By Larry Fine
(Reuters) - They went from 93 losses last year to 97 wins this season with a new manager and new players who helped transform a dysfunctional clubhouse with some frat-house bonding and a Boston Red Sox battle cry of "Fear the Beard."
The hirsute band of brothers have flipped the standings upside down and last year's American League East cellar dwellers enter Major League Baseball's postseason as the AL's top seed.
Mainstays such as slugging designated hitter David Ortiz and scrappy second baseman Dustin Pedroia remain as Red Sox lynchpins, but new life sprung with a synergy triggered by the likes of new additions Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes and nurtured by skipper John Farrell.
It started in the spring when slugging platoon player Gomes arrived at spring training with a big bushy beard and first baseman Napoli decided to join him in putting away the razor.
Soon Pedroia joined in, the movement gained momentum and the doldrums of the previous year faded under a mantra of "Fear the Beard," as the Bostonians borrowed the war cry popularized by San Francisco Giants' bushy-bearded closer Brian Wilson in their march to the 2010 World Series crown.
"It fit us because we're representing a blue collar approach," catcher Jarrod Saltalmacchia told the Boston Herald. "We're a bunch of guys who go to work and do the best we can. We're not clean shaven and we want to get our hands dirty."
The beards come in various shapes and density, but virtually every player on the team has joined in and beard-tugging is part of the dugout celebration after Red Sox home runs.
Gomes, who contributed 13 home runs and 52 RBIs on the field this season playing for his fifth major league team, said: "It's like 'Fight Club.' You're either in or you're out.
"If it's thick, you win. If it's a little 5 o'clock shadow, you win. If it's patchy, you win. We have the beards," he said, adding that it has helped provide a "quirky chemistry."
Most pundits picked Boston to finish low in the AL East after the disappointments of the last two seasons.
A late-season swoon cost Boston a playoff berth in 2011 amid reports of disciplinary problems and pitchers drinking beer, eating fried chicken and playing video games in the clubhouse during games when they were not pitching.
Manager Terry Francona, who steered Boston to World Series titles in 2004 and 2007, was fired once the season ended and was followed by a failed experiment with polarizing manager Bobby Valentine last season.
A transition began late in 2012 when Boston dealt away high-priced Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers to free payroll for a remodeling.
Out went Valentine and the Red Sox brought back Farrell, pitching coach on Boston's 2007 World Series champions, through a trade with the Toronto Blue Jays, who had given him his first managerial job.
Farrell's touch and rapport with the pitching staff paid immediate dividends, particularly at the top of the rotation as Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz bounced back from poor seasons.
Lester went 15-8 with a 3.75 ERA after going 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA in 2012. Buchholz, despite missing three months due to injuries, was 12-1 while giving up 1.74 earned runs a game after last year's 11-8, 4.56.
The new manager also earned high marks for the way he navigated through devastating injuries in the bullpen.
Boston lost closer Joel Hanrahan after nine games of the season and replacement Andrew Bailey was lost in July.
Up stepped Japan's Koji Uehara, who has been sensational. The 38-year-old, third-choice closer has posted an amazing 0.23 ERA since July 2 and notched 21 saves.
Helped by the emergence of clutch-hitting outfielder Daniel Nava, the Red Sox have registered 36 come-from-behind victories including 22 in their last at-bat.
The Red Sox led the majors in runs scored, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and also surprisingly in stolen base effectiveness at a success rate of more than 86 percent.
Baseball has become fun again at Fenway Park and the fans, who have grown accustomed to winning since the Red Sox ended an 86-year World Series title drought with their triumph in 2004, have gotten into the act, beards and all.
They turned out in droves last month at "Dollar Beard Night" when anyone who arrived at Fenway in a beard, real or fake, was rewarded with the cheap admission price.
Some may quibble with the unkempt look, and back-up catcher David Ross, 36, said he has received some flak over his long gray beard that makes fitting the catcher's mask over his face a challenge.
But he does not care.
"Some people tell me I need to color that thing. (But) no. That's who I am," Ross said.
"We talk about this all the time - be honest with yourself. Know who you are, stick with it," he said. "I may be showing my age a little bit, but what the heck. I'm having fun."
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)