A special Red Sox team tops Tigers in ALCS, heads for World Series

BOSTON -- Way back before anyone else believed, the Red Sox did.

Way back when everyone else was still talking about character guys and the remnants of the short but shockingly bad Bobby Valentine era, the Red Sox already had thoughts of a night like this, and a week like the one to come.

"I thought from the first day of spring training on that they felt they had a chance to do something special," manager John Farrell said when September began.

It's mid-October now, and the Red Sox have done something special, with every chance that there's something even more special to come.

They're in the World Series now, in it after a dramatic 5-2 win over the Tigers in Saturday night's Game 6, and after a fantastic American League Championship Series in which the Tigers had plenty of superb starting pitching, but the Red Sox had so much else.

Farrell's first season will end with a World Series against the Cardinals, just as Terry Francona's first Red Sox season did nine years ago. And even if this World Series won't be about busting a curse, it will be about making the turnaround from 2012's 93-loss disaster fully complete.

"It's a different flavor of ice cream, but it tastes as good," Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said, as his team and this city celebrated. "[Principal owner] John Henry and I were talking about how good it feels this year, just because of how far we've come and the skepticism."

The Red Sox have come far. They were the best team in the American League this year, and they were the best team in this ALCS, no matter how few hits they got, no matter how many times they struck out and no matter how great the Tiger starting pitchers looked.

The four Tiger starters had a 2.06 ERA in the series. The Red Sox batted .202 as a team and struck out 73 times in six games.

Still the Red Sox owned the ALCS, and rightfully so.

The story of Game 6 was the story of the series, with Tigers starter Max Scherzer outpitching Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz, but with the Red Sox dominating the rest of the game. The Tigers made enough mistakes to keep it close, and Shane Victorino put the Red Sox on top with their second dramatic grand slam of the series.

Victorino's slam, in the seventh inning off Jose Veras, just cleared the wall in left field and set off a Fenway Park celebration. All that remained was for Craig Breslow and Koji Uehara to get the final outs, the last one coming just a minute after midnight and setting off a celebration that lasted deep into the night.

It was a celebration for a team that believed, but also for a city that has been through plenty. The Red Sox were part of Boston's recovery from the Marathon bombing in April, and after the American League championship trophy was presented, Fox's Erin Andrews invited David Ortiz to repeat his words from the day baseball returned to a still-grieving city.

"I just want to say one thing," Ortiz told the Fenway crowd. "This is our -- bleeeeep -- city!"

They loved it every bit as much as they did in April, when Ortiz left out the bleep.

Back then, the Red Sox were not even three weeks into the season that would become special, already off to a good start (12-4), but yet to convince anyone outside their clubhouse that they could go on to do something like this.

Even Lucchino didn't start to truly believe until the end of April, he said. Before that, he was just hoping that 2013 would be "a big step in the right direction."

The Red Sox players expected more, and they expected it a lot earlier.

"To me, when it got special was Day 1 of spring training," Victorino said. "We came in with the mindset that we're all going to go out and give it our best. Take one at-bat at a time, one pitch at a time, one game at a time from spring training. And it's continued."

It continued, right through the ALCS and right through Game 6.

The Red Sox trailed in this one with eight outs to go, and even though they weren't facing elimination, they were facing a Game 7 meeting with Justin Verlander. Scherzer was still in the game, and through six innings the Red Sox once again had far more strikeouts (seven) than hits (three).

But the Tigers hadn't made the most of their chances, and it was still a one-run game. When Jonny Gomes led off the seventh with a double off the wall, the Red Sox had an opening. When 21-year-old Xander Bogaerts walked on a 3-2 Scherzer pitch that easily could have been called strike three (probably should have been), the Red Sox had a break.

They got another break when Tiger shortstop Jose Iglesias booted a Jacoby Ellsbury ground ball. Tiger manager Jim Leyland thought Iglesias would have had a shot at an inning-ending double play, but with the speedy Ellsbury running, it would have been tough.

Victorino followed, batting right-handed against the right-hander Veras, as he has done almost exclusively the last few weeks. Victorino was having a horrible series, with two hits in 23 at-bats, and Veras got ahead of him with two curveballs for strikes.

But Victorino was able to lift the third curveball in the air to left. Stephen Drew, sitting in the dugout after his 10th strikeout of the series, just hoped that it had enough to bang off the wall.

"I knew we needed two runs to go ahead," Drew said. "And with Bres and Koji, that could have been enough."

They got four, just as they had on Ortiz's series-altering grand slam in Game 2, another Scherzer start. Breslow and Uehara had no trouble making it stand up, just as they had done the whole series.

Uehara saved three of the Red Sox wins and was credited with the other one. He didn't allow a run in six innings, and was named the ALCS MVP.

Having him as closer wasn't part of the plan back in spring training, or even in April or May. Not everything the Red Sox accomplished this year was according to plan.

But they did believe, right from the start. They believed in each other, they believed in their new manager and they believed that they could be right where they are now, about to play in a World Series.

"We knew we had something special when we got to spring training," Drew said. "There was something about it."

They kept it going through a 97-win season, and they kept it going through a closely-fought ALCS.

The Red Sox were the AL's best team all year, and also this week.

They're the ones going to the World Series, the ones who could make this year special.

Just as they always believed they could.

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