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Roster full of talent lends synergy to Red Sox

As Boston's playoff run reaches ALCS, season takes on memorable feel

ST. PETERSBURG -- Look closely at these Boston Red Sox. Begin with the obvious stuff. For instance, starting pitching.

If the Red Sox don't have baseball's best rotation, it's close. This is the place you begin when you label this the best team in baseball. Almost no other team has a front three as good as Jon Lester, John Lackey and Clay Buchholz.

For all the terrific work Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington did in reshaping his club last winter, first with the smart hiring of John Farrell as manager and then with a string of excellent acquistions -- Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, etc. -- none of it happens without big comeback seasons from Lester and Lackey.

Both of them were challenged by unsatisfying 2012 seasons. Both of them rededicated themselves to helping lead the Red Sox back to respectability. Their attitude, drive and work ethic say plenty about both them and the core of this ballclub.

Everything hinges on the rotation. Baseball has so much parity these days -- that is, there's so little difference among, say, the top 10-15 teams that constructing a first-rate rotation is an absolute must.

For the Red Sox, having one of baseball's best rotations is just one part of the story. Yeah, look closely at these Red Sox. Raise the hood and poke around. Slide underneath and check out the various moving parts. This is as close to a perfect baseball team as there is on earth right now.

"They're just good, man," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "They're good."

Maddon should know. First, his team is pretty darn good, too. Second, his club played the Red Sox 23 times this season, including in the playoffs, so he has seen them from every angle. His team won just eight of those 23 games.

Maddon spoke those words moments after the Rays saw their season end by losing Game 4 of the American League Division Series, 3-1, on Tuesday night. During the four games, the Rays got the full Red Sox experience. They were tortured by those two catalysts -- Jacoby Ellsbury and Victorino -- at the top of the lineup. Those guys are classic table setters for Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and the others in the middle.

The Red Sox led the Major Leagues in runs scored this season, in part, because they're smart and patient and understand their strengths and weaknesses. They wear pitchers out with their plate discipline.

After all of that, after that rotation and that offense, the Red Sox also have one of baseball's best bullpens. This bullpen was excellent despite an assortment of injuries. The closer, Koji Uehara, gave up a run in Game 3 on Monday. That was the second run he has allowed since June 30. Any other questions?

When Farrell got 5 2/3 innings from his starter, right-hander Jake Peavy, on Tuesday, he had his relievers lined up. Left-hander Craig Breslow, one of Boston's unsung heroes this season, got five outs, four of them on strikeouts. Farrell then got one out from right-hander Junichi Tazawa and four from Uehara to finish it off.

Regardless of whether the Red Sox end up facing the A's or Tigers in the AL Championship Series, they're going to be favored to win. They're going to be favored because their starters are rested and lined up. They've got baseball's best offense.

In some ways, the reciting of numbers and naming of names barely scratches the surface of what these Red Sox are. They were such a mess last season in losing 93 games, in allowing the clubhouse atmosphere to become toxic, that this remarkable season -- they won their 100th game on Tuesday -- wouldn't have happened if something deeper hadn't gone on.

Farrell's hiring was the first game-changer. Because he'd been the Red Sox pitching coach for four seasons under former manager Terry Francona, many of the players already knew and respected Farrell.

Looking back on it now, the Red Sox will tell you things began to change on the first day of Spring Training because Farrell was so decisive and had such a commanding presence that there was going to be a certain standard -- his standard -- for doing everything.

Cherington didn't just bring in gifted players, although they were certainly that. He made wholesale changes -- seven significant acquisitions -- filling holes all over the field and in the bullpen. But he did more than just bring in talented players.

He brought in guys like Napoli and David Ross and Jonny Gomes, guys who were at a certain point in their career, one where all that mattered was the bottom line. He brought in guys with reputations for being great in the clubhouse, too.

This also became Pedroia's team. As Maddon said, "[He's] pretty much the heart and soul of that entire group." Every other Red Sox player feeds off Pedroia's energy, passion and competitive fire. Everything Farrell wanted the Sox to be in terms of fighting until the last out is best exemplified by the second baseman.

And there's Ortiz, the wise veteran leader, the powerful slugger, the calming presence. Along the way, the Red Sox got contributions from younger players like Will Middlebrooks, Felix Doubront and others.

Winning teams are fascinating things, akin to living, breathing organisms. They're not really one player or five players or 10. They're dozens of people -- players and managers and coaches -- putting their personal goals aside to try to accomplish one single thing.

"The accountability in that clubhouse is pretty amazing," Breslow said. "There's accountability and 25 guys who prioritize winning baseball games beyond any kind of individual achievement or accolade."

As Gomes said, "It was just a family affair out there; it truly was. It's wasn't like teammates. It was like a family affair."

Some of it is sheer physical accomplishment. Victorino slapped a ground ball to shortstop in the top of the seventh inning of a tied game and sprinted down the line to beat it out and drive in what turned out to be the winning run. Some of it, though, is about teamwork and caring for one another.

Whenever this season ends, the Red Sox will look back and not really be sure why the whole thing became such a magical mix. All that's clear is that as they prepare to host Game 1 of the ALCS on Saturday at Fenway Park, they've got a good thing going -- a real good thing.

To all those New Englanders who care so deeply about this baseball team, for all those who pass a passion for the Red Sox from generation to generation, it has a chance to be a special kind of October. Here's to them enjoying every single moment of it, taking it and savoring it and remembering it. It has a chance to be that kind of October.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
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