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Spring's shortcomings long forgotten

BOSTON -- For unvarnished honesty, it would be hard to top David Ortiz's response Saturday night when asked if he knew from day one that the Boston Red Sox would be returning to the World Series for the third time in his 11 seasons with the team.

"Now I do," he said.

So do we all, even if the realization came belatedly to folks underwhelmed in the spring by a team that:

• Had changed managers (John Farrell replacing a fired Bobby Valentine);

• Traded away the two players expected to be foundational pieces for the rest of the decade (Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford);

• Overpaid the going rate for a slew of veterans either coming off down seasons (Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes) or close to turning back their odometers (Ryan Dempster, David Ross);

• Depended on a starting rotation with wildly uncertain prospects (Would Jon Lester bounce back? Did surgically repaired John Lackey have anything left?)

• Could only guess how much franchise player Ortiz would play after he missed all of spring training and the first two weeks of the season with a strained Achilles tendon that threatened to be problematic all season.

Your classic blueprint for success? It gets worse. The heartbeat of the team, Dustin Pedroia, tore a thumb ligament with an ill-advised head-first slide into first base on Opening Day in Yankee Stadium, an injury he was able to conceal for months. Joel Hanrahan, the newly imported closer who was supposed to paint over one of the team's biggest eyesores in 2012, blew out his elbow in May, followed in short order by season-ending injuries to closer candidates Andrew Bailey and Andrew Miller.

These were not only the times that try men's souls, they tend to wreak havoc with their win-loss records too. World Series? Seriously?

And yet here they were, splashing merrily through the man-made pools of champagne that are becoming part of the topography of the Red Sox's clubhouse, Saturday night's American League Championship Series-clinching party the third such celebration they have held in the past couple of weeks.

"All year long they've been a confident group," said Brian Butterfield, the third-base coach and master strategist of the myriad defensive shifts the Sox have employed this season. "They're a group you can trust. Even in this series, when things didn't look too positive, they responded. 'They're a rebound team. A big rebound team.'"

The Detroit Tigers, boxed out of a return trip to the World Series they so coveted after being swept by the San Francisco Giants last year, can attest to Boston's rebounding skills. The Tigers held the Red Sox hitless for 8 1/3 innings in Game 1. The next night, the hit total was two through seven innings, and the Tigers held a 5-0 lead and were a handful of outs away from returning to Detroit with a two-games-to-none lead and ace Justin Verlander on deck for Game 3.

Instead, Ortiz delivered the first of two grand slams that bookended this series, the other coming off the bat of Shane Victorino in Game 6 just when the high-anxiety outfielder was fretting about how he would explain the bunt he'd blown two at-bats earlier, a failure he feared had doomed the team to defeat.

Talk about taking yourself off the hook. That might explain Victorino's wild dance around the bases after he connected, when he did everything but twerk on his way to the plate. Afterward, he was a little abashed by his display of chest-pounding abandon, saying he meant the Tigers no disrespect.

"And I hope they understand it was a special moment for me, for the city," Victorino said.

Victorino need not have apologized, certainly not to Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who after 50 years in the game can recognize undiluted joy when he sees it.

"I want to congratulate the Boston Red Sox, John Farrell, Ben Cherington, the players," the 68-year-old Leyland said Saturday night. "They deserve to win, they beat us. And I wish them the best."

Something that was overshadowed by Victorino's grand slam did not go unnoticed in the Red Sox's clubhouse. Shortstop Stephen Drew had a miserable time at the plate in the ALCS, managing one hit in 20 at-bats and striking out 10 times. Including the division series against the Tampa Bay Rays, the numbers don't get much better: 3-for-35, an .086 average, with a dozen strikeouts and one walk.

The only Boston player regarded with greater disdain Saturday night by the local legions was left-handed reliever Franklin Morales, who was called upon by Farrell to bail out starter Clay Buchholz in the sixth and instead walked Prince Fielder on four pitches and gave up a two-run single to Victor Martinez.

Yet, in the seventh, with two on and the Tigers threatening to widen their 2-1 advantage, Drew laid out to make a diving stop of Miguel Cabrera's grounder up the middle, then scrambled to his feet to throw out the physically hindered Cabrera to end the inning. Farrell had patiently explained all along that while he recognized Drew's struggles at the plate, his defense kept him in the lineup.

"I told Stephen today," Butterfield said, "that if we didn't have him during this series I'd be home in my recliner in Maine right now. He's made some plays, starting double plays, that a lot of guys can't do because he attacks the ball. He's taken care of the rock."

And so the Red Sox found themselves on Sunday, not with an appointment to duel again with Verlander in Game 7, but with a day to rest, much to the relief of everybody in a Sox uniform. Even Pedroia, who tends to treat every challenge, regardless of how daunting, as just another day at the office, acknowledged the ALCS was "stressful."

The World Series begins Wednesday night. The Cardinals won it all in 2011 and 2006. The Sox won it all in 2007 and 2004, and have won the last eight Series games they have played, including a four-game sweep of the Cardinals in 2004.

Ready or not?

"Oh yeah," Ortiz said. "Let's start it off tomorrow."

ESPNBoston.com's Kyle Brasseur contributed to this report.