The question was: Does this team feel different than four days ago?
The tone of the answers -- coming following the Red Sox' 11-6 win, and four-game series sweep, over the Angels -- wasn't difficult to decipher.
"Absolutely," said Sox infielder Mike Lowell. "I would say it would be impossible not to feel different than we did as poorly as we played in Baltimore. I much rather go into a series with a division rival playing like this than we did in Baltimore."
"Now we're playing as a team," said shortstop Marco Scutaro. "We're making the routine plays and we're playing as a group. You can tell the difference."
"We swept them, and that feels good," noted Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz. "It's contagious."
So, they feel good. Outscoring your opponent 36-16 will do that. But what can really be taken out of the Red Sox first four-game sweep of the Angels since 1980 (and first at Fenway since 1967)?
Bottom line: After 29 games, and with the Yankees having flown into town five games better than the 15-14 Red Sox, we can now better digest exactly how good (or bad) this team might be ... until the ultimate test this weekend.
Prior to the game, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein pointed out that in his eight-season tenure the Sox have suffered through at least one month equal to the woes suffered through this season's initial 27 games (one-sixth of the season) every year but in 2005.
"You just don't realize it at the time because you're in the middle of a pennant race," Epstein explained. "It's deeper in the year -- when we've never done it in that first sixth. Getting out of the gate slow means that there's no context for your slump, makes things look a lot worse than they are sometimes and it amplifies it. … I think it's important to keep it in context. Now that we've taken a deep breath, put your head down, play good ball for a month or so, and see where we are."
Following a Monday team meeting, that's exactly what the Red Sox have done, and because of it there can be some more even-keel analysis heading into the latest clash with the Yankees. While the ultimate answer as to what level a team the Sox are will be better decided this weekend, four games against the Angels at least surfaced some intricacies of this roster previously masked by a flurry of losses.
With a week of the lowest of lows, and highest of highs, in the rear-view mirror, this is what we can make of these Red Sox:
The Red Sox averaged nine runs a game against the Angels. In the series they hit .366 with seven homers and a whopping 17 doubles. By the time LA left, its pitchers had allowed 53 hits and 23 walks.
"It's nice watching them go by me and touch the plate," noted Red Sox third base coach Tim Bogar.
But more important than the gaudy numbers was the optimism extracted in regards to some key spots in the Red Sox lineup that had previously led to a good amount of anxiety.
Most notably, the team's middle of the order made its mark. In the series, cleanup hitter Kevin Youkilis went 5-for-11 (.455) with a double, triple and homer. The two No. 5 hitters, J.D. Drew and Mike Lowell, went a combined 12-for-23 with six doubles and nine RBI.
But it was Thursday night's performance by No. 3 hitter, Victor Martinez, which should have supplied the biggest boost for the Sox. Hitting from the right side, Martinez ended a 26-game homeless drought by taking Angels starter Scott Kazmir deep for a two-run blast before finishing his resurgence with a two-run double.
For a team that was fourth-to-last in batting average at the No. 3 spot (.217, with the Yankees dead last at .178, thanks to Mark Teixeira's struggles), and second-to-last in slugging percentage (.317, and yes, the Yanks were last at .297) the moment was a welcome change.
Of course, there really weren't too many Red Sox who didn't head into the Yankees series on a high note. Besides the aforementioned standouts, this is how the rest of the group fared vs. the Angels:
Adrian Beltre: 7-for-17 (.412), 2 HR
Dustin Pedroia (whose average against Kazmir actually dropped to .516 after going 1-for-2 against the starter): 6-for-17 (.353), two doubles, HR
Jeremy Hermida (whose pinch-hit single with two out in the fifth inning scored a pair, allowing for 14 of his 16 RBI on the season to come with two outs): 3-for-9 (.333), 6 RBI
Marco Scutaro: 6-for-19 (.316), 3 doubles, 4 runs
Bill Hall: 3-for-10 (.300)
The lowest of those who started was Darnell McDonald (3-for-12, .250), who came away with a two-run double Thursday night.
