BOSTON -- For a team that went from last place to a World Series championship, the most striking part of it was how quickly it all came together.
"Day 1 of Spring Training," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "The way we were doing drills, everything was smooth. Everything was with a purpose. Guys were focused all year and focused on the right areas and wanting to win for each other since Day 1. We had our meeting, and the first practice we were doing bunt plays, full speed. You do stuff like that, you know you have a good team."
So as the wins piled up and the appreciation for the club's style of play grew by the week, the questions about "worst to first" became more difficult to answer.
Yes, the record shows that the Red Sox went 69-93 in 2012 before winning 97 games and then the World Series this year. But as several key new players gathered in Spring Training to join the trusted holdovers, last year was hardly ever even a thought.
There was a new manager in John Farrell who created a winning atmosphere from the first day.
And the free-agent pickups -- from Mike Napoli to Jonny Gomes to David Ross to Koji Uehara to Ryan Dempster -- all played for winning outfits in 2012 and brought that mentality with them to Boston.
As for many who were returning -- from David Ortiz to Pedroia to Jon Lester to Clay Buchholz -- it wasn't as if winning was unfamiliar to them. They just needed the right supporting cast to get back to it.
"I would say because this is a team that we have a lot of players with heart," said Ortiz. "We probably don't have the talent that we had in '07 and '04, but we have guys that are capable to stay focused and do the little things. And when you win with a ballclub like that, that's special."
Here is a recap of a season that was certainly as special as just about any in Red Sox history.
Record: 97-65, first place in the American League East, World Series champions.
Defining moment: There were a collection of them all season. One was in a different category than the rest, as it started off the field. Multiple bombs were set off at the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring hundreds. The Red Sox were just blocks from the scene of the tragedy, wrapping up a walk-off win at Fenway against the Rays. By the time they found out what had occurred, they were boarding a bus for Logan Airport and getting ready to depart on a road trip to Cleveland.
It was around that time when it became clear how special a team the Red Sox were becoming. Players talked openly amongst each other about the tragedy, and they brainstormed about ways they could make a difference. When the team got to the hotel in Cleveland, a spontaneous team dinner emerged, which nearly every player attended.
By the next day, Gomes and Jarrod Saltalamacchia came up with the idea of a Red Sox uniform that said "Boston 617 Strong" on it. That jersey would reside in the dugout for the rest of the season.
When the Red Sox returned home to Fenway for the first game since the bombing, Ortiz returned from the disabled list. He made a speech before the game, rallying the crowd by announcing that, "Boston is our … city, and nobody is going to dictate our freedom."
Daniel Nava won that game with a two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth.
What went right: Unlike the previous three seasons, the Red Sox generally kept their best players healthy. The one exception was Buchholz, who missed three months with a right bursa sac strain. … For all the talk about the improved team chemistry, the biggest improvement happened on the mound, where Boston pitched like champions all season. Lester rediscovered his ace form early, lost it for a brief spell in the middle, and then finished with a flourish, producing one of the best Octobers by a pitcher in club history. … Though the signing of Shane Victorino for three years at $39 million was questioned by some, he turned into a key acquisition, giving the Red Sox a spark at the plate and in the field. … After injuries and underperformance by closers Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, Farrell turned to Uehara and watched him dominate for the final four months of the season. … Highly-touted prospect Xander Bogaerts lived up to his billing when he was summoned from the Minors in late August. And for the last nine games of the postseason, Bogaerts started at third base.
What went wrong: Buchholz was 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA when he was shut down by his untimely injury. Boston's starting depth did step up in his absence, lessening the blow. But it was difficult from an individual standpoint for Buchholz, considering he could have reeled off an AL Cy Young Award-type of season. … Third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who was one of the few pleasant surprises of 2012, couldn't muster any consistency in a tough sophomore season. … Stephen Drew played stellar defense at shortstop, but he dealt with a an early-season concussion, a midseason hamstring injury and postseason inconsistency at the plate. Drew did homer in the World Series clincher. … The trade with the Pirates for Hanrahan wound up being a bust, as the closer underwent Tommy John surgery and pitched in just nine games. Meanwhile, Mark Melancon, one of the players who went to Pittsburgh, had a stellar season.
Biggest surprise: Nava was just fighting for a roster spot when Spring Training started. Though he became a bit of a forgotten man in the postseason, Nava was a big part of what the Red Sox did all year. He came up with several big hits and had a consistently solid approach at the plate. Not only that, but Nava turned into a solid defender in left. His days playing for the independent Chico Outlaws seem like a long time ago.
Hitter of the Year: It's hard to remember now that Ortiz was a big question mark when Spring Training started. His right Achilles that pretty much took away the second half of his 2012 season was still barking. But Ortiz worked hard on his rehab and was healthy by mid-April. He proceeded to turn in a terrific regular season, and an epic World Series. Also, Ortiz's grand slam in Game 2 of the AL Championship Series was probably a season-saver.
Pitcher of the Year: Perhaps more people should have seen it coming with Uehara. His numbers had generally been impressive over the years for the Orioles and Rangers. But at the age of 38, it was hard to figure he was going to turn into arguably the game's best closer. Not only did Uehara dominate (101 K's in 74 innings, .130 opponents' batting average), but he did it in crisp fashion. Uehara's innings were "restful," according to pitching coach Juan Nieves.
Rookie of the Year: Bogaerts is all but certain to win this award next year, at least for the Red Sox. He had so few at-bats that he maintains his rookie status for 2014. One rookie who was called on more than Bogaerts is righty Brandon Workman. In July, he gave Boston some important starts, holding Buchholz's spot in the rotation until Jake Peavy arrived via trade. By late in the season and into October, Workman was an important setup man.