BOSTON -- Back in those sunny days of Spring Training, the pundits had a hard time knowing what to make of the Red Sox. But most agreed that it would be hard for them to contend in 2013.
The 69-93 debacle of last season was still fresh on the minds of those outside the clubhouse, and that was the key distinction.
Inside a clubhouse which included fresh yet heavily-bearded new faces, a quiet confidence developed quickly. And the holdovers like Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz -- all of whom had been worn down by the events of the previous two years -- were rejuvenated to be back in an atmosphere that resembled the winning years of the not too distant past.
The Red Sox clinched their first American League East title since 2007 on Friday night, a day after securing the club's first postseason berth since '09. Here is a look back at 10 reasons why Fenway Park will be open for business this October.
The offseason makeover
Combine a late-season collapse for the ages in 2011 with a disaster of a season in '12 and it was clear the Red Sox not only needed more players, but they needed an attitude adjustment.
Credit general manager Ben Cherington for targeting character in virtually every move he made over the winter. The first signing Cherington made was backup catcher David Ross. While that might have generated yawns among the fan base, those inside the game know that Ross has one of the most infectious personalities in baseball, and is also a preparation freak behind the plate.
Soon after, platoon outfielder Jonny Gomes would come on board, and all his teams do is overachieve every year. It happened again this year, with Gomes becoming a clubhouse leader from just about the day he arrived. Mike Napoli had a contract dispute at first when some hip problems were discovered, but it was eventually settled and the Red Sox had themselves a first baseman, a slugger and someone who grinds out every at-bat.
Those who thought Shane Victorino was on the downside because of one bad year were proven wrong, and Cherington was rewarded for taking a chance. Victorino has played superb defense in right field while coming up with big hits all year.
Picking the right manager
Cherington did his due diligence and interviewed Brad Ausmus, Tony Pena, Tim Wallach and some others, but John Farrell was the guy he wanted all along. Once the Blue Jays decided to free Farrell from his contract, an agreement was made and the teams executed a trade. With all due respect to Mike Aviles, the player who was dealt for Farrell and later shipped to Cleveland, it was a decision Cherington would be thankful for all season.
When Farrell was a pitching coach under Terry Francona from 2007-10, there were plenty of people in Boston's front office who were convinced he would make a good manager some day. Farrell justified that belief this season by pushing all the right buttons from Day One. He already had the respect of leaders like Pedroia, Ortiz, Buchholz and Lester from the day he arrived, and that spread to the rest of the clubhouse. Players love direction, and Farrell and his staff have provided it on a daily basis.
As far as in-game managing, Farrell has had an amazing knack for putting in the right player at the key time -- particularly in pinch-hitting situations.
One reason it was hard to project what the Red Sox would do this season was the recent inconsistency of the front-line starting pitching. But Lester proved on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium that his 2012 underperformance was probably just the one off year that even most All-Star caliber players have.
And Buchholz didn't just pick his game up a notch -- he turned into an ace, one who likely would have been in the running for the AL Cy Young Award if not for a strained right bursa sac that took him out of action for three months.
But John Lackey helped make up for Buchholz's injury by coming back dramatically from Tommy John surgery and resembling the pitcher he once was with the Angels. Heading into the playoffs, Farrell will have a legitimate debate about who his Game 1 starter should be, and that's a good thing.
The Red Sox finish their season boasting one of the finest seasons of any closer in club history. That's why it's so hard to believe this position was a trouble spot earlier in the season. Boston got Joel Hanrahan to be its closer, but he was ineffective and injured and wound up on an operating table just weeks into the season. Andrew Bailey, option No. 2, had some moments of brilliance early but wound up suffering the same fate as Hanrahan.
In late June, Farrell decided to give 37-year-old Koji Uehara the keys to the ninth inning. It turned out to be perhaps the best decision he made all season. The numbers aren't just impressive -- they are ridiculous. Combine his work as a setup man earlier in the year and as closer for the last four months, and it's hard to find a reliever in Red Sox history who put up numbers gaudier than Uehara's.
In Spring Training, Ortiz's right Achilles -- which kept him out of action for most of the home stretch last year -- was still barking. Was the slugger going to be able to get over the injury and get back to being a fearsome hitter?
Ortiz came back on April 20, the first game at Fenway after the tragic Boston Marathon bombings, and proclaimed in a most demonstrative way that Boston was "our f------ city." For the next several months, he would reinforce the notion that the Red Sox are his team. Though Boston became known for its lineup depth throughout the season, Ortiz was the most impactful hitter -- the one who forced pitchers to change their game plan.
How did the Red Sox transform themselves from merely a contender to a team that pulled away to win the AL East with ease? The late-inning magic is as big a reason as any.
The Sox consistently won the close games all year, pulling out comebacks and walk-off wins as if they were expected. One strike from defeat on May 16, Will Middlebrooks belted a bases-clearing double against Fernando Rodney and the Rays at Tropicana Field. Down by three in the ninth against Francona's Indians on May 26, the Sox won it on a two-run walk-off double by Jacoby Ellsbury.
Big Papi would pummel a walk-off three-run homer against the Rangers on June 7, right after manager Ron Washington ordered an intentional walk to Pedroia.
But the best one of all took place on Aug. 1 against the Mariners. Down 7-1 after seven, Boston chipped back with one in the eighth and then drilled Seattle with a six spot to win it in the ninth, capped by Daniel Nava's walk-off single off the base of the wall in center.
The final piece
When Cherington executed his big trade acquisition on July 30, acquiring Jake Peavy from the White Sox, the Red Sox were actually a half-game back in the AL East. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the Sox would take over the division not long after Peavy's arrival. At a time of year when teams can hit a lull, Peavy energized the rotation with his fierce competitiveness. And he also pitched effectively, buying the Red Sox some time until Buchholz resurfaced on Sept. 10.
The bench has been a big factor all year. Not many managers have a reserve like Mike Carp, who recently hit a game-breaking grand slam against the Rays and had an OPS above .900 for most of the season. Ditto Gomes, who has made big plays offensively and defensively all year. He has three pinch-hit homers. Ross missed a couple of months with a concussion, but his presence has been felt in the clubhouse all season, and between the lines whenever he plays.
The depth of the Red Sox was tested this season, thanks to injuries. Before being dealt to the Tigers as part of the Peavy trade, Jose Iglesias stepped in beautifully for the injured Stephen Drew and replaced Middlebrooks for a while as the starting third baseman. Brandon Workman filled the void in the rotation left by Buchholz until Peavy came on board, and has since become a key member in Farrell's bullpen. Xander Bogaerts, the best prospect in the organization, came up in August and will probably never go down again. Though Bogaerts isn't playing every day, he seems to contribute to a win every time he is in the lineup.
Everyone knows the background story on Nava. The Red Sox paid $1 to pry him from an independent league team five years ago. By 2010, he found his way to the Majors and hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw. If he never had a hit in his career after that, nobody would have been surprised.
However, Nava has proved emphatically this season that he wasn't just some feel-good story. In fact, he's become a core player for the Red Sox. Playing every day for the first time in his career, Nava has an OBP close to .400. Nava has also developed into an extra-base threat and an above average-defender in the outfield.