2013: Coming on Strong

After two years of internal misery, the Boston Red Sox come together and give an emotional lift to a wounded city with an inspirational championship effort.

David Ortiz in 2013 World Series

With his second World Series home run against St. Louis, David Ortiz continued to reinforce his proud standing as the Boston Red Sox’ spiritual leader and rallied his team—and his city—to a stirring championship in the wake of the Boston Marathon terrorist bombings. (Associated Press)

Baseball can be many things for those who pass through the turnstiles to watch. It can be escapism to forget about their life’s troubles, or a drug to get their fix of the National Pastime, or a chance for family and friends to simply bond and enjoy a day at the ballpark. 

In Boston, baseball would become a central source of healing for a city traumatized by the terrorist bombings at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. People in New York, Beantown’s rival city, understood this; they leant their shaken shoulders upon the game in the weeks after the horrific events of 9-11, and the Yankees responded with inspirational play that helped the citizens of Gotham come together, emotionally gel and ease their stress, if even for just a few hours. 

While the Marathon attacks lacked the grand-scale calamity of 9-11, the people of Boston were no less shaken from it; many knew of someone who was directed and physically impacted by the bombings, and for five days lived within a zone of palpable fear, held hostage in their homes as local authorities ordered a lockdown as part of a desperate manhunt for those responsible for this latest, despicable act on American soil. 

Police eventually caught up to the two bombers; one was killed, the other captured. Physically wounded and emotionally fractured, Boston welcomed the closure and began the healing process; its citizens needed a central gathering, a portal to relax their souls, rise above the abyss of anguish and move forward. 

Baseball was there to help. 

Proximity aside, the Boston Red Sox didn’t seem at the time to be the ideal team to take on the challenge. People shrugged their shoulders and asked: How could the Sox bring together a broken city and inspire it when they, themselves, had broken apart over the past few years? After all, this was the team that in 2011 fumbled an assured wild card spot amid accusations of accomplished manager Terry Francona losing focus through personal issues and pitchers enjoying their days off in the clubhouse feasting on chicken and beer. And then there was 2012, when things got worse—much worse—as a bloc of star players all but mutinied against outspoken, one-and-done manager Bobby Valentine that led to another late-season collapse and the Red Sox’ worst record (69-93) in nearly half a century. 

The preseason prognosis for the 2013 Red Sox didn’t look too promising. Most of the team’s offseason acquisitions were of players (Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, Joel Hanrahan) whose best days seemed to be behind them; their biggest free agent splash seemed to backfire when first baseman Mike Napoli failed the usual formality of passing the team physical; and in an unusual move, the Red Sox brought in Valentine’s replacement when they traded reserve infielder Mike Aviles to Toronto for Blue Jays manager John Farrell, Boston’s former pitching coach.

BTW: Napoli’s three-year, $39 million deal was voided when he flunked the physical; he had to re-sign for one year and a $5 million base salary.

Worse for the Red Sox, the usually difficult AL East had considerably toughened up during the offseason. The Yankees weren’t favorites, but they were still the Yankees; the low-budget Tampa Bay Rays were expected to overachieve yet again; the Baltimore Orioles were coming off a surprising postseason appearance; and the typically cash-shy Blue Jays pulled out their wallets and bulked up more than any major league team, relieving the fiscally retreating Miami Marlins of much of their star talent while also bringing in reigning NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey and reigning All-Star Game MVP/steroid doper Melky Cabrera. Some experts envisioned an AL East with five teams finishing above .500—with the Red Sox called out as the team least likely to pass the threshold. Boston fans seemed to agree; advance ticket sales at Fenway Park had slowed to the point that the Red Sox, rightfully convinced that their record sellout streak of ten years was about to come to an end, offered concession discounts in a desperate attempt to keep the joint full.

BTW: Boston’s sellout streak ended on April 10 at 820 games—easily a major league record, and six more than the previous pro sports record set by basketball’s Portland Trail Blazers.

