Victorino's ALCS-clinching slam adds another chapter to Fenway lore
BOSTON -- The Green Monster wears its dents proudly, baseball-sized imprints dotting its expansive surface, a game-altering presence extending for 8,436 fair-territory square feet. That character-ridden left field wall has witnessed all six World Series titles the Red Sox have won since moving into Fenway Park in 1912. It nearly prevented a return trip in 2013 before ultimately relenting to Shane Victorino, whose seventh inning grand slam propelled the Sox over Detroit in Game 6, 5-2, and into a showdown with the Cardinals starting Wednesday night.
Boston's Xander Bogaerts and Jonny Gomes began Saturday's assault on Fenway's storied wall with hits off Tigers starter Max Scherzer that hit the 37th (and top) foot of the Monster's height. Bogaerts hit his to the deepest quadrant in left-centerfield, almost all the way down the wall's 228 feet of length, while Gomes pulled his to straight-away left, but both would-be home runs became doubles. Those baseballs undoubtedly left souvenir craters, and another blast from Dustin Pedroia sailed far over the Monster but inches foul, so close that the ball's shadow was clearly visible on the pole.
Those pitches were all crushed, but the left field flyball that'll be most remembered was the one softly arced into the first row off the bat of Victorino. The seventh-inning shot turned a 2-1 deficit into a 5-2 lead and sent the Red Sox back to the Fall Classic in search of their third championship in the last decade and eighth overall.
"We're not going to stop," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "We know what our goal is, and that's to win the World Series."
In only one year the Red Sox rebuilt their roster, churning over more than half of it in an enhanced worst-to-first turnaround. They not only ascended the standings from fifth place to an AL pennant but also overhauled a clubhouse noted for its purported toxicity last year to one hailed for its overwhelming camaraderie this season.
Unless you're the Cardinals, the Sox's World Series opponent that boasts an unmatched player development machine, ball clubs must mix and match equal parts homegrown players and external additions, which Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington did deftly this offseason. That work was on full display Saturday night with the crucial contributions of a veteran interloper and a promising prospect, Victorino and Bogaerts.
Victorino, who was incorrectly criticized by many (including, regrettably, me) as the worst free-agent signing of the offseason, overcame a series of nagging injuries and, even more impressively, re-learned how to hit right-handed pitching while standing in the right-handed batter's box. A series of ailments prevented him from comfortably swinging from the left side, so Victorino -- who fully committed to both sides as a Double A player in 2002 -- reverted exclusively to his natural right-hand side in the second half of the year. He entered the playoffs with just 100 at-bats against same-side pitching.
"It's tough to hit from one side of the plate, let alone be a switch-hitter," Victorino said." ... To have the injuries that happened to me this year, with the hamstring and the back, and me saying to myself, 'Hey, what if I just hit from the right side.' It was a chance I took. The organization let me take a chance."
Teams and hitters seek opposite-sided platoon advantages for ease in seeing the ball, particularly for breaking balls. It's a feat so challenging that Saltalamacchia, a fellow switch hitter, dreaded the very thought of trying to hit right-handed against a righty pitcher, begging off a question of what would happen by saying, "I don't want to know."
Yet there was Victorino lifting an 0-2 curveball from Tigers reliever Jose Veras over the Monster for his grand slam, joining Jim Thome as the only players with two bases-loaded homers in postseason history.
Few players can abandon their approach of more than a decade, and, of course, not every club would even be willing to let them try. But Victorino has earned his share of currency through his years with the a Phillies team that regularly reached the postseason and through his performance in the first half of this season.
"It shows something about the makeup and what kind of player he is -- fearless," Boston hitting coach Greg Colbrunn said. "If Shane's confident in it, I'm confident in it."
Setting up the game-winning at-bat was the count-working maestro, Bogaerts, the precocious barely 21-year old who entered the season as one of the game's Top-10 prospects but entered the night with only 58 regular and postseason plate appearances to his name.
Gomes was on second base (thanks to his wall-banging double) with one out (Stephen Drew's strikeout) when Bogaerts fell behind in the count 1-2 to Scherzer -- only the likely AL Cy Young winner, it's worth noting -- for the third time in Game 6. And for the third time Bogaerts produced, working the count full in each instance with a walk in the third inning, his own wall-colliding double in the fifth and a walk again in the seventh.
Even more impressive was how Bogaerts earned those walks, holding on sliders and changeups that appeared headed across the plate at his knees before darting just below the strike zone. It was uncommon plate discipline from any player, much less a cup-of-coffee rookie, but this one now has seen an astounding 5.4 pitches in his 11 postseason plate appearances.
"Those were unbelievable at-bats," Colbrunn said. "It doesn't get much better. No panic, no nothing."
Bogaerts and Victorino are but two of the 13 players on the Red Sox's playoff roster who weren't here a year ago. Then again, no one was playing in Boston last October, and before the season few outside the home clubhouse thought Fenway would be in use this month. Surely the Green Monster will soon have more stories to tell.