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Red Sox Clinch AL East In Stunning Turnaround

Red Sox relief pitcher Koji Uehara raises his arms as he celebrates the final out after the Red Sox clinched the AL East title.(Charles Krupa/AP)

Red Sox relief pitcher Koji Uehara raises his arms as he celebrates the final out after the Red Sox clinched the AL East title. (Charles Krupa/AP)

BOSTON — They did it. The Red Sox clinched the AL East title Friday night at Fenway Park, beating the Toronto Blue Jays 6-3.

It has been a stunning turnaround for the Red Sox. One year ago, the team completed a 13-month collapse that started Sept. 2011 when they blew a nine-game lead in the wild card and missed the playoffs with a loss on the final day of the season.

Glenn Stout, series editor of “The Best American Sports Writing” and author of the book “Fenway 1912,” joined WBUR’s Weekend Edition to savor and dissect this moment in Red Sox history.

Sharon Brody: Last year’s team won just 69 games and finished in last place in the AL East. This year, the Red Sox clinched the AL East and they have 94 wins with just a week to go in the regular season. How did they pull this off — the first time in franchise history that the Sox have gone from worst to first?

Glenn Stout: I think what you had going on with the Red Sox this year is, no one was terrible. They had a lot of guys who were pretty good, no one who was really great, and you didn’t have anything to distract from that. You didn’t have a lot of pressure on this team, so they were just able to go out and play. It was the middle of the year before anybody else in the league looked around and said, ‘Gee, Boston might be pretty good.’ And by then those teams were all having their own troubles.

I like that. I’m adopting that as my new motto. ‘Just don’t be terrible.’

This is a team that was not really built around superstars. And how do you win when you don’t have a whole lot of superstars? Well, you have a lot of guys just doing their job. I mean, the Red Sox were able to platoon a lot, which meant they were able to get more out of players who you didn’t expect they’d get anything out of. I mean, no one went into this year thinking that two of the better players, or at least more of your clutch players, were going to be Daniel Nava and Mike Carp. These guys weren’t even on anybody’s radar screen, but when the Navas and Carps and Jonny Gomes and Victorinos all do just a little bit better than expected, there’s a cumulative effect and that’s the thing that has helped the Red Sox rise above what is very much a very even American League East. But they’ve just been a little bit better than everybody else, while everybody else was kind of knocking each other off.

Historically, September really hasn’t been kind to the Red Sox. Some say that the Red Sox are playing their best baseball of the year, which of course leads automatically to a new worry, are they in danger of peaking too early?

What scares me with this team is because there are not a whole lot of superstars and everybody’s been pulling together, all of a sudden you have some people who are playing really really well. Jon Lester is pitching really well, Clay Buchholz has come back and it looks like he might be the pitcher he was at the beginning of the year, which suddenly gives the Red Sox a couple of number one pitchers, which they haven’t had for most of the year. They’ve had a bunch of guys who are number two and number three pitchers just pitching really well, but now they suddenly seem a little bit dependent on a guy like a Lester or maybe even a Buchholz going into the postseason and remaining dominant. That’s the one thing that scares me about this team. They haven’t had that dominant pitcher for most of the year. Now it looks like maybe they will. But you hope that they’re certainly dominant in October and that they don’t reach their peak right now and that then, by the time October comes, Lester goes back to pitching the way he pitched for the first half of the year or Buchholz gets injured, or something like that happens.

How nervous should we be heading into the playoffs?

On the plus side, there doesn’t seem to be a super team in the the American League. A team that just scares you to death, that you think, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s just no way we can beat these guys.’ The Red Sox match up pretty well with everybody else. So I think the Red Sox have a fair chance of actually making it to the World Series because I just don’t think there’s a dominant team there. Once you get into the National League, that might be a little bit different. I think there is a super team out there, it certainly has been a super team for the last half of the season, that’s the Los Angeles Dodgers. And that would be a marquee matchup that I’m sure Major League Baseball is drooling over, having the Red Sox and the Dodgers meet each other in the postseason.

You’ve been around and you’ve seen a lot, obviously, and I suspect you might say nothing ever surprises you, but still, what are some of the biggest surprises of the 2013 Red Sox?

I think Shane Victorino gave them way more than anybody else thought. And what happened to John Lackey? Who is that guy wearing a John Lackey mask that’s been pitching all year? Because I don’t think anybody could have predicted that Lackey was going to come back. I think a lot of people thought he was done forever. But to come back and actually pitch pretty well… You also have Uehara coming in as a closer.

Speaking of pitching pretty well, I mean, Koji. This is the year of the Koji.

Oh yeah. He’s been absolutely spectacular and if you were to bet who was going to be the Red Sox closer before the start of this season he would have been about 15th on the list.

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