Perhaps the 108-win team should have been the World Series favorite all along. The baseball public thought the Yankees might upset Boston; we were wrong. We thought the Astros would surely reach the World Series again; we were wrong. And we thought the Dodgers had a chance to do the trick; we were, again, wrong. Fool us once, shame on us; fool us a third time, and the Red Sox grab the trophy and stake their claim as one of the best teams in history.
Compared with the 18-inning nonsense of Game 3 and Boston’s raucous comeback in the late innings of Game 4, the title-clinching, 5–1 Game 5 win Sunday was a bit of a snooze from a competitive perspective. Boston took an early lead on a first-inning Steve Pearce home run against Clayton Kershaw and never relented, and at 8:17 p.m. PT on October 28, 2018, 14 years and one day after the Red Sox quenched their 86-year World Series drought, in front of a massive contingent of invading, red-clad fans at Dodger Stadium, they won their fourth championship of this century alone.
This victory might not have been as cosmically satisfying as that 2004 win, but it’s difficult to imagine a more dominant start-to-finish performance for any modern baseball team than what the Red Sox put forth this season. Since 1969, when each league added a championship series, the 114-win 1998 Yankees are the only team to win a World Series and more regular-season games than Boston did this year. The 1970 Orioles, 1975 Reds, and 1986 Mets all matched the Red Sox with 108 regular-season wins, but they needed to win only two playoff series, while Boston survived three.
And the Red Sox didn’t just survive those series; they crushed three consecutive opponents, amassing an 11–3 record against the 100-win Yankees, 103-win Astros, and should-have-been-100-plus-win Dodgers. Particularly in the American League, the 2018 playoff field looked like a gantlet of superteams, but Boston powered through that field without ever facing an elimination game or — Craig Kimbrel’s ninth-inning escapades against the Yankees aside — ever coming particularly close to one. No team in the last decade has won the title with so few playoff losses.
Entering October, Boston resembled a stars-and-scrubs roster, as its greatest flaws seemed to be a weaker supporting cast that didn’t quite complement the team’s MVP and Cy Young candidates and an unreliable bullpen that showed as early as Game 1 of the ALDS that it wasn’t so trustworthy. But both questionable groups didn’t just avoid making mistakes in the playoffs; they actively contributed to the team’s month-long cruise, often outperforming the very stars they appeared unable to support. The lineup’s heroes included Brock Holt, Eduardo Núñez, Christian Vázquez, and especially Pearce, who tied Game 4 with a home run off Kenley Jansen and mashed two more dingers in Game 5, en route to World Series MVP honors; with rookie manager Alex Cora pressing all the right bullpen buttons, meanwhile, the relief corps combined for a 2.71 ERA throughout the playoffs, counting starter appearances in relief.
It’s strange to conclude that a team that relied so heavily on the likes of Brock Holt and Nathan Eovaldi and Ryan Brasier and Matt Barnes could enter the fringes of the “best ever” conversation, but that’s the direction all available data points. You play to win the game, and Boston won more regular-season games than almost any team in history, then won 11 more playoff games without encountering much trouble along the way.
Play out the season 1,000 times and the Red Sox might not represent an overwhelming favorite the other 999 times. Betts might be merely an All-Star rather than the league leader in WAR; the lineup might not hit so well in clutch situations; they certainly might lose to the Yankees if Aaron Boone is smarter with his bullpen or José Altuve’s fly ball is ruled a home run instead of fan interference, or the Dodgers don’t squander a perfect opportunity to tie the World Series 2–2. But in this one 2018 season we know, Boston avoided all potential pitfalls and seized every possible advantage, and a season that started with panic after an Opening Day bullpen meltdown ended with Chris Sale raising his arms to the heavens after a season-ending strikeout of Manny Machado, the exuberant crowd of visiting fans in L.A. erupting into cheers and hollers and more than one rolling chant of “Yankees suck, Yankees suck.”
THE BOSTON RED SOX ARE WORLD CHAMPIONS!!!— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) October 29, 2018
Chris Sale strikes out Manny Machado to close out the World Series! pic.twitter.com/u62k4SVQPv
Unlike recent World Series winners, whose paths inspired some new manner of thinking about how to best build a champion, Boston leaves less in the way of a blueprint. The front office just used all available means to construct a title-winning roster and experienced tremendous success in both the talent acquisition and development phases. To wit: Betts blossomed from a fifth-round draft choice to an MVP front-runner; Pearce and Eovaldi became playoff heroes after joining the team in under-the-radar midseason trades; Kimbrel came to Boston in a high-profile offseason deal soon after president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski assumed control of the front office.
As is his practice, Dombrowski, the former Tigers GM, acted with constant aggression, and potentially risky moves that raided a strong farm system paid off. So, too, did Boston’s penchant for spending lots of money on players; the Red Sox entered this season with the highest payroll in the majors and acquired many of their most important players with nothing more than a giant bag of cash.
They signed David Price to the largest contract in history for a pitcher in December 2015, then watched him overcome his playoff demons with series-clinching wins on short rest in both the ALCS and World Series. Ace Sale came over via a trade that sent the then–no. 1 prospect in baseball, Yoán Moncada, to the White Sox — after Boston had paid $63 million, half of that on a penalty fee for going over budget, to sign Moncada as an amateur.
A Boston–J.D. Martinez union was the most obvious move last offseason, and after months of dithering, the Red Sox finally paid for their David Ortiz replacement, giving him $110 million over five years with two player opt-out clauses. Martinez proceeded to rank in the top three in the AL in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, hits, home runs, runs, runs batted in, and total bases in his first year in Fenway. While few teams played the market last winter, Boston, even if reluctantly, added Martinez, and it isn’t a coincidence that eight months later, he hit one of four Red Sox homers in the trophy-claiming win.
Even the Boston signings that didn’t yield direct help for the 2018 team — paging Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramírez — worked out fine in the end because the big-market Sox could afford to eat their contracts when they didn’t perform. If they hadn’t cut Ramírez this May, they likely wouldn’t have had room on the roster for Pearce.
The Red Sox won the World Series for plenty of reasons, not the least of which is that they routed Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers pitching for four straight weeks while avoiding too many messes of their own. But the precipitating theme, if one exists, is aggression: from Dombrowski in the front office, to Cora in the dugout, to all four of Boston’s planned postseason starters in the bullpen, as each pitched a key inning or more in relief this month. Boston didn’t bide its time waiting for an opportunity to win the title, but rather climbed through a competitive window as quickly and eagerly as it could the moment one opened.
Even then, it took three tries on three division titles since Dombrowski arrived to finally win one. That’s baseball, and that’s October, where randomness rules and even the best teams are more likely to falter than not. Yet that reality makes Boston’s 2018 team all the more impressive. The best regular-season team in years became the best playoff team in years, and one of the best teams in MLB history.