Two years later: Retooled Sox return to Baltimore

Two years later: Retooled Sox return to Baltimore
September 26, 2013, 12:00 pm
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BALTIMORE -- Almost exactly two years ago this week, in the very city in which they will end another regular season, the Red Sox had every reason to believe they had bottomed out as a franchise.
      
After building the best record in the American League, the Sox went into a terrible freefall in September, winning just seven of their last 27 games. In the final inning, on the final night of the season, the Sox lost to the last-place Baltimore Orioles, and minutes later, when the Tampa Bay Rays finished off a comeback against the New York Yankees, the Red Sox were eliminated from the post-season.
      
Ben Cherington, then the team's assistant general manager, recalls leaving Camden Yards that night, knowing that there would be fallout for what had just transpired.
      
The team had experienced a glorious run. From 2003 through the end of 2011, the club had won 90 or more games seven times, reached the ALCS four times, and won two championships while selling out every ticket to every game, season after season.
      
But Sept. 28, 2011 marked, depending on your vantage point, as the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end. And some got that sense within hours of that stinging loss.
      
"I remember feeling the weight of those cumulative expectations over a number of years, sort of building into that September," said Cherington recently. "And the way it ended, it seemed to be weighing a lot on a lot of different people. I remember thinking, more than the disappointment of going 7-20 and missing the playoffs, what does that mean to this organization that I've been part of for so long? What does that mean?
      
"When things don't happen the way you want them to happen, there are threats that come with that and sometimes consequences that come with that. That's what I remember thinking: what we had been a part of for so long was all of a sudden not something you could take for granted."
      
But not even Cherington could have known the turmoil the franchise was about to undertake.
      
* Manager Terry Francona was fired two days later, touching a bitter and contentious exit with a war of words between the manager and ownership that remains raw to this day.
      
* General manager Theo Epstein would leave the Sox to become president of the Chicago Cubs, without much resistance from Red Sox ownership.
      
* It would soon be revealed that many of the team's pitchers spent part of the season drinking beer, eating fried chicken and playing video games in the clubouse while games were in progress.
      
* The team would make the colossal mistake of hiring Bobby Valentine to manage the team in 2012, resulting in a fractured clubhouse, declining morale and the worst won-loss record since 1966.
      
What seemed like a bottoming out that late September night was actually just the beginning of the unraveling that would last more than a year.
      
The team finished last in 2012, losing 93 games. The disappointing first half of the season led to some serious introspection. The Sox determined that the big-name, bigger-ticket players it had lusted over for the last few years were not, in fact, the answer.
      
Instead, they were more closely identified as the problem. So the Red Sox shipped off three overpaid and underperforming stars to the Los Angeles Dodgers, absorbed on-field beatings for the final five weeks and hit the re-set button with yet another managerial change.
      
"We had come to grips with the fact that this was not who we wanted to be," said Cherington succinctly.
      
Think of Sept. 28, 2011, then, as a pivot point for the franchise.
      
"I think that we knew," said Cherington, "everyone knew - ownership, Tito, Theo -- at some point there was going to be a transition. People don't stay in those particular jobs, in this particular market forever. We didn't know when it was going to be. And I don't think anyone expected -- or wanted - it to be all at once.
      
"That was what was unexpected. Honestly, in the best organizations, that doesn't happen all at once. The best organizations are ones that have a plan ahead for how they're going to handle the transitions. The change of the both positions (manager and GM) at once, on the heels of the great disappointment (of the final month), was traumatic for the organization. It wasn't any one person's responsibility. It was a collective failure to get to that point and events transpired that led to Theo and Tito leaving.
      
"But as we look forward, no organization wants to face that amount of trauma all at once."
      
But perhaps it was time. Francona realized that after eight mostly successful seasons, he had lost the clubhouse, or Epstein, who had clashed philosophically at times with ownership, wanted a new challenge.
      
Now two years later -- almost to the day -- the Red Sox return as remade and re-imagined franchise, a win or two away from clinching the best record in baseball, setting themselves up for potentially another deep run into October.
      
The same franchise which watched the Orioles taunt them then, returns in triumph now.
      
Much of the credit belongs to Cherington, who resisted top tier free agents and instead opted for a handful of mid-level free agents, all of whom have, to varying degrees, flourished in their first season in Boston: Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes and Koji Uehara.
      
The farm system, which had grown stagnant for a while, begin to yield top prospects again, starting with -- but not limited to -- Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts.
      
First-year manager John Farrell has instilled order in the clubhouse, securing the respect of returning and new players early in spring training. Together with pitching coach Juan Nieves, Farrell has also overseen a return to form for Jon Lester and John Lackey. Last year, with Lackey sidelined following Tommy John surgery, the Sox got nine wins from Lester. This season, the two have combined for 25.
      
Cherington resisted the temptation to blow up the team and start from the bottom. He could have dealt Lester, but didn't. He could have walked away from David Ortiz, who suffered a serious injury and missed most of the final two months, but didn't.
      
"We still saw a bright future," said Cherington. "But it was muddy there for a while."
      
In retrospect, the pain and disappointment that came from Carl Crawford not being able to catch Robert Andino's sinking liner is still "very vivid" according to Cherington.
      
"It still feels pretty recent," he said. "Then again, a ton has happened since then, with a lot of ups and downs."
      
Returning to Baltimore this weekend, at the end of another season, to the place where the bottoming out began, the Red Sox can see how far they've come.