THE VERDICT: It helped that the Red Sox ran into a heavy dose of supbar pitching, especially coming out of the Angels bullpen, but the four games allowed for some hitters -- such as Beltre, Martinez, and Drew -- to discover a stroke that hadn't really been seen on a consistent basis to this point. If nothing else, those hitters are clearly heading into their meetings with New York starters Phil Hughes, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett with more confidence than they've had since the Yanks came around the first time around.
With Scutaro holding down the fort at the top of the order until Jacoby Ellsbury returns, a good deal of success will hinge on the production the Sox get from the meat of their order. And, in case you're wondering, no big deals (the Red Sox don't have any interest in recently released outfielder Eric Byrnes at this time) are imminent.
THE PITCHING STAFF
First, let's get the pitching staff's biggest unknown, Daisuke Matsuzaka, out of the way. After his first win of this season -- a 5-1/3-inning outing in which he allowed four first-inning runs (throwing 39 pitches) and nothing else -- the reality is that we aren't moving forward with appreciably more confidence in the righty than when Thursday night began.
It was just like the first time around -- one really bad inning and four good ones.
"Early in the game he got ahead of a couple of hitters right from the get-go, but then before you know it there were some deep counts and a couple of walks. I don't think they swung the bat for the first 14 or 15 pitches of the game," said Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell. "The four runs were the four runs. But then he came out and attacked the zone more aggressively from the second through the fifth and pitched more like he did his last time in Baltimore.
"There are times when he doesn't trust fully in his fastball and the effectiveness that it has and know that it's his style. He's going to use every pitch in every count to his disposal. That game could have gone the other way, too, but he righted the ship and we were able to capitalize on some mistakes offensively.
"Small steps for Daisuke. We have to keep in mind that this is the second start of the regular season for him and that he's step for step with everybody else in the rotation. I'm sure he will feel better about himself tomorrow knowing that he got a win today, but we've got to keep improving in that area."
Now that that's out of the way …
From starters to relievers, the Red Sox pitchers seem to be finding their way. In sweeping the Angels the Sox hurlers allowed just two home runs, limiting LA to a .219 team batting average.
Each of the Sox starters -- Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester, John Lackey and Matsuzaka -- made it into the sixth inning, a trend that continues to be a feather in the team's cap. The team's starting pitchers have turned in the sixth-most innings in the majors, while throwing a big league-high 104.9 pitches per game.
While some might view the high pitch counts as a hesitancy to go to the bullpen, a big part of the strategy centers around the confidence in this group of starters. Through April, Buchholz led the staff, averaging 108.3 pitches per contest, with Lester coming in at 107.4. As a point of reference, in the first month last year Lester and Josh Beckett paved the way with 106 per game.
It might seem slight, but it suggests a somewhat amped up reliance on the starters.
The number figures to be going down (with no team's starters having averaged more than 100 pitches per game last season), in large part to the increasing confidence in the bullpen. By series end, the perception of Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard hadn't changed, but just getting Hideki Okajima through a clean two-thirds of an inning was a step in the right direction.
As Red Sox manager Terry Francona said prior to the series finale, Okajima will most likely find his level, as will the two other late-inning relievers. But where the true difference-maker might reside is with the right arm of Manny Delcarmen.
It hasn't elicited huge headlines, but up until Thursday night Delcarmen has been better than good. The homer he allowed to Mike Napoli was the first run the reliever has allowed since April 16, a span of seven appearances. Coming into Thursday night, Delcarmen was second in the majors among qualifying relievers in opponents' batting average against, giving up just three hits in 40 at-bats (.075).
"I think going back to the start of the last road trip, the rotation was starting to pitch to its capability," Farrell said. "Bard has been solid from the start of the season, he and Pap. But the one guy I think has really started to solidify or bridge the gap to both Bard and Pap is Delcarmen. But I think it all starts with the guys in the starting rotation, especially in the last 10 days."
THE VERDICT: The anchor of the team still looks to be the starting staff, which, outside of Matsuzaka's first inning, elicited few concerns. And while Farrell is correct in pointing out the importance of Delcarmen, Okajima might be the most watched of the Red Sox pitchers. The Sox will need eighth-inning help to go along with Bard, and if Okajima doesn't find "his level," the team will have the unenviable task of finding one of the trade deadline's most difficult-to-acquire commodities -- a late-inning reliever. Expect a lot of Bard and Papelbon until Okajima can ease fears for an inning at a time.