The Improbable Dream became reality on Wednesday night at 11:22 p.m., when the 2013 Red Sox became the unlikeliest title winners in franchise history when closer Koji Uehara struck out Matt Carpenter to close out a 6-1 victory over the Cardinals, thus concluding a six-game World Series triumph.
As if to dispel the doubts of those who might have been skeptical of such a plot line, the Red Sox claimed their World Series-clinching victory on home soil, the first title won at Fenway Park since the 1918 edition, led by George Herman Ruth, accomplished the feat at a time when the nation was more preoccupied with World War I than the baseball happenings in Boston.
Now, as in 1918, the Red Sox can claim that their championship -- won against a Cardinals franchise that defeated them in seven-game World Series in 1946 and 1967 -- cements their place as the most successful franchise of an extended era. That 1918 team won the franchise's fourth title in seven seasons. This crown marks the third for the Sox in the last 10 seasons; since 2001, no other franchise has won more than two titles.
Yet this championship was drastically different from the first two that the Sox enjoyed this century. In 2004, the Red Sox had been constructed quite clearly to win a title after coming within five outs of advancing to the World Series in 2003. In 2007, the team responded to an 86-win season with an effort to construct, in the words of CEO Larry Lucchino, a "juggernaut."
Not so in 2013 -- or, at least, it didn't appear that way.
The number of people inclined to place a wager on the 30-to-1 odds for the Red Sox to win a championship on April 1 may have been limited to the 25 players on the Opening Day roster -- and they, of course, were expressly prohibited by Major League rules from betting on their own fortunes. Beyond the walls of the clubhouse, the few people audacious enough to suggest the possibility of a title in 2013 might have been dismissed for their lunacy.
The Red Sox' stated goal last offseason, after all, following the train wreck of a 69-93 campaign in 2012 that earned the franchise its worst record since 1965, was merely to be better than last year's mess. Towards that end, the team experienced enormous turnover -- beginning, in some ways most importantly, with the quick dismissal of Bobby Valentine as manager and his swift replacement with John Farrell, and followed by the acquisition of seven free agents (in order: David Ross, Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, Uehara, Ryan Dempster, Stephen Drew, Mike Napoli) to reconstruct a roster that was gutted when the Sox made a transformative trade to get rid of its priciest players (Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett) last August.
A team that had customarily announced bold goals during the winter -- 95 wins, the postseason -- conscientiously avoided doing so entering 2013. GM Ben Cherington's eyes were on the "next great Red Sox team," with no announced timeframe for when it might arrive.
Yet even early, the Sox played with a team determined to operate on their own timetable for bringing that vision to fruition. The team displayed both dynamism and depth on Opening Day in New York, a game won with the critical signal of Jon Lester looking commanding after his struggles of a year ago. The team rolled to an 18-8 first month, in the process, finding an unwanted cause around which to rally.
In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, the Sox did not try to hide from their emotional connection to the city, nor from their role in representing it. The team embraced the slogan and meaning of "Boston Strong," with players accepting their role as a rallying point for a shaken community and, on a more tangible level, showing their responsibility to it with regularly organized visits to hospitals to visit with victims of the tragedy. And when the Sox won a stirring come-from-behind, 4-2 game against the Royals on April 20 -- when David Ortiz proudly announced, "This is our [expletive] city" in his first game off the disabled list.
And now, that very city got an opportunity to experience firsthand the unadulterated joy associated with winning a championship, thanks to a team that defied its modest expectations by demonstrating what Farrell affectionately referred to as "relentlessness" from wire to wire. The team never lost as many as four straight games all year, instead marching methodically through all comers. Along the way, it became evident that the roster had been constructed elegantly, as a puzzle where all pieces fit together seamlessly, both on and off the field.
Team unity -- a laughable notion in the fractious previous two seasons -- became palpable among players with a common obsession: Baseball. Players were notably attuned to the game, demonstrating a precise sense of situational baseball in aspects such as baserunning and defense, while embracing the idea that they would play with maximum effort on a nightly basis.
The team had its share of star-quality performances, with players such as Ortiz, Lester, Clay Buchholz (when healthy) and Jacoby Ellsbury playing in a fashion befitting or even exceeding their career track records. Yet unlike a 2011 campaign in which the Sox faltered under a top-heavy structure, the 2013 edition was bolstered by extraordinary depth thanks to the free agent signings and some emerging prospects from the farm system below. The result was a roster where contributions seemed to come from once-overlooked players who had come from obscurity -- players like indy leaguer Daniel Nava and Mariners castoff Mike Carp -- or homegrown players such as rising star Xander Bogaerts or pitcher Brandon Workman in addition to the mainstays.
The Sox never drifted far from first place, yet they pulled away from the pack starting in late August, when they bulldozed their way through one contender after another to all but clinch the American League East by mid-September. The team wrapped up its regular season with 97 wins, yet its hunger went unabated in October.