The Red Sox got the season off to a solid start and improved their record to 8-4 after beating the Rays, 3-2, in the traditional Monday morning Patriots’ Day game that coincided with the running of the Boston Marathon. As the players were bused to the airport for a road trip to Cleveland, they grew alarmingly curious at the nonstop flow of emergency vehicles racing the other way; gradually, they began checking their mobile devices and found messages and photos of the horrifying chaos taking place just a few miles from Fenway at the Marathon finish line. With assailants at large and the city fast paralyzing itself into lockdown mode to hunt them down, the Red Sox felt alternately awkward and helpless as they left Boston behind to play baseball elsewhere. 

That night, the bulk of the Red Sox players got together at a downtown Cleveland steakhouse, pulled all the tables together and discussed the merits of their responsibility in helping a wounded city back to its feet. There was no debate; staunchly united, the team made it a mission going forward to do what it could to revive Boston’s spirit.  

After sweeping the Indians in three games, the Red Sox returned home where the continuing manhunt postponed a scheduled Friday evening game against Kansas City; when the second suspect was nabbed that day, Saturday’s game was on—and with it, the beginning of the healing process. An expanded pregame ceremony paid tribute to the victims, honored the first responders and congratulated law enforcement for hunting down the criminals; the Red Sox were hardly spectators to the proceedings, with veteran slugger David Ortiz—making his season debut after recovering from an Achilles injury—leading the way by stepping up to the mic with an impassioned, nationally televised speech capped by the words: “This is our fucking city, and nobody is going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong!” The crowd roared, the FCC yawned and even 78-year-old baseball commissioner Bud Selig waived off Ortiz’s profanity as a moment of genuine sincerity. 

The day’s events not only stirred the city back to life, it also stirred the Red Sox—who mounted an eighth-inning rally to defeat the Royals, 4-3—and it especially stirred Ortiz, who hit .500 in his first nine games with three home runs and 15 RBIs. His blazing start set the tone for a continued late-30s renaissance that began four years earlier from the depths of a career nadir that yielded diminished statistical returns and revelations that he had used steroids. Ortiz would finish the year with a .309 average, 30 homers and 103 RBIs in 137 games—his most impressive set of numbers since his case of the mid-career hiccups.

BTW: Ortiz was outed from the so-called “secret list” of PED users collected by MLB and the players’ union in 2003 to determine steroid abuse frequency in the game.

Bounce-back stories among the Red Sox were numerous beyond Ortiz. Mike Napoli, trashing the stigma of his failed physical, proved the risk was worth it for Boston and placed second on the team behind Ortiz with 23 homers and 92 RBIs. Fragile center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury managed to stay healthy for the bulk of the year and hit .298 with an AL-high 52 steals. Ace Jon Lester recovered from a horrible 2012 with a 15-8 record and 3.75 earned run average. John Lackey, a major disappointment in his first three years at Boston—the third of which was spent entirely on the disabled list—impressed with a 3.52 ERA despite a deceiving 10-13 record. And rising star Clay Buchholz, who along with Lester had flubbed a year earlier, shined brilliantly with a 12-1 record and 1.74 ERA despite having his season cut in half with neck issues.

BTW: Buchholz said the soreness started when he fell asleep holding his infant daughter at home.

One glaring weakness came from the bullpen, where no one seemed to know how to close out games. Joel Hanrahan tried and pitched horribly until bowing to season-ending elbow surgery after just one month of action. Andrew Bailey followed but he, too, fell to the surgeon’s knife when his shoulder gave out in June. At that point, the ninth-inning duties fell into the lap of 38-year-old Japanese reliever Koji Uehara, who had run hot and cold over his first four years playing stateside for Baltimore and Texas. But Uehara rose to the occasion like Jack’s giant beanstalk; after July 6, he didn’t blow a single save, posted a remarkable 0.24 ERA and, in one stretch lasting nearly an entire month, didn’t allow a single baserunner.   

