All season, the most unlikely major star for the Boston Red Sox was Shane Victorino , the free agent outfielder who was every team’s alternative choice last winter. Because Boston had lost 93 games and didn’t expect to contend for a pennant this year, Victorino was considered good enough for a season of modest expectations.
Instead, Victorino excelled in all three outfield positions, got on base constantly and symbolized the slew of Red Sox who produced more than anticipated — in victories, in facial hair and in almost too much joy in Fenway Park.
The veteran Victorino, one of many Red Sox trying to revive careers, redefine themselves or blossom, actually abandoned the switch-hitting style that helped define his whole Flyin’ Hawaiian career. A groin injury curtailed his hitting left-handed for much of the second half of the season.
On Saturday night in Fenway Park, Victorino batted right-handed against right-hander Jose Veras of the Detroit Tigers. No one in this town will forget that right-handed swing, his finger-pointing prance toward first base or the chest pounding of his fist as he watched a hit for history clear the Green Monster.
As the delightful perversity of great unexpected seasons seemed to ordain, Victorino was the Red Sox whose seventh-inning grand slam home run won Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, 5-2. Thus were the Red Sox delivered unto a World Series that they barely planned.
In the kind of merciless twist that pressure games apply, Victorino’s high fly on a big Veras curveball was preceded by an error by Tiger shortstop Jose Iglesias , who began the year in Boston. Iglesias had a torrid spring to help Boston to a fast start, then slumped and was traded. Boston got the best of him and, on a grounder up the middle by Jacoby Ellsbury, an unlikely inning-ending double play but, still a possibility, the Tigers got the worst.
Perhaps the most beloved saga in baseball is the mocked losing team that makes trades, gets a new manager, finds a hot rookie, inks a free agent, gives itself a nickname, finds a castoff vet, milks unlikely career years, calls itself “Idiots,” surpasses expectations in spring, refuses to collapse in summer, reaches autumn brim with confidence and ends up in the World Series.
You’d think this kind of crazy confluence of improbabilities would be rare, something for B-list sports movies, an experience that most towns have never enjoyed. But you’d be wrong. The joyride on which the hairy Red Sox, the bearded Bostonians have taken their shocked fans this season is a wonderful and repetitive recurring trait of the game. Since 1987, 30 percent of all pennant winners were losers the previous season.
Look at the various Red Sox faces of Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, David Ross, Clay Buchholz, Dustin Pedroia, Will Middlebrooks, Victorino, David Ortiz — well, what you can see of them under their undisciplined facial follicles — and you see the expression of amazed joy that has landed on the mugs of 32 different losing teams that suddenly found themselves in a World Series the next year. It’s happened to 18 of MLB’s 30 franchises. And it’s been the ecstatic trek of 16 pennant winners since 1987.
When you get in the path of such teams in October, watch out because those losers who are on the verge of being league champions have a sense of their own amazing transformation. When you’ve gone from 69-93 to 97-65, as Boston did this season, you know exactly how it happened even if most of baseball, outside your own fans, hasn’t quite found the Rosetta Stone to explain it. Such teams, like these Red Sox, expect 0-0 games in the middle innings to break their way. They think that beating the presumptive Cy Young winner (Max Scherzer) to knock out the defending league champion (Tigers) is exactly what’s supposed to happen to a magical band-of-brothers bunch on a destiny march.
So, in Fenway Park on Saturday night, it was just too bad for the Detroit Tigers, their ace Scherzer (21-3), their injured gimpy colossus Miguel Cabrera and their comatose 300-pound slumping slugger Prince Fielder. The Red Sox, just like their predecessors the Impossible Dreamers of ’67 and the back-from the war boys in ’46, turned a losing season in ’12 into an American League pennant in ’13.
Closer Koji Uehara began his MLB career as a mediocre starting pitcher in Baltimore. In the past four years, the slender right-hander, now 38, has discovered that, one or two innings at a time, he has amazing control and a split-finger pitch that he can make break left, right or down at will. The Red Sox acquired Uehara with a vague middle-inning role in mind for him. Instead, month by month, Uehara became not just the Boston closer but the best reliever in the game in ’13. Who else should close the show?
Once in a while a fine team knows that it’s not quite ready to win a pennant. They’re close. If things were just a bit different they could see a World Series in their grasp. But they’re not healthy enough or playing well enough or, perhaps, not even lucky enough. They know. They try to win. Their injured stars, like Cabrera, hobble the best they can and their slumping stars, like Fielder, try to lay off borderline pitches. But, really, those star-crossed teams are waiting, just waiting in vain — waiting to lose.
Before this game, Tiger Manager Jim Leyland bemoaned Fielder’s demoralized state. Reaching back to last year’s World Series Fielder has now gone 75 straight postseason at-bats without an RBI. “People say ‘work your way out of it’ almost like this is April or May,” Leyland said. “We don’t have much time right now. Time is not on anybody’s side right now that is struggling.”
The truly sad sight to Detroit was not Fielder, healthy but unproductive, but Cabrera who will probably get his second straight Most Valuable Player Award next month. He’s hobbled for months, trying to contribute to the end.
“It kind of breaks your heart, to be honest, to see him out there the way he has to be out there . . . because you know he’s hurting. He’s tough as nails,” added Leyalnd. “Everybody is conscientious these days about people earning their money. You talk about somebody who is earning their money. This guy feels like he owes it to the Detroit Tigers and our fans to be out there.”
If Cabrera were on an NFL injury report, he might be listed as Probable (abdomen), Questionable (groin) and Doubtful (hip). All together, anyone who watches him knows that he ought to be “Out.” Yet with the bases full and two outs in the seventh inning, the Tigers still ahead, 2-1, Cabrera nonetheless had his chance for a kill shot. He snapped a ground ball up the middle that, with normal Miggy power, would have been a two-run single. But against Semi-Cabrera, Boston shortstop Stephen Drew snagged the ball at the last instant for a flashy third out.
The Red Sox stroked their beards — the shaggy, scraggly bushes of hair that make them look like a misplaced band of whalers (or perhaps Civil War generals). Then they played one more crisp, proper ballgame as the Tigers, one of the game’s preseason World Series picks, expired at their feet.
You’d say it couldn’t happen, except that decade after decade, these same wonderfully unaccountable pennant-winning teams keep recurring, almost a third of the time. No one knows how to concoct these imperfectly perfect mixtures of magically confident players — a Victorino and Buchholz here, a Uehara and too-old Ortiz there — to become an unbeatable band.
But keep ‘em coming. The singing crowd here, still lingering on the Fenway infield long after midnight, is testimony to how much we love it.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.