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Red Sox savor significance of playoff return

Front office, players reflect on rise from 2011 collapse, '12 last-place finish

BOSTON -- As a shirtless Mike Napoli walked through the Fenway infield, as a jubilant Koji Uehara sprayed champagne from the top of the dugout, as a satisfied Jonny Gomes walked around the celebratory scene with an army hat on, it wasn't just about the moment for a team that had just clinched the American League East.

Instead, it was about the restoration of the Boston Red Sox, a proud franchise that had fallen on some hard times the last couple of years.

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In 2011, the Red Sox endured the worst September collapse in history. Last year, they had a 69-93 breakdown that marked the worst Boston baseball summer since 1965.

But in this season to savor, everything came together again, and the Red Sox clicked from ownership to the front office to the manager's office to the playing field.

For the first time in Red Sox history, the team went from worst to first in the span of a year.

"The collapse of '11 and the disappointment of '12 hasn't left my mind entirely," said Red Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino. "This will help that happen, I think for sure. It's really sweet when you go from worst to first. It's really a satisfying feeling. I still think we want to go deeper -- I know we want to go deeper and further, but you want to at least celebrate this achievement. I think it's worthy of everybody in here."

This was the first postseason appearance for the Red Sox since 2009, and the first division title since '07, a season that ended in World Series glory.

"To many of us here, when you think of the Boston Red Sox, the first thing you think of is winning," said manager John Farrell. "We wanted to re-establish that. We did everything in our power to chase it on a daily basis. And that hasn't changed. There are a lot of good players here. And [general manager Ben Cherington] did a great job of adding to the core guys that returned. And we saw what hard work and a team concept can produce."

It was a sweet moment for Farrell, and somewhat fitting, considering the clincher came against the Blue Jays, the team he managed the previous two seasons before he was freed from his contract to return to Boston.

Farrell didn't look at the Red Sox as any type of feel-good story in Spring Training. He demanded excellence from the first day.

In the euphoria of Friday night, Gomes relayed the simplicity of Farrell's message back in February.

"Win," Gomes said. "Play the game right, and win."

As for what happened in recent years, the whole goal of this year was to erase that. There was a clear method to Cherington's roster makeover last winter. He brought in guys who had won in the past -- guys who were known as winning players.

"Ben has done a fantastic job," Lucchino said. "There's a lot of credit that can be passed around to Ben and his lieutenants, too -- to scouts who worked for him, the team he's assembled. He's the first to acknowledge that."

Per usual, Cherington was only comfortable deflecting credit on Friday night instead of taking any.

"We just knew we had to put the team back together and keep pushing and get the thing back going in the right direction," Cherington said. "I'm happy for a lot of people that were here last year and went through a difficult time that are still here, including players, to have this moment tonight, and hopefully it's the start of a lot more this fall."

And nobody enjoyed the fresh blood more than the proud holdovers -- the guys who know what it feels like to win a World Series in Boston.

"We have a group of guys that just came and they know what it's all about, playing in Boston," said David Ortiz. "They put their caps on and bring it."

While Gomes became a clear leader among the new players, he did it in concert with the core veterans.

"We were 25 baseball junkies just playing ball the right way," Gomes said. "I know the core guys here. I know Pedey [Dustin Pedroia], Ells [Jacoby Ellsbury] and Big Papi. They were not going to allow last year to happen again. I knew that from the outside looking in. That being said, I definitely wanted to be a part of that."

Ortiz, the sole holdover from the beloved '04 team, was in the center of the celebration in the clubhouse, gleefully spraying champagne around as he wore ski goggles.

"It's been a while." Ortiz said. "We never lost the faith. We kept on working hard, and here we are."

It is the type of team that makes an owner proud.

"I have a tremendous sense of gratitude for this group of players," said principal owner John Henry. "They went out every day and did it. They didn't seem to get tired when teams normally start to get tired. In the middle of August, they kicked it up another notch, because I felt there was such an intense type of camaraderie among this group."

For the Red Sox, this was the seventh AL East title in team history since the start of division play in 1969. It was the 15th time a Sox team has finished first in 113 AL seasons.

With seven games left in the season, the 94-61 Sox can now focus on trying to solidify home-field advantage in the postseason.

Farrell can line up his pitching exactly the way he wants it for the start of the AL Division Series on Oct. 4. Though there has been no announcement yet, Jon Lester -- who won his 100th career game Friday night -- looks like the favorite to pitch Game 1.

"Part one, this is the baby step right here," said Ortiz. "We have to keep on working hard. The best part of everything is coming up now and we'll be ready."

Ian Browne is a reporter for Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne.

Boston Red Sox