Commentary

Red Sox bubbling back atop AL East

Division champs aren't done yet, so buckle up and enjoy the ride, Boston fans

Updated: September 21, 2013, 4:08 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Goggles were the order of the night. The Red Sox have done this enough times to know you don't walk into a crossfire of champagne without being dressed for the occasion.

One player, however, wore a combat helmet. The helmet, adorned with three chevrons above three bars, like Jonny Gomes, had a story. The name taped on one side said "Chacon."

"He was a buddy of mine, who just came back from overseas," Gomes said. "Afghanistan. He's OK. He gave it to me about a week ago."

[+] EnlargeJonny Gomes
AP Photo/Charles KrupaIt seems fitting for Jonny Gomes to don a hard hat in celebration.

And Gomes wore it to a party. "He looks really comfortable in that hat," Craig Breslow said, goggles perched atop his own head. "That hat perfectly fit him."

Gomes didn't wear it simply as protection from being doused by happy teammates celebrating Boston's first division title since 2007 -- "We own the East," the hastily handed out T-shirts proclaimed.

He wore it to make this night part of the homecoming for a soldier named Chacon, who safely returned to friends and family. But it also was his way, as unique as ever, to deliver another message:

"It's time to put your hard hat on."

There is still work to be done. Winning the division, the seventh time the Sox have done so since division play began in 1969, was only the first step.

"Yup," said Ryan Dempster, who is 16 years and five teams into his big league career, 36 years old and still engaged in the pursuit of what so far has proven elusive, a trip to the World Series, when asked if he imagined this night when he signed with the Sox last winter.

"I envision another one and another one and one more. We've got a lot of work to do. Every team is going to feel the same way. But this is an unbelievable group of guys here. At the end of the season, if it was over, I wouldn't be disappointed one bit. I've never had so much fun playing with a group of guys.

"I've been on some great teams, great individuals, but this team collectively is really special. We got a big challenge in front of us. This is what we all set forth to do. Win our division, put ourselves in good position to go forward, and then put ourselves in better position to go forward still.

Still not ready to believe?

"I don't think we're too concerned about that," Gomes said, "but I think there is room on the bandwagon if people want to jump on."

*******

Koji Uehara was on the mound. The rest of the bullpen was hanging on the railing. Two outs in the ninth, and in the front-row seats belonging to the owner, Linda Pizzuti was standing, splendid in red. So was team chairman Tom Werner and CEO Larry Lucchino, whose wife, Stacy, was right behind him, her hand on her husband's shoulder.

In his seat, cellphone in his hand, was Pizzuti's husband, majority owner John Henry.

"You know, he didn't get nervous," Pizzuti would say after Uehara struck out Brett Lawrie of the Blue Jays for the game's final out, and Henry rose to embrace his wife, and then his partners. "I was a wreck all day. He was calm. I don't know how."

Henry stood in the entrance to John Farrell's office, sharing a few words with the Red Sox manager and quietly observing the fountain of happiness spraying in all directions in front of him.

"Well," he would say on the field a few minutes later, while his players took their celebration to the stands with baptisms of bubbly, "it's hard not to be calm when you have a nine-game lead with eight to go. But it's been a long time. Last year was a difficult year."

How did it all change?

"Well, from the first day of spring training, despite what happened last year, you could tell everyone believed in themselves, believed in this team, among the players. Then they went out every day and did it.

"Last year, we had the second-highest payroll, but as Ben [Cherington] said, we weren't the team we wanted to be; they didn't do it on the field. This year every day we did it on the field. Tito [Terry Francona, the last Sox manager to take the franchise to the postseason] used to say if we had nine Dustin Pedroias, we'd be champions. This year, I felt like we had 25."

*******

It didn't take long, Jake Peavy was telling a TV interviewer on the field, for him to discover the depth of this team's belief in itself. The day he arrived in a trade-deadline deal from the White Sox in July, he encountered Gomes.

"I said, 'Hey, Jonny, how you doing?'" Peavy related. "He said, 'Just another day closer to the parade.' Those were the first words ever spoken to me in this clubhouse.

"Then I met Jarrod Saltalamacchia. We talked for a few minutes, and then he said, 'We're going to the World Series. Push 'play,' pal. If you want to come along, push 'play.'"

Gomes, who spent part of his night place-kicking cans of beer into the stands, described the first meeting Farrell conducted with the full squad in spring training.

