The facial hair is a facade. Please stop dwelling on it. Yes, you have seen homeless people with better manicured beards than the Red Sox, who look like a scary-scraggly hybrid of ZZ Top meets Zach Galifianakis meets Brian Wilson meets Joaquin Phoenix meets Saddam Hussein. But they are not bidding for a World Series because of jungle-brush fuzz that gives them the fearsome look of paroled lumberjack mashers blastings baseballs all over Michigan and Massachusetts.
Truth is, they’ve rarely put wood on horsehide in taking control of the American League championship series. The diameter of a bat is about 2.75 inches at the thickest portion of the barrel. The baseball is about nine inches in circumference. The Red Sox have struggled mightily to make that simplest of connections, blowing away an all-time record by striking out 61 times — SIXTY-ONE TIMES — in the first five games of a LCS. As a team, they’re hitting .206.
So how are they leading three games to two?
Three swings. That’s it, really.
David Ortiz, the legendary October crusher, touching a Joaquin Benoit changeup for a momentum-reversing grand slam in Game 2.
Mike Napoli, somehow solving Justin Verlander when no one else could even nick him, ripping a 96-mph fastball for a solo homer and a 1-0 victory in Game 3.
And Napoli again in Game 5, with a 460-foot shot to dead-center field on an overcast, 51-degree night.
Three daggers. One Koji Uehara, imitating Mariano Rivera. And assorted starting pitchers and position players doing their jobs.
“There’s probably a reason I don’t have any hair,” Dustin Pedroia said. “It’s stressful.”
Each night, the Tigers are trotting out another lockdown pitcher, any capable of flirting with a no-hitter. Rather than mope and lose faith, the Red Sox simply wait for one moment — one chip in the cast-iron wall that is Jim Leyland’s starting rotation — to make significant contact. It isn’t the usual formula for October success, but then, we’ve never witnessed a postseason when pitching is such an overwhelmingly dominant element, with the month already producing four 1-0 games and seven shutouts. When the Red Sox receive their own excellent pitching performance from John Lackey, who all but cursed out manager John Farrell when he was removed in the seventh of Game 3, and flaunt a bullpen that won’t buckle with Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa while closing with the anti-Benoit in Uehara, that’s how you somehow beat Verlander and Max Scherzer in successive games. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder have failed with runners in scoring position. Napoli has produced, as did Ortiz in the series-changer. Advantage, Boston.
“”Winning kind of hides everything, right?” outfielder Jonny Gomes said, per ESPN.com. “It’s pretty easy to leave these double doors with a win, regardless of what happens at the plate. We’re going against the best. They’ve got some salty veterans with some good stuff, well-decorated. But we’re going to find a way to touch the plate any way possible.”
The entire series has that feel. OK, so Napoli did rub his beard on the bat of Gomes before the home run, and Gomes returned the favor after the clout by grabbing a piece of Napoli’s Abe Lincoln. But though they’d like us to believe facial hair is their power source, like Samson, look deeper. At the plate, the Red Sox actually are the model of efficiency and patience, seeing more pitches in the regular season — 25,671 — than any other major-league team. They hit home runs, sure, but they also wear out pitchers with lengthy at-bats. The Tigers think they’re shutting down an offense, but in the process, they’re tiring, not a good sign with the Red Sox halfway to a World Series that seemed obscene to remotely ponder in spring training.
The last two seasons were disasters in a fatalistic baseball town, with the 2011 team collapsing amid scandals — manager Terry Francona’s broken marriage and prescription pill issues, the chicken-and-beer clubhouse flap involving Lackey, Jon Lester and since-departed Josh Beckett — and the 2012 team rejecting new manager Bobby Valentine before he walked in the door. Last winter, general manager Ben Cherington, the leftover in charge after Theo Epstein fled a hyperdemanding ownership group and wound up with the Cubs, chose not to go the traditional route and throw big money at a couple of major free agents. Rather, he divided the money pie into smart and efficient pieces — Uehara, Napoli, Gomes, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, David Ross. Stunningly, every moderately priced piece worked. They brought in their old pitching coach, Farrell, who was run out of Toronto because the clubhouse didn’t respect him but who immediately worked wonders in a new clubhouse that craved his low-key leadership — Lackey and Lester, in particular, gaining from his equilibrium and guidance. All of which was made possible by the willingness of the Los Angeles Dodgers last year to absorb the fat contracts of Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Beckett in a deal that rid the Red Sox of albatross money.
All of the new parts melded beautifully. When Boston was devastated by the Marathon bombings, Ortiz and Pedroia led the charge of a higher purpose — Boston Strong, dedicating the season to a wounded city. It was a mature setting, largely because of Farrell, with Ortiz saying, “When I’m talking to my manager, I feel like I am talking to my brother. I’m not dealing with someone who is a dictator.” That would be a Valentine reference. Here was another, from Pedroia: “All I know is when John Farrell walks into our clubhouse, everyone listens.”
The winning came easily, in a division where the Yankees faltered. Then came the camaraderie and the beards. Even midseason pickup Jake Peavy felt the kinship, deciding to contribute with the purchase of a cigar-store Indian statue in a San Francisco thrift shop. “I looked at him and he looked at me. And I just kept walking,” said Peavy per the AP, noting that he has Native American heritage in his blood. “I took a few more steps, and I kind of looked back, and he was still looking at me. And he said: `Am I not one of the boys? Look at me, I’m your people.’ I said, `You know what, you are one of the boys.’ ”
Weeks later, the statue is still with the Red Sox in their clubhouse. “He’s going to ride on my Duck Boat if we win the World Series,” said Peavy, referring to the Boston method of celebrating a World Series title, with the Red Sox working on their third in 10 seasons after 86 previous years of woe.
Said Farrell, who should be the AL Manager of the Year: “This team’s unity, the tightness, the willingness to have one another’s back … continued to grow throughout the year.”
And the food-and-booze flap? “All that beer and chicken bull(bleep)? Well, we have chicken and beer whenever we want now, and look how it’s going,” Ortiz said, adding to USA Today, “This team is like nothing I’ve seen. We are so close. We have the same goal in mind. Man, we want that World Series.”
They just may get it while wearing their “Fear the Beard” and “Blood, Sweat and Beards” t-shirts. New England always has been quick to immerse itself in the personality of a championship team, and, sure enough, bushy beards are growing throughout the region. “It just shows how tight-knit a group it is. Guys in here love playing baseball, like a bunch of baseball junkies,” said Gomes, per the AP. “It says a lot about the chemistry and the guys inside here. We don’t grade beards — you either have one or you don’t.”
“It’s become one of the personality traits of this team,” Farrell said of the facial fuzz. “As much as the helmet-slapping can be commonplace, this is ours. I can only imagine it doesn’t feel real good.”
According to the Grantland website, Pedroia’s wife, Kelli, asked the star second baseman to shave his beard recently when their child was turning one. “You can’t have that beard in the photos,” she told him.
Pedroia still has his fuzz. “When they win the World Series,” she told the site, “the beard comes off.”
When you see scenes such as the Boston police officer Steve Horgan raising his arms in joy after Ortiz’s slam, as Detroit outfielder Torii Hunter tumbled into the bullpen beside him, you tend to think the Red Sox might win another World Series.
I’m happy to report Horgan had no facial hair.