Throughout the season, the Red Sox never lost sight of their mission—either on or off the field. After slipping about in May, Boston regained first place on Memorial Day weekend and held it for the balance of the campaign, pulling away in the final month with the AL’s best mark at 97-65. All along, the Red Sox constantly kept the memories of those affected by the bombings in the forefront. Players visited hospitals and rehab centers to comfort the most critically wounded, invited victims to participate in pregame ceremonies and hung up a Red Sox jersey with the words “Boston Strong” and the number 617 (Boston’s telephone area code) in the dugout for every game, home and away. Staying loose above the situation, the team bonded further when most of the players followed outfielder Jonny Gomes’ lumberjack beard and began growing their own; the band of brothers sporting long facial hair, shaved heads and numerous tattoos led to the Red Sox being confused more for a motorcycle gang than a baseball team. 

The beast that was to be the AL East wilted against the rampaging Red Sox. Toronto’s pricey bid to cop the top collapsed under the weight of injuries and underachievement, the Orioles could not overachieve for a second straight year and the Yankees stalled just above .500 as extensive injuries sidelined Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and, until season’s end, Alex Rodriguez—who was legally embroiled in a testy dispute with MLB over a 211-game suspension handed against him for his alleged relapse into steroids via Biogenesis, a Florida “anti-aging clinic” that resulted in suspensions to a dozen other ballplayers including Milwaukee all-star Ryan Braun. 

After starting the postseason by knocking out AL wild card Tampa Bay—the only other AL East team left standing past September—Boston advanced to a tough ALCS showdown against AL Central champion Detroit. Unlike the Red Sox, the Tigers were expected to do big things for 2013, landing on many pundits’ preseason lists as AL favorites; such expectations appeared to be on their way to being fulfilled thanks to another monster MVP effort from slugger Miguel Cabrera (.348 average, 44 homers, 137 RBIs), a Cy Young Award performance from Max Scherzer (who won his first 13 decisions before finishing at 21-3) and a Cy-worthy shout from companion Anibal Sanchez, who beat Scherzer in the ERA race with a league-leading 2.57 mark.

David Ortiz homers, Torii Hunter goes over the wall, policeman Steve Horgan celebrates

Torii Hunter’s desperate bid to deny David Ortiz a grand slam in ALCS Game Two ends upside down—literally—and makes a folk hero out of Boston policeman Steve Horgan (left), who famously celebrates with an unintentional pantomime of the Detroit outfielder’s legs. Ortiz’s slam turned the series around for the Red Sox. (Associated Press)

At first, it appeared that the Red Sox had met their match in the Tigers. Sanchez started Game One at Fenway and fired six no-hit innings before exhausting his pitch count and giving way to the Detroit bullpen—which continued the no-no into the ninth before Boston managed its lone hit of the night in a 1-0 loss. Scherzer continued the dominance in Game Two, allowing two hits over seven innings while striking out 13 Red Sox; with a 5-1 lead entering the eighth inning and the prospect of a 2-0 series lead headed back to Detroit for the next three games, the Tigers looked on their way to putting a premature coda on Boston’s inspirational campaign.

BTW: Scherzer no-hit the Red Sox through 5.2 innings in Game Two—making him the third straight pitcher, after Sanchez in Game One and Justin Verlander in the Tigers’ ALDS-clinching win over Oakland, to take a no-hitter into the sixth inning.

That’s when David Ortiz saved the day. 

Big Papi had come up at a most opportune moment for the Red Sox in the eighth with two outs; he represented the tying run as Boston had rallied to load the bases off three Tiger relievers. Now against a fourth—closer Joaquin Benoit, having a sensational second half of the season—Ortiz lit into a pitch and sent it to deep right field. Detroit’s Torii Hunter made a determined, focused run at the ball, hit the short wall in front of the Boston bullpen—and catapulted over, his legs flying up in the air while the Boston fans (and one policeman) behind him rose their arms high the same direction in exaltation.

BTW: Steve Horgan, the policeman who celebrated Ortiz’s homer from the Boston bullpen, was given a ride in the lead vehicle during the Red Sox’ victory parade after the World Series.

