By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
Not sure if you’ve heard, but the Red Sox are on pace to win 114 games. They’ve got two players in the running for the AL MVP, another for the Cy Young, and if it’s still a thing, a closer who, despite recent hiccups, merits consideration for the Rolaids Relief Man Award.
Despite a handful of World Series titles and nine AL East crowns since MLB moved to divisional play in 1969, the Sox have never touched triple digit wins. But 114? Even if they fall short of the mark, we’re clearly witnessing something unique. Will this team one day be regarded any differently from other could’ve, should’ve vessels that hit icebergs and sunk off the coast of our memory? That will be determined in October.
The postseason is where Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel get a shot at immortality. But the pantheon of Red Sox postseason heroes isn’t just stocked with the usual suspects. There are guys who played a role, either with a defining moment, sustained performance, or just overall likability – and they’ll never have to buy a drink in this town again.
Recent Boston sports history is littered with them. Folk heroes. Shawn Thornton with the 2011 Bruins. Leon Powe with the 2008 Celtics. Malcolm Butler transitioned from folk hero in 2015 to one of the best corners in the NFL. Even Jonny Gomes played a role for the underdog 2013 Red Sox, before his skills diminished and things got weird.
The leader in the clubhouse for folk hero of the 2018 Red Sox is Steve Pearce. The 35-year old lefty-masher has never logged more than 338 at-bats in a season and he won’t get there this year, either. But all he’s done since his arrival on June 29th is slash .333/.431/.667 and destroy the Yankees last weekend.
As a platoon bat, Pearce is comparable to Bobby Kielty, a late-season addition in 2007 who, as Joe Murray remembered over the weekend, popped the series-clinching home run in the World Series against the Rockies.
While we’re a long way from the bright lights of that stage, Pearce will be one to keep an eye on.
Mitch Moreland’s All-Star selection was mostly a referendum on the lack of quality first basemen in the American League. But it was still impressive, considering his return to the team over the winter received a yawn in response. Though the compensation wasn’t particularly troubling, fans were perplexed about the allure of a 31-year old first baseman that finished last season with a .246 average, 22 home runs and 79 RBI and seemed to be scraping his ceiling with those numbers. Moreland has responded with perhaps his best offensive season, coupled with his trademark steady defense.
That combination defined Mike Napoli’s performance in 2013. The catcher-turned-first baseman wasn't a big signing, but by October, he had cemented his folk hero status by roaming the city shirtless in the early morning hours following the team’s championship win.
Though there don’t appear to be any examples of Mark Bellhorn losing his shirt on Boylston Street, the second baseman was another unheralded acquisition who wound up having a solid season for a World Series winner, even clanging a big home run off the Pesky Pole in Game 1 of the World Series.
Whether or not Moreland keeps his shirt on, if he keeps producing, we might be onto something in the folk hero department.
Ian Kinsler is hurt right now. Though not the offensive force he once was, when healthy, he stretches out the lineup and can defend with the best at his position. He might compare to Orlando Cabrera, another player who succeeded an iconic figure in team history.
The wounds from Garciaparra’s departure were still fresh when Cabrera slid into the shortstop position and never looked back, hitting .294 in 248 plate appearances and coming up with a variety of entertaining high-five combinations with teammates.
Though Dustin Pedroia’s decline has been more gradual, you have to admit it’s a little weird seeing someone taller than 5-foot-9 over there. It will be up to Kinsler to submit his best Pedroia facsimile down the stretch to replace whatever production and run prevention Dave Dombrowski and company previously banked on from an aging two-time World Series champion.
We mentioned Bellhorn - who was originally supposed to man the keystone in 2004? Pokey Reese, who wound up moving to short in the wake of an injury to Nomar Garciaparra. I seem to recall plenty of ink getting spilled about Reese’s spectacular defense and an inside-the-park homer against the Royals in May. Though he logged just 26 at-bats after July 19th, he was on the field to vacuum up Ruben Sierra’s grounder and put a bow on the greatest postseason comeback in baseball history.
Jackie Bradley already has his share of staunch supporters (if only just to spite Adam Jones). Can you imagine the frothy Twitter response should Bradley make a couple of sterling defensive plays en route to a World Series?
The resident speedster isn’t really something MLB does anymore, because stealing is risky and analytics departments are risk-averse. So I don’t know who among this year’s bunch could be Dave Roberts. But I can’t resist the opportunity to bring up his daring ninth-inning steal in Game 4 of the ALCS, his outstretched hand touching the white of the bag just before Derek Jeter cut through the flying dirt with his glove to apply the tag. There’s a folk hero if there ever was one.
And finally, there’s the redemptive figure. In 2004, it was Derek Lowe. Saddled with two losses in the 2003 ALCS, Lowe was statistically among the worst starters in all of baseball the following season, posting a 5.42 ERA and atrocious 1.62 WHIP. But in the playoffs, he was nails, picking up an extra inning win over the Angels in Game 3 of the ALDS, then closing out the Yankees in the ALCS and the Cardinals in the World Series, yielding just four hits, two walks and a lonely earned run across 13 innings pitched.
Lowe won 21 games in 2002 and that postseason run is the first thing fans remember about him.
J.D. Drew is another example. He spent five years in Boston, never hitting above .280 or compiling more than 24 home runs and 68 RBI. No matter how many walks he drew, it was going to be hard to justify a then-generous $70 million contract with those numbers. But Sox fans will forever be grateful for one thing with J.D. Drew: a backbreaking grand slam in Game 6 of the 2007 ALDS as the Sox rallied back from 3-1 down against Cleveland.
If there’s a map room at Fenway Park, David Price should grab the Derek Lowe and J.D. Drew blueprints and study up. No matter how disastrous his postseason history has been to this point, there’s always the chance of redemption.
David Price, folk hero?
Hideki Okajima. David Ross. They're the guys you don't expect. Even John Lackey got a big Boston hug after the 2013 win.
With expectations low, folk hero status could be sitting on a tee for Mr. Price come October.
"The regular season is meaningless," you say. Maybe so. But I'll be taking the time to search for potential folk heroes in the games between now and October. Who’s it gonna be? It’s gotta be somebody. Because if not, that's three years in a row of rancid (yet somehow pumpkin-flavored) postseason performances, and I shudder to think about the fallout.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.