October has always symbolized one thing for me: the return of hockey. This year though, a change is apparent. Instead of completely engrossing myself with previews of the upcoming NHL season, circling dates on the calendar of “must watch” games, I am waiting for October baseball to begin at Fenway!
The Red Sox’ turnaround this season has been one of epic proportions — going from worst to first and improving their win total by twenty-eight games. Now, co-owners of the best record in baseball, they are kings of the AL East.
As we head into the playoffs for the first time since 2009, I recalled storylines from spring training that foreshadowed how the season played out:
1. Jon Lester
ST: After his final start of the spring, Jon Lester addressed the changes he had implemented in the offseason. Utilizing his frame more and eliminating bad habits from the past season, Lester spoke with such confidence, clarity and calmness regarding his game.
It translated this season. Lester hit a few potholes along the way, but has been lights-out since the All Star break, going 7-2 in his final 13 starts with a 2.57 ERA. Earning him the start in Game 1 of the ALDS, he allowed just 2 runs on three hits in 7 2/3 innings en route to a 12-2 win over the Rays.
2. John Lackey’s Return
ST: Questions surrounded John Lackey after he was forced to miss an entire season due to Tommy John surgery. As I sat with Juan Nieves and watched Lackey pitch in a rehab start, the Sox pitching coach explained each pitch in detail, then proclaimed, “Lackey is back.”
Lackey has been Boston’s most consistent starter this year, pitching his best at Fenway, with a 2.47 ERA and 1.03 WHIP. Therefore, the righty was handed the ball for Game 2 vs. reigning Cy Young winner David Price.
3. Mike Napoli
ST: In the spring, there were doubts newcomer Mike Napoli could endure the grind of a 162-game season after being diagnosed with a degenerative hip condition, avascular necrosis.
Sitting with his feet up facing his stall — with no facial hair at that point — the Sox slugger spoke of his transition to first base and how he wanted to be more consistent at the plate stating, “I get high but then I get low … I’m streaky.”
Napoli didn’t miss a single game due to his hip, playing in 139 games, while ending the season on a high note at the dish. After a hot start, Napoli struggled from June to August, but sizzled in September hitting .333 (6 HR, 16 RBI).
4. The Boys
ST: Several new faces were in the Sox lineup and it was evident even then that the likes of Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes and David Ross changed the scope of the room. This gave me pause; I wasn’t the only newcomer at spring training. Hearing me speak, Dempster recognized I was Canadian and spent time discussing our mutual homeland. Gomes gave me a fist pump for a packing tip. Ross broke down the strength of Clay Buchholz to get me set for my first Sox sideline broadcast. Shane Victorino handed me sunscreen when he noticed after an interview that my foot was burnt. Coach Brian Butterfield chatted with me in the dugout about the Toronto days and how I was liking Boston.
Subtle changes throughout the season have resulted in a strong Sox presence this postseason that means only one thing –October at Fenway!!