this point, exhibiting the exhaustive at-bats, ability to draw walks and to blast baseballs into orbit that the Sox valued. He's also transformed himself into a first baseman whose defense exceeded anything for which the Sox could have hoped.
-- Stephen Drew proved that his recovery from a shattered ankle is complete, making an impressive two-way impact up the middle, showing patience and power that made him an above-average offensive shortstop (.246/.330/.438 -- with considerably higher marks against right-handers) and a surprisingly good defender up the middle.
-- Koji Uehara performed at a historically amazing level. Along with his mind-blowing 1.14 ERA, he has 98 strikeouts and nine walks, giving him a chance to become the first big leaguer ever with at least 100 punchouts and fewer than 10 walks in a full season. He's emerged as a stabilizing force in the one area where the Red Sox were scrambling.
The Red Sox admit freely that while they knew he was a fit for their desire to build a bullpen deeper in pitchers with the ability to throw strikes, the never could have envisioned his transformative impact while remaining healthy enough to sustain a critical role.
-- Ryan Dempster ended up giving the Sox exactly what they wanted, a back-end starter who could remain healthy and supply steady innings. His 8-9 record and 4.64 ERA represent modest numbers, but his ability to take the ball every five days (validating his track record of durability) helped the Sox avoid the sort of regular derailments that occurred at the back of their rotation in 2012.
-- Though David Ross' season was sent off course for a couple of months by a pair of concussions, his impact both as an elite game-caller and in terms of game-planning whether or not he was playing proved considerable.
"Hard to put a complete value on it because the intangibles that he brings and that doesn’t mean just the conversations in the dugout or the support he gives his teammates," said Farrell. "He runs a very good game behind the plate. He’s swung the bat much better, or with better consistency, the results have been better since he came back from the discussions. His view inside the game and what he picks up on. It’s clearly like having another coach with his experience. He’s extremely aware of everything that goes on within the game, even if he’s not in the lineup. And he contributes to the conversation among the staff and he’s made a huge impact even on nights he’s not been in the lineup."
-- Jonny Gomes offered patience and pop in his part-time role, hitting .238/.339/.416 with 12 homers (approximating his career line of (.244/.335/.451).
In essence, the Sox got what they'd bargained for in almost (emphasis on almost) every one of their offseason acquisitions. That's hard to do. The likelihood of taking a 69-win (albeit one with a talent base that should have been better than that) and to use a bunch of short-term free agent deals to transform the club into a runaway division winner is low. But the Sox benefited from good fortune and, by and large, excellent health to reshape themselves with an improbable degree of success.
"If you were to clear the slate, start over and build the team again for next year, I don't know that you can build a team that would win 95, 96, 97 games," admitted Hazen. "There's good fortune, there's health, there's coaching, there's luck -- there's a lot of things that went into it."
It proved an unexpectedly brilliant formula. And speaking of formulas, there was one for ...
When people are in a happy workplace, they tend to be more productive. That's not to say that teams with malcontents can't be good, but a common sense of purpose can be a powerful thing.
The Sox tried to find players with excellent clubhouse reputations and passion for the game to complement skills that suggested a fit for what they wanted to do. They wanted to find personalities who wouldn't shy from the fact that the team was attempting to fix a very negative environment and turn it into one where players could flourish again. They wanted players who, in contrast to someone like a Carl Crawford, would embrace the scrutiny of Boston rather than shrink under its glare.
The sense started to emerge in spring training that they might have just such a group. Over time, with a host of late-innings heroics and victories, the team's self-belief became further solidified. An unseen fabric began to weave throughout the clubhouse -- the obsessive attention to detail behind the scenes among players, the joy in hard work, the concern for the team's performance rather than dwelling on individual roles and accomplishments.
"I think it's [a team] full of a lot of guys that, for whom baseball is really important. For whom baseball is important and winning is important and they take it personally and they understand that when you come together prepare and win as a team. It's a feeling like nothing else and it's more than any personal accomplishment or any individual accomplishment," said Cherington. "It happens organically over time. When you're close to it, maybe you don't see the change as much because it happened slowly, day by day. But it felt like in spring training, there was a core there that just loved to play baseball and prepare and do things the right way, and were motivated. The guys who were here before were motivated to put last year behind them, and the guys that came in new were motivated to do something special. They set out to do that. And this is an important step."
It is a step, but not the team's ultimate goal. The team's ambitions now shift from the division to more audacious October possibilities.
The Red Sox took a moment, a night to embrace the joy of a considerable accomplishment as Friday night rolled over into Saturday, reveling in the stinging chill of the icy champagne that left them awash in an improbable sense of glory that would have been nearly impossible to forecast just just six months earlier.