Worst to first: Sox clinch first AL East title since '07
Boston completes remarkable turnaround behind Lester's stellar start
By Jason Mastrodonato / 9/21/2013 1:04 AM ET
BOSTON -- Plastic tarp covered everything of value inside the Red Sox clubhouse. Crushed cans and corks littered the rug. Family members and friends tried to hide from the seemingly endless drops of raining champagne. Daniel Nava raced to his locker to hide a now empty bottle.
It was a souvenir kind of night. The Red Sox had won the American League East.
In a storybook season, the Red Sox reached Destination No. 1 in storybook fashion during Friday night's 6-3 win over the Blue Jays.
Jon Lester continued his rebound season with his 13th start of at least seven innings while allowing two runs or fewer. The offense used its ultra-patient approach to knock out the starting pitcher before the fifth inning for the 39th time, tied for most in the Majors in 2013. And John Farrell pulled the right strings in the bullpen again, as he became the seventh manager in Red Sox history to lead the team to the playoffs in his first year at the helm.
"They have a great team over there, they really do," said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. "They ran away with a good division. It's not even close right now."
From fifth place to first place, the Red Sox -- who won their first AL East crown since 2007 -- became the second AL team since 1994 to win a division title after occupying the cellar the previous year.
"The biggest thing is," Lester began to say before Andrew Bailey emptied a bottle of champagne on his face, "God, that's cold. We don't give up."
Pitching coach Juan Nieves had to team up with Farrell to convince Lester that he shouldn't go back to the mound for the eighth. Lester had already thrown 123 pitches.
"I wanted to finish the game, but obviously that didn't work out," Lester said. "I've never been able to be on the mound in a game like this. To be there in the end and have everybody dogpile you; I'm a little disappointed I only went seven."
What became such a frequent event during the worst season of his career a year ago hasn't occurred quite as often in 2013. But Lester's anger and frustration is never hidden when the going gets rough, and it wasn't in the fourth inning Friday, when Lester loaded the bases with nobody out.
The infield came in and a ground ball was needed. The big lefty obliged, inducing a groundout to third baseman Will Middlebrooks. Middlebrooks has been in rare form himself lately, having started the season with high expectations after a strong rookie showing in 2012, but forced back to the Minors due to poor play and an unforgiving personality. After finding balance and regaining confidence, Middlebrooks, who later made a diving stop, returned with a renewed purpose, and his defensive play has been at the forefront. As he fielded the ground ball running to his right, he stepped on third base for the force and threw home for the eventual double play. Lester then struck out J.P. Arencibia to end the inning.
"These guys are unbelievable," Nieves said of Lester and the pitching staff. "They have seen death in their own eyes. It's no big deal now. It's no big deal. I think when you've seen the worst, you expect the best after that."
At 109 pitches through six, Lester demanded to be sent back to the mound to start the seventh. One, two, three the Jays went. Lester struck out Jose Reyes to an eruption of noise and a standing ovation. It marked his ninth straight quality start. He has a 1.80 ERA in that span.
"Just getting back to being me," Lester said.
Dustin Pedroia, who could be in a Boston uniform through 2021 after signing a contract extension midseason, hit a leadoff double that led to him scoring the Red Sox's first run on a wild pitch.
In the third it was Nava, the former equipment manager for his college team, purchased by the Red Sox for $1 and made an everyday player this season. Nava roped his 29th double, this one off the Green Monster, to start the inning. He scored when Mike Carp, who has an OPS more than 300 points higher than the one he posted with the Mariners last year, drew a bases-loaded walk.
Back on the attack in the seventh, the Red Sox strung together four straight hits to start the inning. Carp cashed in two on a two-out single and Boston took a 5-1 lead.
With the intensity increasing at Fenway Park and not an empty seat to be found, Koji Uehara was called upon for a five-out save.
Uehara, the lightning rod of a closer whose energy and emotion alone are often worth the price of admission, finished the eighth by striking out Arencibia on three pitches.
Then he worked a scoreless ninth yet again. He high-fived and celebrated.
For once, the entire team joined him.
General manager Ben Cherington, who replaced Theo Epstein two years ago and has helped complete a branding evolution, sat quietly in the dugout, his hands folded and a "WE OWN THE EAST" T-shirt pulled over his professional attire.
"Just proud of this group," he said. "But we're not done; we're going to keep playing."
The Red Sox are hoping destiny has two parts to this season, with a World Series title still hanging on top of the to-do list. Even as they clinched the AL East title for just the second time in 18 years, guaranteeing that they'll avoid the dangerous one-game Wild Card playoff, destiny has yet to be fulfilled.
Soon after the celebration, the grounds crew was back watering the field. The cans and corks had been disposed of. The sticky tarp was taken down off the lockers and piled on the floor, almost reaching the 101-year-old ceiling.
There's baseball to be played Saturday. And more in October.