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How the Red Sox clinched the AL East

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For the longest time, John Farrell couldn't bring himself to utter the word.

He must have thought about it over these past few weeks, as the wins piled up and the division lead widened. But say it out loud? In front of the media? No, there wasn't much chance of those two syllables -- "playoffs" -- rolling off the tongue of the ever superstitious Boston Red Sox manager.

Now, at last, Farrell can go there and take it even one step further. Say it with us: Division champs.

The Red Sox clinched the American League East crown Wednesday night despite a stunning late loss to the Yankees thanks to the Baltimore Orioles beating the Toronto Blue Jays. It is the Red Sox's second title in Farrell's four seasons at the helm. But it also represents a return to the playoffs after back-to-back last-place finishes that cost a general manager (Ben Cherington) his job and nearly forced Farrell out the door, too.

Six months ago, when the season began, FiveThirtyEight.com gave the Red Sox only a 25 percent chance of winning the AL East. So, how did they do it? How was the East won?

Here are five developments that allowed the Red Sox to overtake both the Baltimore Orioles and the Toronto Blue Jays and pull away:

1. They tamed a bear of a second-half schedule

Say this for the Red Sox's road to October: It covered a lot of ground.

On July 28, the Sox began a stretch of 31 road games in 46 days. They made two trips to the West Coast, and over a five-day period in mid-August, played five games in four cities in a span of about 96 hours.

The schedule was brutal. But rather than complain, the Red Sox used it to bring them together. After games, it wasn't unusual for groups of players to hang out together in someone's hotel room.

"You spend a lot of time together," ace lefty David Price said. "When you get back from games, you go back and hang out, play video games or do whatever you want to do. It's a team. To be able to win on the road is always fun. To go into good environments and see that crowd leave in the seventh or eighth inning and quieting the crowd late in games, that's a very good feeling."

It became familiar, too. From July 28, when they opened a four-game series at Angel Stadium, through a come-from-behind victory Sept. 11 in Toronto, the Red Sox went 25-18 and moved from 2½ games off the pace in the AL East to a two-game lead they never relinquished.

"I think it was just coming in and playing the game," said right fielder Mookie Betts, an AL MVP candidate. "We don't have any excuses. It was just showing up every day at the yard ready to play, and it showed through."

2. They embraced pitching analytics

Brian Bannister is a former major league pitcher. But he also understands numbers as well as Will Hunting. And with Red Sox pitching often getting lit up like the sky on the Fourth of July, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski on July 5 directed Bannister to take his head out of his computer for a few hours each day, put on a uniform and assist pitching coach Carl Willis before games.

The Red Sox had a 3.50 team ERA and 1.18 WHIP with Bannister on the coaching staff. In the previous 82 games, they had a 4.48 ERA and 1.35 WHIP.

Coincidence?

"No, that's why they hired him," right-hander Clay Buchholz said. "He knows what he's talking about. The game of baseball has changed a lot over the last five years. All the Statcast stuff and sabermetrics, you get to view it from a different angle. He knows and understands that, and he can relay to us. It just opens other doors that you didn't even know were there."

Bannister hasn't forced analytics on any pitchers. Rather, he simply has served as an additional resource, making suggestions based on observations and supported by statistical data.

Price had a long talk with Bannister before the All-Star break and has since seen his ERA drop from 4.64 to 4.04 after start against the Yankees on Tuesday night. Bannister helped Buchholz correct a significant drop in his release point that had gradually set in over the past few years. Left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez also has benefited from Bannister's input.

"Numbers don't lie. He's speaking the truth," Price said. "If you're up to listening to that and you can handle that, then it's going to help you out. He's easy to talk to. He doesn't overstep anything. And if you don't want to talk to him, he won't talk to you. If you want to hear what he has to say, he's going to show you everything that's going to make you better. It's definitely appreciated."

3. In doling out playing time, the Red Sox put merit over money

It began in spring training, when upstart Travis Shaw beat out $95 million man Pablo Sandoval to be the Opening Day third baseman. And it continued through the season, with the designation for assignment of $72.5 million outfield bust Rusney Castillo, Buchholz's temporary banishment to the bullpen, and the willingness to make out-of-nowhere success story Sandy Leon the primary catcher.

On a roster built by Dombrowski and managed by Farrell, playing time was allocated based on performance, not contract status.

That represented a slight shift from previous years when Farrell and the organization gave a much longer rope to struggling veterans (Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino in 2015, for instance) rather than simply sticking with players who were thriving.

Players might not have always liked the new approach, but they respected it. To wit: When Buchholz was relegated to the bullpen, he said he blamed only himself for not pitching better.

4. Dombrowski's in-season moves were proactive, not reactive

The trade deadline was Aug. 1, but Dombrowski didn't care to wait around. From July 7-14, he made three deals in eight days to address needs on the bench (righty-hitting infielder Aaron Hill), in the bullpen (right-handed submariner Brad Ziegler) and at the back of the rotation (lefty Drew Pomeranz).

Dombrowski likely overpaid for Pomeranz, sending touted Single-A pitching prospect Anderson Espinoza to the San Diego Padres. But by being so decisive, he also sent a clear message that the Red Sox were going for it in David Ortiz's final season. The expectation, in the words of shortstop Xander Bogaerts, was to "win, win, win, win, win more -- right now."

"Dave doesn't play around," Ortiz said. "He goes for what he needs."

5. They never, ever stopped hitting

Strip away everything else and this is what's left: The Red Sox outscored every other team in the majors -- and it wasn't even close.

The Sox had scored 861 runs, nearly 14 percent better than the AL Central-leading Cleveland Indians, who ranked second in the league with 761 runs. It's no wonder they had a plus-188 run differential, best in the AL and second in the majors to only the juggernaut Chicago Cubs (plus-248).

For the first time since 2003, the Sox have five players with at least 20 home runs (Ortiz, Betts, Hanley Ramirez, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Bogaerts). But unlike, say, the Orioles, they don't live and die by the home run. Instead, the Red Sox built their offense around on-base percentage and doubles, leading the majors in both categories, and an ultra-aggressive baserunning approach of taking an extra 90 feet whenever possible.

"The guys swinging the bat are relentless," Bradley said, echoing a word used often by Farrell. "It just goes to every person buying in, sticking with their approach and trying to be a tough out."

There isn't a lineup filled with tougher ones, which is why, more than anything, the Red Sox won the East.