ST. PETERSBURG — Joe Maddon warned anyone who would listen in spring training that the Red Sox were far better than advertised.
As usual, the Tampa Bay Rays manager proved prophetic.
Helped by the offseason additions of some gritty veterans, Boston silenced its skeptics with a 97-win season that marked a 28-game improvement under first-year manager John Farrell.
The Red Sox led the major leagues in several key offensive categories, including runs, total bases and on-base percentage, but much of their success can be traced to the same intangibles touted by the Tampa Bay organization — camaraderie, focus and selflessness.
“I’ve never been around a group of guys who truly have one goal,’’ 12-year veteran pitcher Jake Peavy said. “The day I walked in this clubhouse I felt like I was home.”
Boston injected grit by signing Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli and ex-Rays outfielder Johnny Gomes, bolstering a lineup built around David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury.
The new recruits blended in quickly and from the moment Boston reported to camp in Fort Myers, Farrell preached togetherness. Thirty miles north on I-75, Maddon realized it was foolish to dismiss the Red Sox, who ended up leading the AL East for 158 of 183 days.
“Their team is different in the sense there’s a lot of new faces there,’’ Maddon said Monday. “Beyond numbers, these guys have great makeup and character. That’s the thing about this particular group that I find most formidable.”
No team in the major leagues saw more pitches than the Red Sox, yet Boston players never took their eyes off the prize.
The Red Sox displayed their character this summer when the Rays raced past them atop the division standings.
Instead of folding, Boston ended up 5˝ games in front while tying St. Louis for baseball’s best record. They did it by beating the Rays at their own game, wearing out opposing pitchers with outstanding plate discipline.
Having Ellsbury, Victorino and Pedroia as your table-setters for the fearsome Ortiz doesn’t hurt, either.
But according to Peavy, the real story of the 2013 Red Sox can’t be told by box scores or sabermetrics.
“I know I’ve only been here two months,’’ Peavy said, “but I’m emotionally attached and tied to this group of guys and this fan base and front office and coaches — and I’ll forever be. This is what baseball is about, and I’m honored to play here.’’