"He's the captain of our ship, who are you without a captain?" he said. "From jump street, when he had the meeting, 60-plus guys in spring training, we got the message right away. We just nodded our head and got to work."

What was the message?

"Win."

*******

On the mound, an hour after the game, Uehara and fellow Japanese reliever Junichi Tazawa giddily posed for pictures taken by Mikio Yoshimura, the Japanese media liaison. Nearby, catcher David Ross rattled off the names of the great closers he has caught -- Craig Kimbrel and Eric Gagne and Billy Wagner and Trevor Hoffman -- and how Uehara belongs in their company.

[+] EnlargeKoji Uehara
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesKoji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa soaked in the happy atmosphere of the Red Sox clubhouse.

The surprise came from Drake Britton, the young rookie from Tomball, Texas, who like the other Sox relievers leaped the bullpen railing and charged toward the mosh pit that had formed on the mound. Britton is 24 years old. Asked what he would tell his as-yet unborn children and grandchildren about Uehara, he said:

"Coolest person I've ever met in my life. Unbelievable teammate. Unbelievable human being. Just awesome."

This was only the second time since Uehara came to the majors five seasons ago that he has been asked to register five outs in a relief appearance. The other came three years ago, for the Orioles. It was just another notch in what has been a season-saving performance by the 38-year-old accidental closer, who carried the Sox after closers Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey fell to season-ending injuries.

"He's not done, man," Dempster said. "He's got a long way to go. What we did in the regular season is great, it's awesome. We won our division but we have to try to get the best record. We have to try and win ballgames, and once the postseason begins, we've got 11 ballgames to win without getting knocked out. We're going to fight our hardest to do it."

*******

Lucchino had said this was never about bringing together the "coolest kids in the class."

What, then, was it that made this group so special?

"It's very hard to say," he said. "It's a collection of great personalities. On the whole, there's also a lot of maturity on this team, a lot of leadership that comes from unlikely sources. So I'd say the looseness of a Dempster contributes, the fiery focus that Gomes contributes, to the maturity that John Farrell and his entire coaching staff brings. Just a blend of a lot of important characteristics.

"I think it's a validation of Ben. Absolutely. Last year was his rookie year as GM. I think he learned a lot from that and didn't miss a beat this year. The team he assembled was sensational. And I take great satisfaction in the blending of all the elements of the organization -- ownership, the business side, the baseball side. There was a kind of team feeling we had that maybe got lost along the way."

*******

Ah, there it was again: last year. A time of collective failure, a team that lost 93 games on the field, an organization that temporarily, at least, had lost its way. Purgatory?

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"I've never been in purgatory," said Lucchino, a devout Catholic, "but maybe a little worse."

So what was the defining element of this bunch that allowed it to get past last year?

"Blissful ignorance," said a grinning Breslow, who was reacquired from the Sox just in time to catch the tail end of last year's disaster.

"You bring in enough guys who weren't around and had strong enough identities and character and personalities, it doesn't matter where we've been. The only thing that was focused on is where we were going. Obviously, we're not done yet, but today represents a very big step.

"There are so many guys here who weren't there, I don't think the concentration was on how can we do something differently from last year, or how can we avoid what happened last year. It was more, 'Let's start from ground zero today and see what happens over the next six months.'

"I think we're done talking about last year."

*******

"This never gets old," said Werner, who unbuttoned a couple of buttons of his dress shirt to reveal the T-shirt he was wearing underneath. It was adorned with the defiant proclamation made by David Ortiz to a reeling city on an April afternoon worlds removed from the joy of this night. The day when the playing of a baseball game represented the restoration of life as we wished it to be again, absent the murderous bombs planted on a city street.

"It got a little dicey here for a minute in Boston," Gomes would say, "but again, just another chip to put on our shoulders. We wanted to carry the Red Sox and we definitely wanted the community to jump on board. We've got some strong backs on this team and we were happy to represent everybody in doing that."

On Friday night in the Fens, Ortiz appeared again in the center of the diamond, a microphone to his lips, a city in his hands.

"We've had a couple of years of struggle," Ortiz said. "We got to thank our owners for putting together a team like this to compete. These are the greatest owners in baseball, no doubt.

"Thank you for your support. We're going to try to go a long way."

Strap on your helmets. A great ride promises to get even better.

ESPNBoston.com intern Kyle Brasseur contributed to this story.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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