The grand slam would be one of only two hits by Ortiz in the six-game ALCS, but it was a killer for Detroit; it not only knotted the game but, an inning later, the series as well—as a rattled Tigers team shrank under the ninth-inning weight of two singles, an error and a wild pitch that brought home the winning run for Boston. From there, the momentum carried the Red Sox well—never mind that they would only hit .202 and set a postseason record by striking out 73 times in the series. Boston won three of the next four games by saving its offensive strength for the clutch, especially in the clinching Game Six back at Boston when Shane Victorino channeled Ortiz and launched his own grand slam to overcome a Tiger lead and bring the pennant to Fenway. The Tigers’ ALCS loss spelled the end for Detroit manager Jim Leyland, who retired after the season. 

Awaiting the Red Sox at the World Series would be the St. Louis Cardinals, a team many believed back in March to be championship-worthy. Only this wasn’t the Cardinals roster expected to do the job. 

Veterans at key spots were dropping like flies early in the spring at St. Louis. Long-time pitching star Chris Carpenter couldn’t shake the neck and arm pain that kept him out for most of 2012 and ended missing all of 2013 as well. (He retired after the season.) Carpenter was followed by burly closer Jason Motte, who saved 42 games in 2012—and none in 2013 after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his elbow prior to Opening Day. Even everyday regulars couldn’t escape the Tommy John dilemma, as shortstop Rafael Furcal underwent the procedure on his elbow and stayed idle all year.

In these players’ absences (and others, including pitchers Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook), the Cardinals were forced to dig deep into a farm system that, fortunately for them, was considered one of the majors’ strongest. 

St. Louis didn’t realize how fortunate it was about to get with the new kids on the block. 

As the 2013 season advanced, it seemed a week didn’t go by without a new name popping up and impressing the baseball world on the St. Louis mound. It started with Shelby Miller (15-9, 3.06 ERA), who most outsiders already knew from his profitable 2012 call-up. Then it was Joe Kelly (10-5, 2.69). It continued from the bullpen in superb newcomers Trevor Rosenthal, Seth Maness, Kevin Siegrist and Carlos Martinez. Last, and far from least, came 22-year-old Michael Wacha, who won four out of five decisions late in the year—including a no-hitter spoiled in his last regular season start when Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman chopped a high grounder that just eluded the 6’6” Wacha’s glove for a ninth-inning, two-out infield hit.

BTW: The Cardinals used 20 rookies in 2013, more than any other team.

RISP-Y Business

Nothing was going to stop the St. Louis Cardinals when they placed runners in scoring position. Of the six National League batters sporting the top six averages with runners at second and/or third base, five of them were Cardinals—led by Allen Craig, whose .454 mark was the highest by any major leaguer since George Brett in 1980.

2013 NL Batting Leaders with Runners in Scoring Position

The Cardinals’ young guns were complemented by a trusted, more veteran offense that took clutch hitting to a whole new level by hitting a remarkable .330 with runners in scoring position—easily the highest figure since such official numbers began being kept. The instigator and benefactor for many of the Cardinals’ RISP scenarios was leadoff infielder Matt Carpenter (no relation to Chris) who in his first full season constantly set the wheels in motion with a .318 average, 126 runs, 199 hits and 55 doubles—the latter three figures tops among all major leaguers. 

The combination of youthful pitching excellence and nonstop hitting damage propelled the Cardinals to the top of the NL Central, where they engaged in a three-team tug-of-war for first place with an expected challenger in the defending divisional champ Cincinnati Reds—and a totally unexpected one in the Pittsburgh Pirates, finally springing to life after a record 20 consecutive losing campaigns. But when St. Louis swept a three-game home series from the Bucs in early September to begin a 17-5 stretch run, it seized first place and never relented, surviving the NL Central with a league-best 97-65 record to match the Red Sox. 

A return October engagement with the Pirates—who defeated the Reds in the NL Wild Card playoff—proved far more difficult. Down two games to one in the best-of-five NLDS, the Cardinals placed their season’s hopes on Michael Wacha—who followed his near no-hitter to end the regular season with another brush with history as he no-hit the Bucs into the eighth inning. The Cardinals got a 2-1 decision, won the clincher the next day behind 19-game winner Adam Wainwright—and took care of the spare-no-expense, NL West-winning Los Angeles Dodgers in a six-game NLCS as Wacha again led the charge with two more victories consisting of 13.2 scoreless innings.

