Improved team chemistry key to Red Sox's revival
After two tumultuous seasons, Boston back on top in AL East standings
ST. PETERSBURG -- Team chemistry, baseball graybeards insist, is as overrated as the game's obsession with pitch counts. Winning is what it's all about, not the clubhouse schmoozing, hugging and mutual-admiration gushing.
I member Charlie Finley's Oakland A's who hated each other, but they did nothing but win in the 1970s. They didn't even know how to spell chemistry.
Yet when I see the rejuvenated Boston Red Sox continue to win and lead the American League East, the question about clubhouse chemistry becomes an integral part of the buzz surrounding this team.
"I do believe chemistry can be created in baseball," said Rays skipper Joe Maddon. "I oppose those who say it cannot be. I do believe it has a lot to do with winning on the field."
Maybe it's a coincidence, but the Red Sox posed 11 players together for the cover photograph of their 2013 media guide, with Fenway Park in the background. There are smiles on most of the faces, which says a lot about this team.
It's logical to talk about chemistry after their disastrous past two seasons.
"We thought, coming into Spring Training, this was a good group," said manager John Farrell, who took over for Bobby Valentine after a chaotic, tempestuous 2012. "It was a group, however, that needed to blend together, because of the number of new players added.
"But this is a group that loves to play the game. That's been evident by the way we've come back late in some games, the way we've finished out certain games. There's a continuing growing confidence with our team."
The Red Sox remained atop the AL East after winning two of three from the Rays. They began a four-game set with the Orioles in Baltimore this weekend, leading the second-place Yankees by three games. It's their biggest margin since they were up by three games for one day on May 14.
In their series opener against Tampa Bay on Monday night, it took 14 innings and more than five hours for a 10-8 victory. They were blown away by the Rays, 8-3, in the next game, but rebounded with an impressive 2-1 win on Wednesday.
The gritty, tenacious trademark of this team, which has the best record in the AL, was evident in the two victories. On each occasion, the Rays were poised to win, but the Red Sox refused to give in.
"They just don't wilt," said Maddon.
Twice during the 14-inning victory, Dustin Pedroia pulled off amazing defensive plays that probably deprived the Rays of a victory.
In the eighth, after Tampa Bay pulled even at 6-6, Pedroia raced to the mound from his deep position at second base, dived between the first baseman and pitcher to catch Kelly Johnson's popup for the third out, with Ben Zobrist on second base.
With the score tied at 8-8 in the 10th, the Rays had the bases loaded with nobody out. After superstar Evan Longoria bounced into a double play, leaving runners on first and second, Pedroia once again saved the game.
Tampa Bay pinch-hitter Sam Fuld tried to surprise the defense with what he hoped would be a game-winning bunt single to the right side. Instead, Pedroia dashed in, threw to first to get the speedy runner and end the threat.
"That was just an acrobatic, outstanding play that enabled us to prolong the game and eventually win it," said Farrell, whose calming influence is so evident.
And on Wednesday night, the Red Sox continually snuffed would-be Tampa Bay rallies, walking a tightrope for their 2-1 win.
It all seems to come back to chemistry, which would mean nothing if the Red Sox weren't winning.
"It's a pretty special group when you consider the number of guys who contribute to a baseball conversation," said Farrell. "They're always talking the game, anticipating certain things that might come up. I believe guys draw some level of comfort from that. Younger players are exposed to a lot of learning opportunities here."
Mention the notion that the team chemistry got changed in a hurry and Farrell says "it was all part of [general manager] Ben Cherington's overall plan -- to bring in talented players who had good track records as strong individual characters, and foreseeing a group that shares that. It's come together."
"I'm a chemist when it comes to baseball," quipped Maddon. "I was really awful at it in high school. Yes, it is important in baseball. A lot of people say, 'If you win, chemistry comes.' But with the Rays as an example, we had never won before, so we had to create this other vibe that happened within before it could occur on the field."
Maddon agrees it's difficult to change clubhouse chemistry.
"It's very difficult, because it takes a lot of communication," he said. "It's paying attention to the day, all about positive energy to be built. It takes a lot of internal energy, and some people aren't willing to put that out there.
"I'll argue against the group that says winning will beget chemistry. If you pay attention to individuals conversationally on a daily basis, that's what matters."
When the Red Sox were at Tropicana Field in May, they were on a downward spiral. After winning 20 of their first 28 games, they'd hit the skids.
Reporters kept asking Farrell when he was going to change his lineup, shake things up.
"I've given it some thought," he said then. "And yet the one thing that I do not want to create in there [clubhouse] is more uncertainty. I want there to be some stability and continuity to the work we're doing.
"That includes their understanding [that] there's a lot of belief and trust in them as players. We didn't go 20-8 at one point with a completely different set of players. We're not going to run from them."
Since that night, the Red Sox have gone 19-9.
Nothing replaces winning, but chemistry has played an enormous role in this team's unexpected 2013 success.