With more guts than brains, but a lot of brains, Shane Victorino was the heart of a Red Sox team that played above its talent in 2013. Yes, David Ortiz is the soul of the Red Sox, and Mike Napoli played hurt and hefty with the bat, but Victorino was a Kamikazee in the field and at the plate, a magnetic field of hustle that pushed the Sox into over-achievement and beyond.
Except for his penchant for running through walls, Victorino would be my choice for center field in the spring. He is fearless to a fault, chasing down balls with reckless abandon. He was Gold Glove quality in the tough Fenway right field, but he had fewer close encounters with immovable barriers than in center field, and that kept him in the line-up in mid-season. And you had to love a guy who would try to throw out runners at first base after fielding the “automatic” single on one hop. He joked with acquaintances who would hustle into first ahead of his throw, but he was dead serious about throwing out the unsuspecting.
He was no less gritty in the batters’ box, leaning over the plate and inviting pitchers to hit him. Many did, but mostly by his reluctance to stand aside with a fastball bearing down on him. I kept expecting umpires to warn him about leaning in to the pitch, but he found the stance that eluded their scrutiny. He took many for the team, while turning on the pitches that caught too much of the plate, like the one he hit for a grand slam in Game Six of the World Series.
He is the only switch hitter I’ve seen abandon one side of the plate for his own advantage. Plagued by an injury that weakened his stride on the left side, he batted right-handed for the rest of the year, with thundering results. Many times I’ve wished switch hitters would give up on their weak side of the plate, Jerrod Saltalamacchia comes to mind, but they doggedly move to the pitcher’s opposite side, even when said pitcher handles both righties and lefties with efficiency. Victorino broke that tradition and hit right-handed most of the second half of the season.
We knew Victorino’s body was damaged in some way the entire year. He sat on the bench for a few weeks early in the season, but mostly he just played hurt in too many places to mention. When he got on base he ran on gimpy legs and still stole timely bases. We may have forgotten his injuries because they rarely affected his performance, but he was hurting in some way from May to October.
Victorino and Jonny Gomes were Ben Cherrington’s “impact” players who were worth more than their statistics revealed. They were energy in the dugout and inspiration on the field. But when you consider Victorino’s fielding, you have to give him the nod as the daily charge in the Red Sox engine. He was “Boston Strong” and “Hawaiian Hustle” in one tightly-wound package.
When I think of the Red Sox repeating in 2014, I think: if only Victorino stays well. Other players will make their contributions, but Victorino will set the pace.