Lester and Co. set tone for climb from cellar to World Series
BOSTON -- The chemistry marked by a room full of beards is all well and good. The offense's ability to grind opposing pitchers into submission has been well chronicled, as it should be. The closer has been one of the best in team history for a single season, and Koji Uehara's American League Championship Series Most Valuable Player trophy was an exclamation point on that storyline.
But the biggest reason the Red Sox have gone from cellar dwellers to the World Series has been underplayed.
The resurgence, quite simply, has started with the starting pitchers, both individually and collectively.
When the Red Sox went from perennial contender to disappointment with the September collapse of 2011, fried chicken and beer consumed in the clubhouse probably was far less responsible than the striking demise of the starting rotation.
And when Boston suffered that abomination of a 2012 season, the starters were in a season-long funk.
So it's only fitting that the rotation's resurgence has mirrored that of the American League champions.
"They set the tone," said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. "Starting pitchers set the tone of how that game is going to go. They really kind of lift up the defense and the offense just by their pace. If they're at a quick pace and keep the ball moving, our defense doesn't get tired, they don't make errors, they're always on the go and it gets our offense up to bat quicker."
Perhaps nobody has better perspective on the ups and downs of this unit than Saltalamacchia, who was the primary catcher during the bad times of '11-'12, and the savored rebound this year.
"They're the tone-setters and what they've done this year, we couldn't have done it without them," Saltalamacchia.
Maybe they couldn't have done it without the hiring of manager John Farrell either. Is it a coincidence that Boston's starting staff started landing on hard times the same season Farrell left his post as the Red Sox's pitching coach to become the manager of the Blue Jays?
Interestingly though, staff ace Jon Lester thinks the best thing Farrell has done since his return to the organization is to let the pitching coach do his job.
Juan Nieves, in his first year as a Major League pitching coach, has helped guide his staff to the World Series, just like Farrell did as a first-time pitching coach in 2007.
"I think really the biggest thing is he's stayed out of Juan's way," said Lester. "I think he's had relationships with guys here before. And when you have that coming in as a manager, he's already in charge of the team and if you want to try to overstep the pitching coach, I think things can get a little dicey then. Juan busted his butt since Day 1 to learn everything to fit in with us and it's gone smoothly since."
If there was a key connection that Nieves made early, it was probably the one with Lester.
The power lefty was almost unrecognizable last season, going 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA.
But he quickly regained his groove, and the rest of the rotation followed suit.
Clay Buchholz always had the stuff to be an elite pitcher, and this year he was one, save for the three months he missed with a right bursa sac strain.
Expectations were uncertain from John Lackey, who hadn't resembled his Angels years in his first two seasons with Boston. But the righty reshaped his body while missing all of 2012 with Tommy John surgery and came back strong this season.
"Lack being out there, being healthy for a full year and really just being an All-Star pitcher in my opinion, that's been a key to our success," Saltalamacchia said.
Though Ryan Dempster and Felix Doubront have been shifted to bullpen duty for the postseason, they gave the team important innings during the season.
"When we needed a starter to step up, whoever that starter was that day, whether it was to win a series or complete a sweep or stop a sweep from happening, whatever it was, it seemed like somebody stepped up all the way through the regular season," said Dempster.
And it has carried right into October. When the AL Division Series started, the Red Sox heard a lot about David Price and Matt Moore and the dominance of Tampa Bay's staff.
But the Red Sox vanquished the Rays in four games.
Then it was on to the ALCS, where there was hype galore on the collective virtues of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez. The Tigers' trio more than lived up to the talk, tying the Red Sox in knots through the first three games.
However, it was the Red Sox who grabbed a 2-1 series lead en route to an AL pennant. And if you've seen countless replays of the grand slams by David Ortiz and Shane Victorino, the rotation's ability to duel it out with Detroit's stud pitchers was every bit as much of a key in that series.
"You look at the playoffs and we go to Detroit and rightfully so, they talked about Verlander and they talked about Scherzer and talked about Sanchez, but nobody really talked about our guys," said Dempster. "And we had guys who threw the ball really well. We go there and we're facing Verlander and John Lackey had probably the biggest start of the year for us, and to get that win against a guy who is throwing as well as anybody in baseball."
The final piece to the puzzle of this sturdy rotation occurred on July 30, when general manager Ben Cherington traded for Jake Peavy.
With a Cy Young Award already on his resume, the one thing Peavy had never done is play deep into October. As soon as he got to Boston, maybe within a day or two, he sensed a different feel with this rotation than at any other point of his career.
Finally, Peavy was surrounded by a cast of four or five who were every bit as competitive as he was.
"This is certainly the best rotation I've ever been on, top to bottom," said Peavy. "You have experience throughout and you have guys with still plenty enough to go out and dominate a baseball game and take over. When you have good starting pitching, like I said, it's hard to get crazy off track. We certainly have rallied behind the starting pitching as a team and found a way to get it done most nights."
And the pitching coach continues to watch it all much like a prideful father.
"The biggest strength, I think, overall, is these guys are incredible competitors," Nieves said. "They grind out their A game, their B game, their C game, they're out there for as long as possible."
"It's funny, when you piece our starting rotation together, you remember the question marks that there were earlier. Lackey coming from Tommy John, Buchholz not pitching for 18 starts. Having Doubront starting behind the 8-ball in Spring Training, and then he started the first game of the second half, a huge game against the Yankees here.
"At one time or another, all our starters have pitched like No. 1's. Maybe we don't have five No. 1's, but they all have pitched like a No. 1 at a certain time of the season."