They dispatched the Rays in four games, somehow outpitched Detroit in a six-game victory over the Tigers in the American League Championship Series and, finally, as they so often seemed to do throughout the year, fulfilled their mission in six games in the World Series against the Cardinals. The route to the title was forged in large part by singularly amazing performances from three players in October.
Ortiz had a performance befitting an extraterrestrial in the World Series, reaching base in 19 of his 25 plate appearances in the World Series while launching his fourth and fifth homers of the postseason to tie a record he shared (having already hit five homers in 2004) with Todd Walker (2003). In six World Series contests, after walking four times (three intentionally) in Game 6, he hit an unbelievable .688 with a .760 on-base percentage and 1.188 slugging mark.
Lester, meanwhile, went 4-1 while forging a 1.56 ERA in his five starts, the only loss coming in a 1-0 game to the Tigers in Game 1 of the ALCS. In so doing, he made a case for his place as one of the best October pitchers of all time, improving his ERA in 11 playoff starts to 1.97.
And closer Uehara concluded his unlikely roll through one of the great Octobers ever produced by a closer, and certainly the best ever authored by a pitcher who began the year as his team's fourth option in save situations. The right-hander tied a record with seven saves during the postseason, a mark that even the great Mariano Rivera never reached.
Yet true to the formula that had gotten the Sox to the World Series, the key contributors of the clinching Game 6 came from elsewhere. John Lackey -- vilified as a symbol of failure and misery in his first two years with the Sox in 2010 and 2011, then rendered irrelevant while recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2012 -- concluded his startling return to health and excellence in 2013 by claiming the victory in Game 6. Though the Cardinals hit him hard at times, he nonetheless navigated 6 2/3 innings in which he permitted one run while scattering nine hits, walking one and striking out five.
In the process, Lackey became the 11th pitcher ever to claim a victory in two different World Series clinchers, repeating a feat he'd accomplished 11 years earlier as a rookie with the 2002 Angels. The right-hander is the first hurler ever to have started and won the final game of two different World Series with two different teams.
He would receive all the offensive support he needed from Shane Victorino, maligned at one time as perhaps the worst free agent signing of the offseason. It was the Gold Glove-winning outfielder who allowed the Sox to break through against dazzling Cardinals rookie Michael Wacha.
Stepping to the plate in the bottom of the third with the bases loaded and two outs, the switch-hitter -- reduced to full-time duty as a right-handed hitter in August -- jumped on a 2-1 fastball and slammed it high off the Wall in left-center for a double. Three runs crossed the plate, matching the total that had scored off Wacha in his first 27 postseason innings spanning four starts.
The Sox extended the advantage the next inning in improbable fashion, as Stephen Drew -- 5-for-51 to that point in the postseason -- blasted a Wacha first-pitch fastball for a solo homer. The Sox added on when Mike Napoli dropped an RBI single to center and Victorino -- once again batting with the bases loaded -- lined an RBI single to left for a 6-0 advantage.
Those two hits continued a pattern of October excellence for Victorino with the bases loaded. He hit the grand slam in Game 6 of the ALCS that punched the Sox' ticket to the World Series, and in his playoff career, he's now 6-for-8 with a double and two grand slams, good for 20 RBI (most in major league history), in 12 career postseason plate appearances with the bases loaded.
From there, the atmosphere was one of anticipation for the throng of 38,447 that had paid record-setting prices to see the Sox' first home clincher in nearly a century. There was only one brief moment of uncertainty regarding the outcome. In the seventh inning, Lackey permitted a run and, after convincing Farrell to leave him in for one last hitter, walked Matt Holliday to load the bases. But reliever Junichi Tazawa came on to get Allen Craig to ground sharply to first and extinguish the Cardinals lone embers of hope.
That critical out thus achieved, the final six outs came without incident. Brandon Workman stepped to the mound and worked a perfect eighth inning, before Uehara shut the door in the ninth to set off a raucous celebration.
Those in attendance could be forgiven if the celebration was one they could not believe. After all, several generations of their predecessors could not claim to have seen a World Series secured at Fenway. And the 2013 team was one that took months to convince its followers that it might have a chance.
But over time, it made its case a compelling one -- not merely for a 2013 campaign that ended with the achievement of baseball's ultimate goal, but for the idea that, with a well-stocked farm system, there could be more to come.
But thoughts of the future will have to wait a day. For now, a Red Sox team that stood alone in its self-belief and determination at the start of the season now sits atop the baseball world -- precisely the spot to which they aspired in 2013, and the one from which they will not shy going forward.
"Your goal playing for the Red Sox every year is to try to be at this point and win the World Series," Dustin Pedroia said prior to Wednesday's game. "This is why we play, is to try to be the best team in the game. But every year --ÂÂ next year we're going to come in and our goal is to win the World Series, and that's never going to change here."