Worst to first is a dream that came true for the 2013 Boston Red Sox.
Now, after a 97-win regular season and ALDS victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, the 2012 AL East cellar dwellers are just four victories from reaching the World Series for the first time since 2007.
In their way: the reigning American League champion Detroit Tigers.
As the American League Championship Series gets set to kick off in Fenway Park on Saturday night, Boston will have their hands full with a team that has played in three consecutive LCS.
If the Red Sox are headed to the World Series, they'll have to follow this guide on their journey there.
Here is how the Red Sox can win the ALCS:
1. Take a series lead before Justin Verlander takes the mound
Despite pitching below his normal standards during the regular season, Justin Verlander has arrived to the October party looking to retake the crown of "best pitcher alive" from Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw.
Through two ALDS performances against the Oakland Athletics, Verlander has staked his claim.
In late September, Verlander expressed optimism in his ability to get better as the summer turned to fall and the season rolled into October. After an outing against the Minnesota Twins on September 23, Verlander has morphed back into his 2011 MVP form.
Over his last 27 innings, including two dominant performances against Oakland in the LDS, Verlander has posted the following numbers: 15 H, 43 K, 6 BB and 0 ER.
He's back and possibly better than ever.
For the Red Sox to take down this Tigers group, they'll need a 2-0 series lead, or at worst a 1-1 tie, before Verlander takes the hill in Game 3 in Detroit.
As good as Verlander is right now, it's hard to imagine the Red Sox hitting him hard enough for a victory.
Winning the first two games would assure that Verlander can't put the Tigers in command with a dominant Game 3 performance.
2. Beat Benoit in Fenway
As pointed out in this LCS primer, Joaquin Benoit has been a solid investment for the Detroit Tigers over the last three years.
Yet his career numbers in Fenway Park should scare any Tigers fan, especially if the series shifts to a deciding Game 6 or 7 in Boston.
In 15 career games in Boston, Benoit has posted a 5.18 ERA in 33 innings pitched. If he gets in a jam during any of the games in Boston during the ALCS, expect to hear about his struggles in the park.
As the following chart shows, Benoit's numbers in Fenway Park are the fourth worst during his career for any venue.
|Minute Maid Park||17.1||5.71|
For the Red Sox, the objective should be to not allow Detroit, regardless of the career numbers for their closer, to enter the ninth inning with a lead.
However, Benoit is a big spot in Fenway Park and shouldn't scare an offense that led the league in runs and on-base percentage.
If an extra-inning game occurs at Fenway, coaxing Jim Leyland into using his closer in a tie game could be a boon for Boston's cause.
3. Use Quintin Berry as a weapon
I'll admit it: Quintin Berry's 27-for-27 stolen base success rate amazes me.
While it's clear that the sample size is small, the former Tigers outfielder has never ever been caught stealing in a major league game.
By the end of the 2013 ALCS, Berry, if deployed aggressively by Red Sox manager John Farrell, could be talked about in Boston in the same breath as Dave Roberts.
In the ALDS, Berry added three successful stolen bases to his ledger. With a seven-game series on the horizon, the 28-year-old outfielder could do even more damage across a longer battle with the Tigers.
Due to a deep, versatile bench, Red Sox manager John Farrell can't be shy about using Berry in high-leverage situations late in games, especially if the game is within a run or tied.
Although the relentless Red Sox order can score runs without the aid of stolen bases from pinch runners, using Berry could put pressure on the Tigers defense and change the outcome of a big inning.
Even though Berry is a downgrade at the plate from any hitter he replaces in the Red Sox order, Boston's ability to then substitute in a hitter like Mike Carp or Jonny Gomes later in the game makes his inclusion on the roster a dynamic and practical addition.
4. Take advantage of Craig Breslow's ability
Fair or not, baseball fans tend to view all left-handed relief pitchers in the same light.
Unless we're talking about a dominant closer like Billy Wagner, John Franco or John Rocker, the left-handed pitcher in question is likely a LOOGY (left-handed one out guy).
In the context of deep, dynamic bullpens and match up data used by almost every manager, pitching changes from batter to batter aren't rare in 2013. Yet when a lefty like Craig Breslow is available in the bullpen, it's an advantage too good to pass up.
Craig Breslow's 8 yr. reg. season career ERA is 2.82. Tune up Otis Redding's r-e-s-p-e-c-t— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) October 9, 2013
During the ALDS against Tampa, opposing right-handed batters went just 2-for-10 against him. That number is almost exactly as low as the .208 average righties posted against him during the season.
Here's why these numbers matter: Tigers manager Jim Leyland often likes to stack his 2-3-4-5 hitters with Torii Hunter (RH), Miguel Cabrera (RH), Prince Fielder (LH) and Victor Martinez (SH).
If Breslow can continue his success and ability to handle hitters like Hunter, Cabrera and Martinez, Farrell won't have to make multiple moves late in games to get through the heart of Detroit's order. That will go a long way in a quest to win a bullpen battle and survive if a game reaches extra innings.
5. Keep Austin Jackson from putting the ball in play
In theory, this shouldn't be hard.
Jackson, Detroit's lead off hitter, struck out 13 times in the five-game LDS against Oakland. In total, the 26-year-old outfielder went 2-for-20 and almost single-handedly choked the life out of the Detroit offense.
As detailed here, Jackson has an amazing ability to convert batted balls into hits. If the Red Sox want to keep Jackson off base in front of the aforementioned Hunter-Cabrera-Fielder-Martinez quartet, strikeouts are the best route to take.
Since his arrival to the major leagues in 2010, Jackson has struck out 671 times.
That's a big number for sluggers, yet Tigers manager Jim Leyland continues to bat his center fielder atop the lineup because of the speed he posses and his ability to jumpstart the offense in front of the sluggers if he does put the baseball into play.
What is your prediction for Tigers-Red Sox?
Despite winning the LDS in five games over Oakland, Detroit's No. 2 ranked offense, only trailing Boston, didn't light up the scoreboard. In five games, the Tigers scored a total of 17 runs. That averaged out to just over three runs per game, a stark contrast to 4.9 runs per game during the regular season.
If Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Jake Peavy, Boston's four scheduled starters, can keep Jackson off the bases, any damage done by the heart of Detroit's order will be limited, giving the high-powered Red Sox offense the chance to outscore the Tigers.
Comment below, follow me on Twitter or "like" my Facebook page to talk all things baseball.