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Victorino's heroics apropos to Sox's turnaround

Gritty veteran's slam completes Boston's worst-to-first U-turn in Junior Circuit

BOSTON -- One of the things the Red Sox loved about right fielder Shane Victorino is that he plays the game a certain way. He plays fast. He plays with a chip on his shoulder. He's loves it when people doubt him, and through the years, they've done that plenty.

When the Red Sox looked at Victorino last winter, they saw the energy and competitive fire they hoped to instill in an entire franchise. They believed his signing would be symbolic of something larger.

So it was appropriate that Victorino, this 190-pound package of hard slides, elbows and attitude, delivered the hit that delivered an American League pennant and trip to the World Series on Saturday night.

His grand slam in the bottom of the seventh inning had Fenway Park rocking to its brick-and-steel bones as the Red Sox defeated the Detroit Tigers, 5-2, in Game 6 of the AL Championship Series.

This was another close game, another tense game, a magnificent evening of theater. The Tigers, hoping to force a Game 7 on Sunday night, led by a run in the seventh. But they were again undone by everything from relief pitching and baserunning to an offense that went silent.

When Victorino stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and lifted a Jose Veras curveball over the Green Monster, another chapter of baseball's most improbable story of 2013 had been written.

Here's the deal about these Red Sox. No one -- that's NO ONE -- believed their season would end up with a wild celebration of bear hugs and laughter. Even some of the people who loved the job that general manager Ben Cherington did in overhauling his team's roster and attitude simply didn't see them finishing ahead of Toronto, Tampa, etc., in the American League East.

Not after a 2012 season in which the Red Sox lost 93 games, their most in 47 years. Not after an offseason in which they seemed content to make a series of small moves rather than one or two large ones. Not after their focus seemed to be on simply steering the ship back in the right direction.

What almost no one could have foreseen is that Cherington had done brilliant work. Not only did he add talent -- and he did that -- he added a bunch of consummate professionals, guys who were perfect fits in the clubhouse and on the field.

Victorino was one. Mike Napoli was another. And Jonny Gomes and Stephen Drew and David Ross and Ryan Dempster.

And Koji Uehara.

When teams win championships, they always look back and see a long list of things that simply weren't supposed to happen. Uehara was lured away from the Texas Rangers to pitch the seventh and eighth innings. But the Red Sox lost two closers to injury during the season, and all Uehara did was become the AL's most reliable. He was named ALCS Most Valuable Player on Saturday night after getting the final out of every Red Sox victory.

Early in Spring Training, the Red Sox began to sense things were changing rapidly. New manager John Farrell brought credibility, organization and toughness to the franchise.

And two of the most veteran Boston players -- Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz -- now had players every bit as interested in working hard and winning as they were.

In the end, it was a long list of things. Starting pitchers Jon Lester and John Lackey had huge comeback seasons. Kids like infielders Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks and Brandon Workman made major contributions. Outfielder Daniel Nava, who had a long and winding path to the big leagues, made a significant contribution, too.

By the end of Spring Training, it was clear these Red Sox were different. But were they good enough? Those early days were important. They started 18-7 and kept going. They were never more than three games out of first place in the AL East and climbed atop the division to stay on Aug. 25. They answered every challenge.

At the beginning of the season, they simply couldn't have known how good they are. By the end, they knew. Lackey, Lester and Clay Buchholz led one of baseball's best rotations. Jacoby Ellsbury and Victorino were huge catalysts at the top of the order in front of Ortiz and Pedroia. Uehara was almost perfect.

When the Red Sox won their third AL pennant in 10 years on Saturday, they did it for one another, for a tremendous organization and for one of America's great cities, a city that loves its baseball team as much as any.

As they have at every step of the way, the Red Sox said this championship was neither a beginning nor an end. It simply was the next step. Now, though, there's only one more to go.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
Read More: Boston Red Sox, Shane Victorino