Papi's last hurrah an exhilarating ride for Sox

Though Boston's season had abrupt end, journey was filled with lasting memories

Papi's last hurrah an exhilarating ride for Sox

The Red Sox returned to prominence in 2016 with an entertaining year that included a legend's final masterpiece, the emergence of a young superstar, an unlikely American League Cy Young Award winner and an AL East title.

Coming off consecutive last-place finishes, it was a season to savor for Boston's passionate baseball fans.

Through it all, there were epic comebacks, monster performances and those creative outfield victory dances.

Though the postseason didn't go as the Red Sox hoped -- they were swept by the eventual AL champion Indians in the Division Series -- the young core that surrounds veterans Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez and David Price seems poised for more success over the next several years.

"We took a big step going from last place to winning the division," retiring slugger David Ortiz said the night the season ended. "That's a good sign. And I know this organization. Dave Dombrowski and the rest of the squad is going to get the pieces to be able to compete next year and do better at this stage."

As it turns out, Papi was on the money. Dombrowski capped the year with a blockbuster trade that brings five-time All-Star Chris Sale to Boston.

Here is a look back at the most memorable parts of 2016.

5. An ace emerges

It wasn't outlandish to predict that the AL's Cy Young Award winner would come from the Red Sox. After all, Price had signed a seven-year, $217 million contract amid much fanfare. However, it would be hard to find a prognosticator who tabbed Rick Porcello for the honor. But Porcello's emergence took hold quickly, and he developed into a consistent force and Boston's stopper all season long.

Emotional Porcello wins Cy Young

After a 2015 season in which the righty went 9-15 with a 4.92 ERA, the turnaround (22-4, 3.15 ERA) was not only enough for Porcello to win the Cy Young Award, but the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award as well.

"I felt like I had the weapons this year and the command to get out just about any guy that I was going to encounter in any lineup," Porcello said.

4. Mookie goes next level

The thinking heading in was that Mookie Betts could emerge into an All-Star in his second full season. Betts accomplished that goal and a lot more, turning into a star in every facet of the game. When Betts wasn't delivering a big hit, he was stealing an important base, making a brilliant catch or delivering a stellar throw from the outfield.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the season for Betts was the development of power. He belted 31 homers, drove in 113 runs and finished second to Mike Trout in the AL MVP Award race.

Must C: Betts' three home runs

Betts had two three-homer games, becoming the first Red Sox player to do so in one season since Ted Williams in 1957.

The right fielder is 24 years old, and it's reasonable to expect he is going to keep getting better.

3. September surge

When September began, the Red Sox were in a thrilling race in the AL East, trailing the Blue Jays by two games. But everything changed starting on Sept. 15, the night Boston pulled out an epic comeback at Fenway Park against the Yankees.

With the Red Sox down, 5-1, after seven, Papi drew Boston a run closer by belting a solo shot in the eighth to pass Mickey Mantle on the all-time homer list. In the bottom of the ninth, the Red Sox staged their most memorable inning of the season. Ramirez -- who had a tremendous comeback season -- smashed a three-run walk-off homer on a 99.3-mph fastball, as projected by Statcast™, from Dellin Betances.

Hanley's walk-off home run

"I was sitting fastball and trying to hit it to the moon," said Ramirez.

Betts called it his best baseball moment. Others wondered if the win would serve as a springboard for the stretch run. It wound up being the start of an 11-game winning streak for the Red Sox that allowed them to clinch the AL East with four games left in the season.

2. Papi's final gift -- a monster season

The Red Sox had a purpose to their season the day Spring Training started: Making it one that Ortiz would remember fondly. As it turns out, Papi had as much to do with making it such a strong season as anyone. At the age of 40, the big slugger turned in a season right out of his prime, with a .315/.401/.620 slash line. He led the Majors in OPS, ripping 48 doubles and 38 homers while driving in 127.

Each time Papi played his final series in a road city, the opposing team honored him. But the Red Sox saved the best for last with a weekend-long celebration to end the season. Ortiz had a street and a bridge named after him, and the Red Sox will retire his No. 34 to the façade at Fenway in 2017.

Red Sox to retire Papi's No. 34

When it was all over, after the abrupt sweep at the hands of the Indians, a tearful Ortiz came out for one last curtain call for an appreciative Fenway crowd.

1. Pre-holiday Sale

Dombrowski opened the offseason by saying he didn't have a "driving force" to add another starting pitcher. But there was one starting pitcher he could not say no to. Dombrowski struck for a blockbuster trade to acquire Sale from the White Sox on the second day of the Winter Meetings. In exchange, Boston traded its top position player prospect in Yoan Moncada and also arguably its best pitching prospect in Michael Kopech.

Sale on pitching at Fenway Park

The move created instant excitement for what is ahead in 2017. Sale joins Price and Porcello to give Boston what should be the best front three in the AL.

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.