Sweet Redbirds of Youth

The impressive rookie crop of St. Louis pitchers raised eyebrows throughout the regular season, but their efforts in the postseason—when the pressure can sometimes feel like a ton of bricks upon the young—was laudable on a much higher level.

St. Louis pitching in 2013 postseason, splits between rookies and veterans

The start of the World Series at Fenway Park put the Red Sox and the city of Boston firmly in the national focus; it had been six months since the Marathon bombings—but to many in Beantown, it still seemed like yesterday. The fire within the Red Sox to “stay strong,” as David Ortiz adamantly put it back in April, was still burning bright. That was all too apparent in Game One when Jon Lester easily outpitched Wainwright, Ortiz homered and the Cardinals were thrashed, 8-1. But in Game Two, the Red Sox got a taste of Wacha—who prevailed once more with six strong innings to even the series. 

Moving on to St. Louis, baseball would witness two of the most bizarre finishes in World Series history. 

In Game Three, with the Cardinals trying to unlock a 4-4 tie in the bottom of the ninth with one out and runners at second and third, Jon Jay tapped a grounder to the right side that Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia smothered with a sprawling dive; his throw home easily beat St. Louis runner Yadier Molina for a second out—and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia sensed a third when he spotted the Cardinals’ Allen Craig, badly hobbled with a bad foot, making a break for third base. But his throw was off-target, eluding diving third baseman Will Middlebrooks and bouncing off a sliding Craig into foul territory. Middlebrooks unwittingly became a speed bump for Craig, who stumbled over him in a desperate attempt to race home with the winning run—and although he was tagged out at the plate, home plate umpire Dana DeMuth declared it moot by pointing back to third base arbiter Jim Joyce, who called interference on Middlebrooks and rewarded Craig and the Cardinals with the run and a 5-4 victory. 

One night later, it was the Cardinals’ turn to get burned. Trailing 4-2 in the ninth, Craig singled and was pinch-run for by rookie infielder Kolten Wang. With two outs and dangerous veteran Carlos Beltran (.337 average and 16 home runs in 48 postseason games) representing the tying run at the plate, Boston closer Koji Uehara felt it was a safer bet to throw to first instead of home. He won the bet; Uehara found Wong hedging toward second, and Mike Napoli applied the tag to easily nail Wong and even the series. The momentum carried over to Game Five, where the Red Sox took crucial command as Lester outdueled Wainwright again, 3-1.

BTW: It was the first time a postseason game had ever ended with a runner being picked off base.

For Game Six back at Fenway, the Cardinals rested their hopes on the magical Wacha to pick up an unprecedented fifth postseason win by a rookie and keep the series alive. But the young right-hander had no more tricks up his sleeve; the Red Sox pummeled him for six runs in three-plus innings and coasted to a 6-1 victory that gave Boston its third championship in 10 years. The clinching win was the first by the Red Sox at Fenway Park since 1918. 

The Cardinals had become wise to Ortiz—fatally, too late. They walked him four times (twice intentionally) in the series finale, a Pavlovian response to his 11-for-15 performance with two homers, two doubles and six RBIs over the first five games. 

There was a victory parade in Boston, but the celebration wasn’t limited to a baseball trophy. Two million people lined the streets of Boston and joined the Red Sox to celebrate triumph not just over the Cardinals, but over evil as well. The parade stopped on Boylston Street between Exeter and Dartmouth streets. There, Jonny Gomes and Jarrod Saltlamacchia took the World Series trophy and sat it down on the finish line of the Boston Marathon, where seven months earlier terror had prevailed—but only temporarily. The Red Sox players hoisted the “617 Strong” jerseys above the trophy, and the surrounding crowd, lined 15 deep along the street, joined with the players in a singing of God Bless America

It was a perfect moment of closure. 

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