It is ludicrous to think of Victorino and the Red Sox as underdogs in this postseason derby, yet that is how they cast themselves as the champagne chilled in the tiny home clubhouse following their 5-2 victory over the Detroit Tigers in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series late Saturday night.
Victorino, just 5 feet 9 and from the baseball backwater of Wailuku, Hawaii, relished that angle because he has felt slighted throughout his career — never mind that he already won a World Series with Philadelphia, never mind that he has been an all-star, never mind that he owns three Gold Gloves and might take another. And never mind, too, that he plays for a team that has the fourth-highest payroll in the game, that will appear in the World Series for the third time in 10 seasons, this time against St. Louis.
But in the moment that mattered Saturday night, he was indeed an underdog. The bases were loaded, true, but the Red Sox trailed the Tigers 2-1 in the seventh. There was only one out, but Victorino hadn’t shown any ability to come through in this series. He hits second, an important spot in the order for an accomplished and dangerous player, but in the ALCS he was 2 for 23 with nine strikeouts.
In the third inning, he had failed to get a bunt down in a situation in which the Red Sox might have threatened Tigers starter Max Scherzer. He popped it up instead, and Boston did not score. That added more fodder for the callers to sports talk radio who asked, with solid contributor Daniel Nava on the bench, why Victorino was even in the lineup, much less hitting second.
Most players would dutifully say they tuned all that talk out. Victorino, always one to say what’s on his mind, admitted there was a lot on it.
“Lots of thoughts were going through my head, how I was going to explain not getting that bunt down, all these kind of emotions,” Victorino said. “When I got up, do what you do best, go out and have fun doing what you’re doing. . . . Trust me, I was down and out. I heard people talking about dropping me in the lineup. It makes me want to go out and be that much better.”
The scorecard lists Victorino as a switch hitter, but against right-handed reliever Jose Veras, Victorino stepped in from the right side. This was a concession he made this summer, and the Red Sox allowed him to do it, because he came down with a series of injuries, and he couldn’t properly transfer his weight to his right leg, as he would have to do when he hit left-handed. During his career, he had occasionally done the same, but he had only 90 plate appearances out of more than 3,000 against right-handed pitching.
Occasionally, he would switch back, and he hit left-handed once against the Tigers. Did he think about doing it again? “Absolutely,” he said. Now, though, he seems committed to being a right-handed hitter for the rest of the season.
“The organization let me take a chance,” he said. “But honestly with success, they definitely wanted me to continue. My legs are feeling better. I still feel here and there when I try to work on it, from the left side, my back and my hamstring. But, hey, it’s something you work on.”
So he was still working on it against Veras, who started him with a curveball for a called strike. Veras came back with another, and Victorino fouled it off.
“Probably the last thing we’re thinking is that he’s going to hit a ball out of the ballpark,” Boston Manager John Farrell said. Not only was Victorino flailing in this series, he had played in 29 postseason games since his last homer.
“It’s not the first time my back was against the wall or people doubted me,” Victorino said. “And I say it in a positive way that I’ve always been that kind of guy. It’s been my drive. People said, ‘You’re a little too small. I don’t know if you can ever get to the big leagues.’ Scout told my mom in high school, ‘He’ll never be a major league player. He’ll never get there.’ It’s stuff that motivates me.”
Even through the self-doubt. Even with the Fenway faithful wondering whether he could possibly even get the tying run home.
“We know the kind of player Shane is,” center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury said. “We know what he’s capable of in any given moment.”
At this moment, Veras went back to the curveball once more. And Victorino drove it to left. It is why he came to Boston as a free agent for three years and $39 million. “He’s come up big a number of times this season,” Farrell said, “tonight none bigger.”
With the ball over the Green Monster, Victorino’s place in Red Sox history was secured. Underdog? Maybe, maybe not. But with Fenway still pulsating after the win was completed, it didn’t really matter, because the Red Sox are back in the World Series, and Victorino helped put them there.