Sox aglow in whole new World Series

BOSTON -- Double-secret probation has been lifted. The slate has been wiped clean. Pardons for all, with maybe a few apologies thrown in for good measure.

Two years and one last-place finish later, the Boston Red Sox have come in from the cold.

Trust has been restored. Broken promises have been mended. No more managers exiled, owners eviscerated or unhappy clubhouses exorcised.

For the third time in 10 seasons, the Red Sox are going back to the World Series. A team that wasn't given a puncher's chance in spring raised triumphant fists in the air in autumn, having eliminated the Detroit Tigers, the defending American League champions, with one magnificent, straight-from-the-heels knockout punch -- Shane Victorino's grand slam in the seventh inning Saturday night, the difference-maker in Boston's 5-2 victory.

"The one thing that I like the most about this year, what makes it more special, is that nobody thought we were going to go this far," said David Ortiz, who has sported goggles for so many celebrations this October, he has become a Dominican Jacques Cousteau.

A September collapse in 2011 and 93 losses in 2012 disappeared with one push of the delete button, as the Red Sox dismissed the Tigers 4 games to 2. The victors beat the vanquished three times while leading in just seven innings: the ninth inning in Game 2, the last three innings in Game 5, the last three in Game 6.

"We weren't really thinking about it," said general manager Ben Cherington, who somehow remained dry in a clubhouse stuck in a permanent wash-and-rinse cycle of champagne, when asked to measure the improbability scale of this journey.

"But once we got into the season, saw this team come together, the personalities in this room, you stop getting surprised. Every time they were tested, they stepped up and met the test.

"They want to win, they want to win together, and they find a way to win together. Their reaction tonight is gratifying. They're happy about their accomplishment, celebrate tonight, but they all know there's still a little more work to do."

Never mind that a guy so distressed by his inability to hit that he couldn't decide from which side of the plate he should bat was the one who struck the decisive blow. In Game 5 in Detroit, Victorino suddenly hit left-handed, failed to get the ball out of the infield three times, then reverted to the right side. The only way he could get on base, it seemed, was to get hit by a pitch, something that had happened six times this postseason, including his previous at-bat the inning before.

Saturday night, Victorino hit back, launching an 0-and-2 curveball from Jose Veras into the Monster seats, a target that Jonny Gomes had missed moments earlier by inches, Gomes' ball striking the wall just south of home run territory.

"It's a money play," said Ortiz, who six days earlier had hit a grand slam that was a series shifter, saving the Sox from heading to Detroit down two games to none. "I don't care if he was 0-for-23, 0-for-whatever, it's a money play to come through at the right time, and he did. Now we forget about 0-for-23, whatever, everybody's starting at zero now."

For the record, Victorino was 2-for-23 in the ALCS until he made Veras rue the decision to throw him a third straight curveball in their seventh-inning rendezvous with destiny.

The Red Sox have a phrase to describe such an abrupt change in fortune, one that Gomes, his combat helmet becoming a permanent part of his wardrobe, was only too happy to share.

"Grind," he said. "Then shine."

Dustin Pedroia had taken advantage of grievous baserunning lapses by two Tigers -- Victor Martinez and Prince Fielder -- to turn a rally-suffocating double play just an inning before. He was on deck when Victorino, who had abandoned switch hitting since Sept. 3 other than Game 5's failed experiment because of a season-long bout with bad hamstrings, went deep for only the second time in the past seven weeks.

"I wanted to run around with them, I was so excited," Pedroia said. "I had a great view, just a great swing. [Veras has] a great curveball, and Vic just stayed back like that and drove it. It's unbelievable."

Against the Tigers, Victorino had hit the ball to the outfield just three times and in his second at-bat Saturday had botched a first-and-second, no-out bunt, popping up to pitcher Max Scherzer.

That should have been just cause for Marilia Nieves, the wife of the Red Sox's pitching coach, to rethink the prediction she had made to her husband that morning.

"My wife was telling me this morning, 'Victorino's going to be the hero, Victorino's going to be the hero,'" Juan Nieves said.

"He was the hero," Nieves said, voice rising. "My wife and I are going to Vegas."

For much of the night, the game was one extended stress test more strenuous than any they give at Mass General. The Sox left a pair of runners on in the first, another pair on in the third, a third pair on in the sixth.

The Tigers broke on top in the sixth after Farrell lifted starter Clay Buchholz, who clearly had hit the wall, for left-hander Franklin Morales, who loaded the bases by walking Fielder on four pitches, then gave up a two-run single to Martinez. For at least some of those booing in the crowd of 38,823 at Fenway Park, this was resurrecting the ghost of Darrell Johnson bringing in lefty Jim Burton in Game 7 of the 1975 World Series.

But then Pedroia made what was the decisive defensive play of the night, fielding Jhonny Peralta's grounder to second, tagging out Martinez for one out, then throwing home. Fielder stopped on his way home, then unsuccessful retreated, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia tagging him out as his belly flop landed short of third.

"I thought Fielder was going to head home right away, but I guess he stopped," Saltalamacchia said. "Victor is a good ballplayer, but I was surprised he ran into the tag. Pedey threw home, Prince never broke home, so I went out and tagged him."

Martinez should not have run into the tag. Fielder should never have stopped. But give Pedroia credit, too, for extraordinary presence of mind.

"Tremendous play, tremendous awareness," said Sox third-base coach Brian Butterfield, who doubles as the team's infield coach.

Instead of bursting the game open, the Tigers had set the groundwork for tapping out an inning later, set up shockingly when gifted shortstop Jose Iglesias botched what would have been an inning-ending double play just before Victorino came to bat.

Iglesias made two errors in the series, both leading directly to defeat. His ninth-inning throwing error in Game 2 allowed Gomes to take an extra base on his infield hit before Saltalamacchia's winning hit.

"He's going to be a great player, he really is," said Butterfield, who had spent endless hours working with Iglesias before he was traded away at the July deadline. "It was one of those things, him bobbling it. It looked like it stuck and stayed down when he's thinking it's going to bounce.

"He's going be in this league for many years and be a great shortstop for a long time."

On this night, those words surely applied, too, to Xander Bogaerts, the 21-year-old Sox shortstop of the future who three times worked the great Scherzer to a full count and three times reached base, walking twice and doubling, and scoring two runs.

"We saw a spark like this in 2007, when Jacoby Ellsbury came up in the postseason," Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino said. "Xander just has maturity and talent and poise, I can't say enough about him. He played like a veteran in very tense and important circumstances. It's a great process, it's great to watch the process of his maturation in front of our very eyes."

Four games in this series were decided by one run. Two games turned on grand slams hit in the seventh inning or later. There were epic pitching performances by starters on both sides, and one MVP-winning performance by Sox closer Koji Uehara, who had a win and three saves in the series.

"He's been our Mariano Rivera," Nieves said, "and I'm proud of him."

Surely, someone said to Cherington, it's fun to watch baseball played at this level.

"Grand slams are fun to watch," Cherington said. "The last three outs when Koji is on the mound, those are fun moments. Everything else is not fun."

But compared to the way things had ended the past two years?

"You know what?" said Sox chairman Tom Werner, who took more than his share of hits, including a few from manager-turned-author Terry Francona. "You've got to take your licks. I thought some of them were a bit over the top. We were the same people that not only brought two World Series here but a bunch of playoffs, too.

"There's one more hill to climb. Then we can say something."