BOSTON -- After the Red Sox completed batting practice Friday evening at Fenway Park, the club's veteran designated hitter, David Ortiz, stood near the dugout and signed autographs. A young fan stood nearby with a sign that read: "World Series in 2004. World Series in 2007. Hey, Papi, what do you think about 2013?"
It's easy to be excited about this team, especially compared to the disastrous 2012 season, one of the worst in franchise history. There's a lot to like about the 2013 club, including the fact that the Red Sox are in first place in the highly competitive American League East with a 66-45 record. In fact, Boston's 66 wins are the most in the majors, and even with Friday's 7-6 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Sox are 21 games over .500. Plus, manager John Farrell and the players seem to have a strong bond inside the clubhouse, and that has translated onto the field.
It's eerily similar to 2004 and 2007, only with a different cast of characters.
"We have a lot of guys that want to make something happen to win games every day," Ortiz said. "That was exactly what we had in 2004 and 2007."
During those two World Series runs, Ortiz and Manny Ramirez provided the offensive power in the middle of the batting order, but each player in the lineup contributed to help the Red Sox win games. This season is no different.
"Confidence is huge," Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "Right now this team, and it started in spring training, we've felt that confidence. If we lose a game, no one is worried because we know we're good. We know we're going to win."
There are no easy outs against this Red Sox lineup. The club has recorded 11 walk-off wins this season, including a dramatic 8-7 come-from-behind victory against the Seattle Mariners on Thursday night at Fenway Park. Trailing 7-2 in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Red Sox scored six runs en route to victory. It was the team's second consecutive walk-off win.
"You have to focus on everybody because everybody who's going to the box is trying to get the job done," Ortiz said. "We have guys not starting the games and then coming in and giving you some great at-bats or playing some great defense, or the guys in the bullpen doing a hell of a job. It's a lot of good things going on at once."
At this point last season under then-manager Bobby Valentine, the Red Sox were 53-53 but finished the month with a 9-20 record. The demise continued until the Red Sox finished the regular season with a 69-93 mark. Now, Boston is only three victories shy of matching last year's full-season win mark.
"We had one good month last year. It was after that famous meeting we had as players. It was April to the end of May we played really well. Then after that, everything went south," Ortiz said.
After general manager Ben Cherington fired Valentine at the end of the season, the Red Sox acquired Farrell via trade with the Toronto Blue Jays and the resurrection project began. With a strong core already in place, Cherington and Farrell complemented it with character players, signiing the likes of Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, Ryan Dempster, David Ross, Shane Victorino and Stephen Drew. Farrell also chose his coaching staff carefully, naming Torey Lovullo bench coach, Brian Butterfield third-base coach, Arnie Beyeler first-base coach, Juan Nieves pitching coach, Greg Colbrunn hitting coach, Victor Rodriguez assistant hitting coach and Dana LeVangie bullpen coach. The club's lack of internal communication was its downfall in 2012, but does not seem to be an issue this season.
"There's no bulls--- going on around here," Ortiz said. "Everything is cool. Our manager is doing a great job, and it's been amazing, to be honest with you. Right now it's not like anybody's under any pressure. Everybody is pretty much playing decent ball, and we know we're in a tough division against teams that are playing really well. We're going to try to quietly sneak in."
"It starts at the top and works down," said Saltalamacchia. "The coaching staff is different. [Butterfield] has done a lot of good things with the infielders. I think John being back helps the pitchers have some confidence and he has confidence in them. Pitchers want to know that the manager and everybody has their back, so they're pitching with confidence and we're putting ourselves in positions to win from the get-go.
"Having some chemistry helps as well. Having guys like Jonny, and Nap and Demp, and adding Jake [Peavy] obviously is a big boost, too. A mixture of all that is what makes a difference."
Any manager in baseball will say there comes a certain point in a season when he realizes what type of team he has and its potential. For Farrell, that came on Day 1 of spring training.
"You go through stages, and as different challenges present themselves and we meet them, that kind of continues to grow," Farrell said. "I think we go back to spring training. Internally, we all felt like we had a pretty good group. I don't know that I'm there yet. I don't know that I'm there to say that this is a team that's going to be capable of this or this exact end result. We've got a long way to go yet."
Former Red Sox outfielder Cody Ross, who spent only one season with Boston in 2012, signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks during the offseason. The Diamondbacks are in town for a three-game set, and Ross said he's amazed by the transformation in Boston under Farrell.
"It's crazy to think about it," Ross said. "Obviously they had to answer a ton of questions about it this offseason. Every question somebody starts off with, the first word out of their mouth is a couple of words: 'How was Bobby?' I'm kind of tired answering those questions, but just being a part of how that went down [in 2012] and see and hear how it is now, it's night and day."
Ross admitted 2012 was the most difficult season of his career.
"Yeah, absolutely," he said. "Any time you have a losing season like that, it's not fun. We wanted to win. Going into the 2012 season, on paper we looked like we were pretty good. That's why you play 162; you never know what's going to happen. Obviously, we were bitten by the injury bug and there was a lot of drama surrounding the whole team. It was definitely a tough, tough time but something that we all learned from. Hopefully it made us better people and players. Wouldn't trade it for anything. Obviously we wanted to win, but those kinds of things can make you stronger. It's obviously made them stronger."
Red Sox veteran Dustin Pedroia has been a leader since he became the club's full-time second baseman in 2007. The Sox have not earned a postseason berth since 2009, and that bothers Pedroia. In 2011, Boston was considered the odds-on favorite to win the World Series until the club's September implosion. The Sox went 7-20 in the final month and missed the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. After the dreadful 2012 season, Pedroia is sick of losing.
And even though his team currently has the best record in the majors, he is not taking anything for granted and doesn't even like to discuss the team's success.
"We've got to keep going because we've got a long way to go," Pedroia said. "Right now we've put ourselves in a position to make a run, and that's good. A lot of guys have done some special things. We've got to keep it going. We've got to keep working and keep trying to get better and hopefully hit our stride toward the end of the year. Lately, we've been playing really well, and we need to find a way to continue to do that."