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Red Sox's fast turnaround a thing to behold

Steady veterans a positive influence as Cherington quickly builds contender

HOUSTON -- There was a moment right after last season when Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington begin running down a list of things that needed fixing on his club. In no particular order:

• First baseman
• Left fielder
• Right fielder
• Shortstop

Boston needed pitching, too. Then, just to put everything in a nice, neat package, Cherington mentioned two other factors. First, he would not be handing out long-term contracts to free agents. The Red Sox had been down that road before. Cherington also wouldn't make a trade if it forced him to give up the club's best Minor League talent. That, he said, is the franchise's lifeblood.

When Cherington was done talking, he'd pretty much assigned himself an impossible task. The Red Sox were coming off a disastrous 69-93 last-place season, and he seemed to be acknowledging that 2013 would be a year of transition as the Red Sox shifted back to homegrown talent.

As for competing in 2013, good luck with that. There was no way, absolutely no way, Cherington could fix all that needed fixing without spending huge amounts of money or gutting his farm system.

Poor Ben. Seems like such a nice man. In a city that cares deeply about its hardball club, it wasn't going to be a pleasant summer to be him.

And then, over the course of a few weeks, Cherington did something almost no one thought possible. He built a contender. He did it without spending much money. He changed the atmosphere around the club, changed the leadership, changed pretty much everything.

If Cherington is not the Executive of the Year, someone hasn't been paying attention. The Red Sox, generally picked to finish near the bottom of the American League East, are in first place.

At 69-46, they've already matched last season's win total. When reminded of that, manager John Farrell smiled and said, "I hope we pass last year."

The Red Sox have baseball's highest-scoring offense. They've got a dramatically improved starting rotation. Boston has some grit, too. The club has survived an assortment of injuries, especially in the bullpen, where three important relievers -- Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey and Andrew Miller -- have been lost for the season to injuries. The Sox lost their best starting pitcher, Clay Buchholz, indefinitely to a sore shoulder.

And yet the Red Sox roll along, seemingly headed back to the postseason for the first time since 2009. On Tuesday night, they won for the 69th time by fighting back from deficits of 5-0 and 7-3 to beat the Astros, 15-10.

And while that game was against the team with baseball's worst record, it spoke volumes about Boston.

"You know how we try to play the game," designated hitter David Ortiz said. "We try not to give up. We keep on playing through it."

One win doesn't begin to tell the story of these Red Sox, who've changed so dramatically that it barely seems like the same franchise that sleepwalked through the 2012 season.

It's one thing to change some faces, and Cherington did that. It's another thing to change the attitude and environment.

"If you were to pick a characteristic you'd want on a team, mine would be playoff experience," left fielder Jonny Gomes said Tuesday. "You look at our starting nine, and I think right now our third baseman [rookie Brock Holt] is the only one without playoff experience. That shows a lot about what it takes to get to the playoffs and big games, and peaks and valleys."

Cherington made it work, first, by dismissing manager Bobby Valentine, who was never a great fit. He turned to an old friend, Toronto manager Farrell, who had served as Boston's pitching coach for four seasons under Terry Francona. Players trusted and respected Farrell in a way they never did Valentine.

Looking back on it, it's clear the Red Sox were going to be different before Cherington acquired a single player. And then he went looking for bargains.

Cherington was looking for a certain type of bargain, too, and so he got outfielders Shane Victorino and Gomes, first baseman Mike Napoli, shortstop Stephen Drew, starting pitcher Ryan Dempster, reliever Koji Uehara and backup catcher David Ross.

Those signings were striking for a couple of reasons. For one, all of them had been in the postseason before, and all were considered good clubhouse guys.

They're all in their 30s, but that's OK. Cherington may not have known how much productive baseball they still had left in them, but if he couldn't change the attitude of his club, the other stuff wouldn't matter. And only Victorino got more than a two-year commitment.

So Cherington had upgraded his club, spent modestly and held onto his best farm players. Regardless of how much he changed the clubhouse, though, there were plenty of questions about good the club would be.

The Red Sox have a deep, tough lineup built around second baseman Dustin Pedroia (.296, 27 doubles, eight homers) and Ortiz (.326, 21 homers). Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (.301, 40 steals, eight triples) is healthy again and having a great season.

Right-hander John Lackey (3.21 ERA, 126 innings) has bounced back nicely from Tommy John surgery. Uehara (10 saves) has made a solid transition to the closer's role in the wake of the injuries.

As for the new guys, they've fit in and produced in an assortment of ways. For instance, Gomes hit his fourth pinch-hit home run on Tuesday. And Drew is among the best defensive shortstops in the game.

The Red Sox have been in first place for 110 days. They're in a dogfight with the Rays for the division championship, but enough good things have happened that it's easy for Boston fans to believe again.

"It starts with Ben," Farrell said. "There was a clear vision on his part to go out and bring in talented players that had strong teammate reputations. They love to work. They love to compete. The game tonight is the most important thing to them. Day by day, it's been a turnaround, but there's a long way to go."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
Read More: Boston Red Sox, Stephen Drew, Jacoby Ellsbury, John Lackey, Ryan Dempster, Shane Victorino, Dustin Pedroia, Koji Uehara, Jonny Gomes, David Ortiz